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Softball Catching Tips

By Linda Wells
Assistant Coach - Dutch Olympic Team

Every catcher must be able to block the low ball, snap throw to bases for outs, and pitch select for the pitcher. Whether the catcher or the coach selects the pitches, the catcher has the challenge to catch the ball and to lead the defense. Catchers can propel adequate pitchers to success. Similarly, most pitchers do not achieve great team success without a competent catcher.

Good softball catching is essential for the success of any teamIn addition to these main skill requirements, catchers can develop additional game and glove sense which can make the difference in many situations. Here are a few of my favorite catching tips.

Be alert and active during the pitcher’s game warmup. Usually, each pitcher will establish a routine and pitch count for their warmup. Count the pitches and ease the pitcher through her routine. Notice the development of each pitch as she warms up. Is it spinning, breaking, working….will this be the go-to pitch of the day, or do you need to keep looking for her best stuff? How are her mechanics and mindset? What is the experience level of the pitcher, does she already have success against this team? What can you do to help her prepare?

Common pitcher game warmups include jogging, stretching, dynamic warmup activities, overhand throwing, underhand warmup and distance pitching. This is followed by throwing for pitch locations and then each of her pitches. The last effort involves throwing a mix of pitches as selected by the catcher and should represent game environment as closely as possible.

Warm up the pitcher’s spinning pitches by breaking them away from the plate and then locating them on the plate. When the pitcher warms up the rise ball, throw it up….and then bring it down. Warm the drop ball from down to up, the curve from out to in, the screw from in to out and the change from down to down. Warm up each of the pitcher’s pitches this way.

Then, in the game, catch the pitch the same way. Catch the rise ball from up to down, the drop ball from down to up, the curve ball from out to in and the screw ball from in to out.

Creating this pattern for the glove allows the catcher to flow into the framing of the pitch. Framing is catching each pitch and making it look as good and tasty as possible. Catch the pitches from a calm and steady stance, without jerking the pitch into the zone or toward the plate. If the catcher is already catching toward the plate, the framing will flow and allow for a consistent look of each pitch. The consistent framing will also help the pitcher to change her focus slightly, when necessary, and give her additional feedback on her pitches relative to the plate and the batter. If the catcher can establish a flow with the umpire, then it will be possible to change the framing slightly a couple of times during the game. When you absolutely need the pitch, you might adjust your frame a slight amount to favor the strike zone. This might get you one or two critical calls at opportune moments in the game.

Hold the ball after the catch for a consistent period. Again, this puts the catcher and the umpire, along with the pitcher, into a rhythm of the game and makes the effort more pleasurable for the defense as well.

One more tip on the glove. Keep the target as small as the pitcher is good. Give smaller and smaller targets the better and more accurate the pitcher. This helps the pitcher to create the idea of throwing into a dime area inside the glove, rather than aiming at the entire glove. In addition, while you are at it, get your glove out of the middle of the plate, both in warmup and in games. You do not want your pitcher to practice or compete by throwing the ball in the middle of the plate, so be careful not to target her there. Use a lot of energy in practice and games to encourage her to hit the center of your glove, or body if you are locating the pitch off your person or gear.

Use your glove to fix the pitcher. If the pitcher delivers in the first pitch of the game too inside, move your glove in and select the pitch again. Alternatively, go farther outside when you go out. Often, you see the pitcher throw several balls in a row,  just missing, and without an adjustment by the catcher. Successful pitchers throw as many balls as they can, but are able to throw strikes at will. If the location of the pitch is slightly off, correct the pitcher with your glove. The catcher can, and should make, glove adjustments throughout the game. Using your glove to slightly change the pitch location will allow the pitcher to trust and throw at your pitch selections, knowing you are helping her locations with your glove adjustments. Slight movements of the catcher may similarly adjust elite athletes or pitches who throw off the catcher’s body. The catcher is always evaluating the game situation to get the most out of the pitcher. She needs to be aware of her emotional and physical tendencies and use strategies to keep the pitcher in a sound pitching state of mind. Often, the catcher is in the best position to see minor mechanical flaws. Work tirelessly with the pitcher to make adjustments in practices and the games to create the pursuit of pitching perfection.

Strong armed catchers have a place in, and can often win, games. However, it is very important for the catcher to understand the time and place to show her arm. If the pitcher is a dominant player, the catcher needs to be very selective with pickoffs and pitchouts. On the other hand, sometimes the pitcher needs help. She needs the defense to step up. She needs a pickoff, a trick play, a caught foul tip….something, anything, to help her. She needs her catcher, and the catcher should understand this. Be ready.

