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The Key Role of a Softball Catcher

By Michelle Phalen
Head Coach – University of Pittsburgh

Although I have caught before, I still have a lot to learn about the catching position. Many of you may have caught for your pitchers and many of you may have caught at one point in your career, but not everyone has been or could be a catcher.

At the risk of sounding dramatic, I will try to give my perceptions and ideas on the catching position. I know catching isn’t a total mystery, but maybe the insight I offer will help a coach or a player see a different side to this position.

A softball catcher plays a crucial role in the success of a softball teamA catcher is so much more than a “backstop with arms” or somebody that just gives the target for the pitcher. But, we all know that if we are willing to accept that, she will do only that. Many of us have had a catcher at one point in our playing or coaching careers that catches the ball and hustles on and off the field but doesn’t or can’t do much else. That is not enough. I want my catcher to be a catcher. Don’t you? Who doesn’t want a catcher that runs the game and keeps the team in every play? Most coaches I have worked with rely on that position to keep the game in control. She can play the role of the on-field administrator. If that is the role you want your catcher to play, you have to devote the time and energy to it. Coaches need to commit the time in practice to teaching their catchers the role of the catcher. If you don’t do it in practice, don’t expect it to happen in a game. Haven’t we all told our players this hundreds of times? It is the same for the coaches.

Nothing short of a miracle will get that catcher’s throw to second base if you don’t give her time to work on the release and the mechanics in practice. The same is true with plays at the plate – if you don’t allow practice time for these plays, you will not get the results you need in games. In a tight situation, who do you look to bring the team together – your catcher. Give her the time in practice to sharpen her skills – don’t leave on-the-field game management to chance. Something so easy as calling time in an inning is not so easily mastered by some catchers…timing can be everything here. Isn’t that an instinct of the catcher? I want mine to have it. But I don’t trust her to learn it in a game…I want her to learn this sense of timing in practice. If you never practice how to get out of pressure situations, how will your players learn to overcome them in games?

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There may be a small percentage of you that never have bad innings….congratulations, but the rest of us do, and I think that we need to prepare our players for the reality of our game. The catcher needs to get the situation under control as best as she can and as quickly as possible in order to avoid a possible game-losing inning. And most of the time it comes down to one bad defensive inning. A catcher takes control and settles the team down….if you allow her. I want my pitcher, my infielders and my outfielders to trust her and her decisions. But I cannot expect that to happen unless I teach her the way I want it done.

How do we get our catchers to be catchers? She will assume the role and act. Fake it ‘til you make it. That is the way to get the player into the catcher frame of mind. Allow them to do this, encourage them to take the initiative, reinforce it in practice and they will eventually get it right. Let them play the role of the catcher – reinforce the things she does right and fix the things she does wrong. Let them play the game; with a little guidance you can have a real leader if you want one. I am still working with a player that doesn’t know the right time to take a time out, but she is getting there. At least now she knows she can take one!

Remember, I have a first year program. As coaches, we should accept nothing less from our players but total understanding of the role they play on our teams – on the field and off. Give them the tools to succeed. Take the time to teach your players.

I see a lot of coaches calling the game and doing the catching from the bench. I believe that coaches take the game out of the players hands when they do that. Teaching your players how to set up batters should be a part of coaching that position. It is an exciting, challenging and fun part of the game that a catcher can learn. It is not impossible to teach a catcher the art of setting up a batter. I know that mistakes can  be made or that the good hitters can disguise a strength or hide a weakness when they are in the box. But players will learn from their mistakes.

Don’t take the fun out of the game for your catchers – or the responsibility – spend the time in practice and work on their calling of the game. I would suggest this, if you are willing to take the time in practice; start by stationing yourself behind the catcher during scrimmages. You don’t have to be the umpire – all you have to do is take a safety net and position it behind the catcher. This will allow you to see what your catcher calls, how she sets up, what pitches work most consistently for your pitchers and also it can allow you to give your catcher feedback throughout the scrimmage. Ask her why she called certain pitches for certain batters, suggest to her to call a pitch to a batter and explain why. I always go for the highest percentage for a strike with my battery. Try to work ahead in the count. Put the pressure on the batter from the first pitch.

