Fundamentals of Outfield Play
by David Krival with Tito Landrum
Photography and motion studies by Anthony F. Frascello
(This article appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of HardBall Magazine)
No matter what his age or experience, any outfielder will improve his skills by practicing the fundamentals of outfield play.
Don't Just Stand There
Jimmy Piersall, Tito Landrum's first minor league manager, teaches outfielders to square their shoulders to the plate, with knees bent, feet about shoulder's width apart and weight evenly distributed (see figure 1). A good fielder never rests his hands on his knees or his weight on his heels. He must be able to move quickly in any direction.
|Figure 1. The outfielder's stance.
Thinking It Through
Every pitch presents a new situation. Thinking each situation through keeps the outfielder on his toes. Landrum considers his own strengths and weaknesses, the hitter's tendencies, the speed of the runners, the count, the type of pitch and the field conditions. To get the best jump on the ball, Tito often "cheats” slightly in the direction he thinks the ball will travel, as the pitch is released.
If an outfielder charges with more confidence than he has when he retreats, he should play a little deeper, especially if the hitter has power. If an off-speed pitch has been called, expect the batter to pull. When a good hitter is behind in the count, the outfielder should expect him to hit to the opposite field, especially if the catcher sets up on the outside corner.
An outfielder can play shallower than normal if the wind is blowing in. A strong cross-field wind may cause the ball to hook or slice radically. If the wind is blowing against the direction of the hook or slice, the outfielder must be careful not to overrun it.
On a dry, hard field with short grass, the outfielder must hustle to cut off balls hit to the gap. If the grass is high, he must be prepared to charge grounders at full speed.
Know the Play
A good outfielder knows what to do on every play. Most MSBL/MABL teams play only once or twice per week, so it's hard to avoid mental mistakes. The more you talk about and practice plays, the better you'll execute them during games.
For example, with a runner on second, the batter drives a one-hop single. The play is at home. The outfielder must "throw through” the cutoff man on the infield grass in line with home plate.
With a runner on second, the batter rolls a ground ball single. The play is at home. By hitting the cutoff, the outfielder lets the catcher call the play. A good throw may nail the runner at the plate, or the cutoff man may catch a runner between bases.
On a ball driven into the gap or down the line, the outfielder hits his cutoff in line with third base. There may be a play at third, or the cutoff man may throw behind the runner to second.
There is a right way to do everything, even something as simple as catching a fly ball. Pre-game warm-ups and fungo sessions are opportunities to develop correct technique.
When our photographer developed the shots for this article, he noticed an extraordinary thing. To make sure he had gotten good exposures, he asked Tito to run through each skill several times. Looking at the contact sheets, it was impossible to distinguish any variation in Landrum's mechanics from one sequence to the next. Landrum does everything the same way every time. Look close! Tito's facial expression is the only clue that Figures 2a and 2b are not the same.
|2a: if not for Tito's facial expression...
||2b: ...it is difficult to spot the differences.
Catching a Fly Ball
Don't catch the ball standing still. Retreat an extra step or two. Line yourself up with the cutoff. Catch the ball moving forward (see figure 3). Keep your free hand near the glove to block the sun or trap a bobbled ball. Watch the ball into the glove.
|Figure 3. Catching a routine fly ball.
Lazy or uncertain play of ground balls in the outfield usually hurts the team. Take some grounders during warm-ups to judge how the ball is moving on the grass. Look for hard, bare patches that may cause bad hops and skids. After charging hard the first few steps, the outfielder must get himself under control and align himself with the cutoff before fielding the ball. If the grass is smooth, he fields the ball on his glove side, moving in. On a bumpy field, the fielder drops to one knee to block a bad hop with his chest.
The Four-Seam Grip
Outfielders grip the ball across the seams to reduce sideways rotation and prevent sailing (figure 4). An outfielder must be able to grip the ball correctly without looking at it. This can be learned by means of a simple drill: Keep the ball in your glove on the bench. Practice reaching into the glove and quickly rotating the ball with your fingertips until the grip is correct. Practice until any other grip feels wrong.
Outfielders throw overhand. Never lob the ball, even in long toss. On every throw, game or practice, hit the man directly in the chest. Catch the ball, transfer it from the glove to the throwing hand, crow hop, throw, and follow through with our back foot directly toward the target.
It's important to "get on top” of the ball when you throw. Note the path of Tito's arm in figure 3. Not also that he cocks his wrist in the third frame of the sequence and snaps it on the follow-through. The mechanics of the outfield throw are similar to those used by a pitcher. Instead of rocking back on a mound to generate power, the outfielder captures his forward momentum by crow hopping.
Playing the Fade
Catching a ball driven over his head is the outfielder's most difficult play. Because it requires him to turn his back on the ball, he may misjudge the hook or slice, then tangle his feet trying to correct himself.
In right or left field, no matter whether the batter is left-handed or right-handed, the ball always drifts toward the line. In left, right-handers' drives will hook, and lefties' will slice. In right, the tendencies are reversed.
|Figure 5. Playing the Fade
The "fade” is also predictable in center: always away from the batter's side of the plate. The outfielder's first step, a quick, crossover-turn, is critical. Piersall calls this "maneuvering within your wingspan.” In figure 5, Landrum retreats on a ball hit by a right-hander. He turns to his left, toward right-center, because that's the direction I which the ball will fade. After a few steps, he looks back to adjust course. Then he runs the ball down.
The Fungo Drill
To teach these skills, Piersall plunks the ball over the fielder's head from a distance of 40 feet, until he learns to react instantly and correctly. Equally useful is the wrong-turn drill: after intentionally turning the wrong way, the fielder learns to correct an initial misstep without stumbling.
Professionals practice every day. It's unrealistic for most amateurs to expect to play this difficult game well without practicing the fundamental skills. If you can't connect with a teammate, ask a high school coach whether one of his kids needs extra work. Hit fungo to each other. Practice throwing. A few hours of correct practice every week can make a world of difference on Sunday.
About Tito Landrum
A track star in school, Tito Landrum played no high school baseball in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Even so, his speed impressed a scout, who placed him on an American Legion team. Landrum signed with St. Louis in 1972. Valued for his speed and defensive skills, he was a role-player on the great Cardinal and Oriole teams of the 1980s. Tito his .360 in the 1985 Series, with a home run and two doubles. He played in the Senior Pro League in 1989-90, and the Long Island MSBL in 1993 and 1994.