Communication is a key element between the pitcher, catcher and the coach. Although often the pitcher can pitch out of trouble, the team occasionally needs to make a pitching change to save, win, or survive a game. Catchers should develop predetermined methods of communication…first with the pitcher. The catcher must understand the emotional maturity, experience level and every day personality of each pitcher on the squad. Often, the catcher has to decide when to give a word of encouragement and when to give the pitcher a swift verbal kick in the pants. Knowing the pitcher can make the difference, especially when the going gets tough.

The level of communication includes the pitching coach, head coach, or any staff assigned to manage the pitchers and/or catchers. Any number of signals can be used to let the coach know when the pitcher is capable to continue. Similarly, a signal may be developed to indicate when a pitching change is suggested. For example, maybe the catcher will join the coach at the pitcher’s mound when they think the pitcher can continue. Alternately, if the catcher thinks the best thing is a pitching change, they might meet the coach earlier at the foul line as the coach approaches. The catcher might also have a simple signal to indicate their preference for a mound visit. Often, this open communication between the catcher and coach can assist the coach with the opinion of the catcher without the embarrassment of talking to the coach about the pitcher in front of her. It only takes the catcher once to say she is done in front of her before trust will be lost. Signals between the catcher and coach can keep the communication line open, honest and confidential. The catcher’s opinion is meant to supplement the ultimate decision-making of the coach. Often this input can assist the coach, especially when the coach is looking for some additional information.

How many times does the batter get a good piece of a pitch and with two strikes, it ticks the catcher’s glove on its way straight back to the backstop? How many times did you wish that pitch was caught? How many times is the next pitch hit to put the inning, score or game in jeopardy? I thought so. Well listen up….there’s hope for your pitcher, your team, and your catcher. Changing the glove for the pitch can make a big difference in this situation.

Most of the time, the catcher is trying to catch the ball in the glove. It is not that simple, as you know if you’ve caught, but that is the job. Catch it, hold it, throw it, block it, select it. Be a leader, pick her off, call the “cut.” move the defense, set the plays, encourage the pitcher, refocus the infield, and realign the outfield. Not to mention, but I will, adjust to the weather, time of day, temperature, umpire, and moods of the coach and the pitching staff. If that were not enough, you should also know the hitter’s strengths and weaknesses, what each one did every time at the plate, on every pitch and in every situation. Be ready for a skidding throw home from an outfielder and do not forget to cover third on a bunt to the third baseman with a runner at first. Have I mentioned squat and get up several hundred times a day? And that was just warmups.

Anyway, clearly there are only so many two strike pitches in the game. With a little intellect, and a lot of practice, the catcher can position herself to catch the foul tip and save the pitcher and the team the events of the always -dreaded “next pitch.”

Here is how it works. With two strikes on the batter, instead of trying to catch the pitch in the glove, try to anticipate the flight of the potential foul tip and put the majority of the glove there. Of course, you do not know whether it will be a foul tip, but what do you have to lose? For example, if the incoming pitch selection is for a rise, place the glove above the bat swing of the batter. Cover as much of the area above the bat as possible, while still maintaining the ability to catch the ball in the heel of the glove should the batter swing and miss. For the drop, it is, of course, the opposite. More of the glove goes below the bat. In for the screw (righty to righty) and out for the curve (r to r).

With a little practice, the catcher will be anticipating the foul tip long before it happens. If the batter’s swing creates a foul tip, the catcher will be there with her glove to turn that one swing into a strikeout. No more chances for this hitter. She is done with her at-bat. It is a boost for the pitcher and the team, and the catcher has the inside knowledge that she made this out happen, simply by moving her glove.

This is a skill that the catcher develops. She knows the speed and spin of the pitch. She sees the spin of each ball. She reads each bat swing of the bat and spin of the ball to secure her glove placement. She takes a chance to catch the swing and miss in the heel or the tip of her glove. Actually, when the hitter swings and misses, the catcher may look a little clumsy, as if she has misjudged the catch. It may be a snow cone out. It may look like you could take a bite of the ball out of her glove and the fans may see this as an average catcher. Only you, the catcher and I know that this glove positioning may, at any time, save the game, save the inning or save the out. Just one a game, and you are now only giving the offense 20 outs compared to the glove positioning of yesterday. The pitcher looks good. This is a comment always important to the catcher, because as you know, that is your job too.

Finally, what started out to be three simple skills…block the low ball, snap throw to bases, and pitch selection…turns out to be a challenge for the position player interested in the position that protects the plate and touches the ball every pitch. There is enough to keep any player busy learning for an entire career, and after all, isn’t that the idea?

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