I like to play to my pitcher’s strengths first and then go to the batter’s weakness as the at-bat progresses. If this sounds basic, I apologize but let’s break down this part a bit. For example, if my pitcher is a predominant curve ball, change-up pitcher, I will start the batter, no matter where she is in the box, with my pitcher’s best pitch. From that point on, I will go at the batter according to anything she’s given me in her stance or set-up in the box. If a batter has a closed stance, I like to throw inside – at the knees or in on the hands – determine this spot by your pitchers ability to hit the spot. Call something your pitcher throws consistently good to that location.

Speed is great but accuracy counts too. Remember the three L’s of pitching: location, location, location. If the batter has an open stance, I like to throw off-speed away and low away curve balls. Always make adjustments in your assessments of the batter. Look to see the batter’s reaction to an umpire’s strike call on the corner. If they show displeasure with the call, throw it again a little farther in or out. Even the best hitters show a weakness. Sometimes coaches can see a hitch from the bench better than the catcher can. Signal this to the catcher and call accordingly. A hitter that lunges will generally have a problem with an off-speed pitch and breaking balls that rise or drop. A hitter that hitches will have a problem with inside pitches and high strikes. Even if the batters put the ball into play, most of the time it is an easy to handle fly or grounder. Batters that are back in the box (toward the catcher) will generally have more problems hitting the balls that break –rise or drops. A batter up in the box (towards the pitcher) will have more problems with off-speed and up and in or low and away. A batter that flies open with her front shoulder will hit weakly the low outside pitch. Remember there are always exceptions – we are playing the odds here.

How do you pitch to the slapper? What should your catcher call if your pitcher only throws a curve that breaks to the inside on a left handed batter? If that pitch can be thrown for a strike to a righty, it can be effective to throw to a left handed slapper. Many slappers will not see it as a strike or will hit it right into the glove of an eager third baseman. Drops inside to slappers have worked very well and also rise ball/screw balls outside to slappers work. The key here is to couple your pitchers best with the batters worst. Slappers show weaknesses too, just like regular hitters. Key in on their approach to the ball. For the most part, slappers generally fear balls coming in on them. I have seen off-speed thrown to run-up hitters and it has been effective but I am generally leery of throwing off-speed to anyone who can drag and has speed. In a bunting situation, I never like to see a change-up thrown – too easy for the batter to put down fair. The main reason I like the catcher to call the game is so that she can play her position. She is the only one that truly knows what the umpire’s zone is – inside/outside, high and low. The catcher sees the spin on the ball and can tell you why the pitch that sailed over centerfield fence went out faster than it came in. No break on the ball, bad location or just a mistake on her part of calling that pitch. Hey – let’s be realistic here, mistakes will be made. Also remember the pitcher has the right – for whatever reason – to shake off a call.  Would your pitcher feel comfortable shaking off the pitch from you, her coach? Let your catcher call the game. It is a learning process and it is all part of developing that pitcher/catcher relationship. But in my estimation, that is a major part of the defensive scheme of your team. I want each of my players to learn how to play her position. That includes the catcher. Calling the game goes along with the catcher position.

Teach them proper blocking mechanics in practice and make them wear full gear when they are catching the pitchers. Watch to make sure they roll the shoulders forward and keep their hands in near their body when blocking the ball. Then reinforce the techniques throughout the practice. Teach the way to set up/catch the ball and make tag plays at the plate. Have the players hold the ball in their hand and use their glove as a protector to prevent dropping the ball in a collision. One other thing here is that the catcher needs to remember to stay home. The baserunner will come to her. Don’t reach out to make the tag unless absolutely necessary. A good slide can make a catcher look bad if she chases the runner. Reinforce with plays at the plate during during a few practices. Also, go over the set-up and what is expected of the catcher with a force play at home. This never seems to run as smoothly as desired in a game, so practice it.

I recently started this program and I have to say it hasn’t been the easiest thing I have done. The best thing for me has been that I have been able to teach my players the way I want them to act and how to play when they are on the field. It hasn’t been easy, but they are learning their roles the way I want them played. We teach players new things all the time – we take an infielder and think we can make her into an outfielder or we take a pitcher and think we can make her into a first baseman. If this can happen, we also need to believe that we can make a catcher into a catcher. Anything is possible, it takes time and commitment, but it will happen.

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