The other day, I was watching video of Royals coach Rusty Kuntz working with the Royals’ outfielders.
He was flipping a ball behind them and the outfielders were breaking back to make the catch; the drill was about footwork, and it reminded me of how many small things have to be done correctly to catch a simple fly ball.
Start with the move back. They used to teach outfielders to take a drop step when they had to go back on a fly ball: Figure out which shoulder the ball is going over, and take a step back with the foot on that side. Then the other foot follows.
That’s two steps.
But Kuntz teaches a little hop — kind of a jump turn — in which both feet come off the ground at the same time and you turn in the air. Now those two steps are just one: You just eliminated a step and picked up some ground.
Now you sprint — not drift — to a spot behind where the ball is going to come down. Once you reach that spot, you turn and catch the ball with your momentum going back toward the infield.
If you drift to the ball (going less than full speed), you’ll catch the ball moving away from the infield, and if there’s a runner on base, he can advance. You won’t have much on your throw. Also, if you’re drifting, there’s always a chance you won’t drift deeply enough and the ball will land behind you — I know this from personal experience.
Better to bust your rear end going back, make sure you’re deep enough, and then come forward as you make the catch.
Oops … forgot about the wall.
OK, let’s say you’re sprinting back on the ball and suddenly you go from grass to dirt; you can feel this without looking down. Now you know you’re just two or three strides away from the wall, and you better remember which city you’re in because all warning tracks are not the same width.
Whichever hand is nearer to the wall — glove side or throwing side — goes up so you can feel the wall without looking away from the fly ball. You want to find the wall early, then come back toward the infield to make the catch, or — if it looks like the ball is going to clear the wall — prepare to make a leap straight up.
Let’s take a breather.
So far, we’ve talked about nothing but getting in position, but it’s important. Good outfielders do this stuff; bad ones get lazy and drift.
Assuming you’re still with me (see? I told you it was complicated), now it’s time to make the catch.
If there’s no runner on base tagging up, you can catch the ball however you like. But if a runner is tagging, and the outfielder next to you should let you know if that’s the case, you need to catch the ball over your throwing-side shoulder. That closes your front shoulder and puts you in a good position to make a throw.
And contrary to what you might have heard in Little League, you don’t catch the ball with two hands.
That was good advice when gloves were glorified sofa cushions, but now you could play jai-alai with the outfield gloves used in the big leagues. And using two hands can put your glove in front of your face, blocking your view of the ball. (Alex Gordon says he makes those diving catches coming forward with the glove out to the side so he can watch the ball all the way in.) Using one hand also extends your reach.
Wait — did I mention slowing on your toes?
When you get to the right spot and slow down, you have to do it on your toes: Let your heels hit the ground, and your head starts bouncing around ... and your view of the ball isn’t so hot. I run with all the grace of Frankenstein’s monster being pursued by angry villagers with torches, so when I slow down, it’s like hitting a series of speed bumps. I’ve dropped many a fly ball because I let my heels hit the ground when I was slowing down.
Say you do this stuff correctly. You have now caught a fly ball. But guess what? You still have to throw it back in.
Take the ball out of your glove, and as you let your arm drop to its full length, rotate the ball in your hand until you have two fingers across the wide part of the seams. (You have to do this by feel, so it takes practice.) You now have a four-seam grip on the ball and that will give it a true trajectory; grab it off-center and you can throw a pretty nifty slider back toward the infield.
And finally (almost finished), throw the ball to the glove side of the relay man. This allows him to catch the ball and turn in one smooth motion. Throw the ball on his throwing-arm side, and the relay man’s got to do some dance moves to get into position.
There you have it. That’s how you catch a simple fly ball.
Next time you see someone do it — remember — it’s complicated.