In order to understand the most effective methods for training baseball players, an individual needs to understand the proper mechanics necessary to perform the skills needed on the field. Defense is one of the least mentioned aspects of the game, but at the absolute least, it is just as important as offensive prowess.
There are three important skills needed to execute on defense. They include the ability to run, field and throw. Each of these are characterized by a physical component and skill based component. In order to improve a player’s ability to perform any of these three actions, it is necessary to improve both of these components.
Here are some ideas on how to address the potential physical improvements that could lead to better performance by a player.
Power, agility and to a lessor extent extent endurance are the key physical attributes needed for baseball players. As a defensive player, power and agility are most important as the activities of a baseball player are characterized by shorts bursts of energy that last about 3-5 seconds in duration and require coordination and efficiency of movement. Running on defense occurs mostly in the outfield or when infielders are running down foul balls or backing up plays from the outfield. As far as running is concerned, explosiveness is preferable over endurance. A series of exercises designed to increase leg strength would be a good way to improve one’s explosiveness when going from a stationary position to an all out run. The best exercises should focus on strengthening of the thighs and calves.
Fielding is very much a skilled based activity that puts a premium on coordination. The ability to position one’s self in such a manner as to grab the ball off the ground or run it down in the outfield, catch it and then make a throw aren’t quite as easy as it looks to a spectator. It requires tremendous agility and power. For decades, baseball players were trained as traditional athletes with a training regime that often included strength and conditioning (aerobic) exercises designed to also help build endurance.
Over the past 10-15 years, sports scientists have discovered that endurance training often leads to loss of muscle mass which in turn, results in loss of power/strength. They began to recommend that power/strength training and endurance training should not be included in the same regimen. Many conditioning coaches now use high-intensity interval training instead of escalating aerobic exercises like long distance running. This type of training helps to teach the body to efficiently exert energy in a manner that better emulates how a player performs on the field. Some of the most appropriate exercises used for baseball players includes tempo runs/tempo throws. Ironically, when power increases using these types of exercises, endurance also improves to some extent.
As power is improved, a player begins to experience an improvement in agility. The most important physical component required when fielding a baseball is footwork. If a player’s body is better conditioned with increased power, a player who has been taught the proper footwork needed to get to baseball should also find their improved agility is helping them to get better fielding position in a faster and more efficient manner. A player’s responsibility is to get themselves in front of or under the baseball to the best of their ability. Players often end up putting their bodies in peculiar positions like the backhanded grab of a ground ball in the hole. It is power and agility that is going to give them the best opportunity to grab the ball and quickly right themselves in order to make an accurate throw.
The last important step to completing a defensive play in baseball is throwing, whether the player is throwing to a base on a ground ball or tossing the ball back into the infield after a play in the outfield. A player with good throwing mechanics and a strong arm is a very valuable asset to the team. Throwing a baseball is learned through repetition. The most important part of the process involves footwork. After a play has been made, the player must get themselves into position for a throw to the desired location. The actual throwing motion requires them to be able to properly step into the throw in order to increase both velocity and accuracy.
From a physical standpoint, as Kevin Kerekes suggests, the shoulder must be strengthened in order to improve velocity and to help prevent injuries. This becomes even more important if the player has an unusual throwing motion. The best way accomplish this is through a resistance training program. The best exercises available to strengthen the shoulder muscles including those around the rotator cuff are 45 degree raises with 5 lb dumbbells, lateral plain/shoulder abductions, external rotation and 45 degree internal rotation. All of these exercises provide the adequate resistance needed to help build up muscle fiber that will help prevent injuries.
Learning the Mechanics
In baseball, there is a right way and wrong way to play defense. All the physical attributes in the world mean nothing if the player in unable to execute the actual play. As mentioned above, the key to making any type of defensive play begins and ends with footwork. Coaches will work for hours upon hours teaching kids the proper methods for using their feet to get to the ball and how to properly position the glove. These methods must be practiced over and over again until they become instinctive. The time between when a ball is hit and a defensive player needs to react is only a second or two. There is no time for thought. The player must react quickly in order to get to the ball and make the play. It takes repetition to be able to read the ball off the bat, instinctively break in the right direction, get to the ball and make the out or throw.
Footwork involves taking quick, controlled steps towards the ball. The goal is to position themselves in front of the ball or at least get close enough to knock the ball down. Once the player gets to the ball, they must secure the ball with the proper glove work. This includes using both hands whenever possible. When the ball is secure, the player must again rely on footwork to get in throwing position. If the feet are not aligned properly with the target, the ball will sail off course. When the throw is made, the player must use the proper release point in order to maximize velocity and accuracy. These sound like simple processes, but the margin for error is small.
Players and fans grow up being bombarded by offensive stats. How many times does a player run out onto the field with his fielding percentage flashing on the board? The point is that while defense is not as glamorous as hitting a home run, it has the same ability as any offensive play to effect the outcome of any game. Playing baseball requires a unique skill set that is best obtained by conditioning and learning the proper mechanics through repetition and practice.
Lisa Lang enjoys her career as an athletic & performance coach. When not training athletes, she often posts on Facebook about the range of options for improved athleticism for the everyday baseball player.