Info For Everyone Coach To Player

by Cal Ripken
Last month was the first in the nearly two-year history of Coach's Clipboard that we did not present a Drill of the Month. Since it is the off-season and we already have a pretty good archive of drills on the website, we thought that it was a good time to tackle some of the issues that we often receive questions about. You may have noticed that last month's issue was dedicated to off-season conditioning, a topic that seems to generate the most questions.

We also get a lot of questions concerning advanced skills, drills and concepts. One thing we always want you to keep in mind is that, as our dad said, "Baseball is a simple game played with bats, balls and people." For that reason, one of our teaching philosophies - for players of all ages and ability levels - is to Keep it Simple. When you boil it down, the teams that throw and catch the best in the field and put the ball in play the most consistently at the plate generally are the most successful.

Still, as my brother Bill wrote here several months ago, Keep it Simple doesn't mean that our teachings are too elementary or basic for the older or more advanced players. It means that the majority of drills we present here, while simple in nature, are the same fundamental drills that big league players work on day after day to keep the basic skills necessary to succeed sharp.

Of course, especially when it comes to strategy, there are an abundance of lessons and concepts that are too advanced for the youngest players. Those players really need to become comfortable with the basic skills, rules and strategies necessary to play the game properly. Although everything we discuss in this newsletter and on our website is appropriate for players of all ages and ability levels, it is fun to tackle some more advanced topics occasionally. Hopefully this will prove enlightening for coaches of older and more experienced players and still be entertaining for those who coach the little guys.

This month's advanced topic is middle infield positioning.

Things to Consider:

There are many factors that go into where middle infielders - or any position players for that matter - should play on a given pitch. It's not as simple as just saying, "This batter has pulled the ball his first two times up, so let's shade him two steps in that direction." Every player on the field has many things to consider before each pitch when positioning himself. Some of the better hitters, I think back to a guy like Paul Molitor for instance, have different tendencies based on how many outs there are, the score, the location of the baserunners, the inning and the count. When a player like Paul takes a pitcher deep into the count, you might find yourself changing your positioning as many as five or six times. Here is a breakdown of the things to consider when it comes to positioning:

Scouting Information :

Type of hitter

In general you must know if the batter is a pull, spray or slap hitter. Is he a first-pitch fastball hitter? Is he aggressive or selective? Does he bunt? Does he have the ability to execute the hit-and-run or hit behind a runner?

A hitter's speed will impact how deep you play. If he is fast and a great bunter, like Ichiro, you may have to shorten up no matter what the game situation is. It's also important to know if the batter runs every ball he hits out all the way to first base.

Who is pitching?

Is he a power pitcher or more of a breaking-ball guy? Does he have the ability to throw the ball where he wants to most of the time? How has his control been lately and in that particular game specifically? A power pitcher with great control impacts your positioning tremendously. Roger Clemens, for example, can turn a pull hitter into more of a straight away hitter because of his velocity and his command of the outside corner.

Is the hitter hot or cold?

Is he swinging the bat well or is he struggling? Many hitters can be defended differently just by the way have been swinging the bat recently. One example of this would be Reggie Jackson. If Reggie was struggling, he would become more of a pull hitter in the infield. He would get out early on the pitch and be fooled, which would cause him to pull the ball on the ground more often. If he was hot, he tended to wait longer, which would cause me play him more straight up because he could drive the ball through the infield to the shortstop's right.

Individual match-up

How does a particular hitter fare against your pitcher? This cannot be overlooked, because sometimes a certain match-up can change a hitter's tendencies, and many times there is no logical explanation. It just seems to happen consistently. I've seen dead pull hitters have trouble pulling a pitcher who doesn't even have a good fastball. I've also seen spray hitters become pull hitters against fire-ballers. It might be because of the way they pick up the ball or their knowledge of the pitcher's tendencies to throw certain pitches at certain times. The important thing is not to worry about figuring out why, but to file away those match-ups so that you can remember the hitter's tendencies against that pitcher.

Game Information:

Type of pitch

As a middle infielder, the catcher's signals are right there for you to see. They give you clues as to where the ball is likely to be hit. The type of pitch is important, but even more critical is the location of the pitch. Of course, as a fielder, it helps to know if a pitch is going to be fast or slow, inside or outside.

The count

The count can dictate the way a hitter approaches the pitch. If the count is in his favor, say 2-0 or 3-1, the hitter is more likely to be aggressive and take chances. Most players are more likely to pull the ball in these favorable counts regardless of the exact pitch location. When the hitter knows that the pitcher has to throw a strike or is locked in on one pitch, he can get the bat moving and pull a pitch on the outside part of the plate. If the hitter falls behind, say 0-2 or 1-2, the tendency is for him to become more defensive, thus fighting off good fastballs to the opposite field.

When Mike Mussina matched up against Albert Belle in the playoffs, my positioning could change drasti cal ly with the count. Albert was a pull hitter on the ground. He stood right on top of the plate and could pull the outside strike into the hole at short. With the count 0-0, I played him to pull. But if the count went to 0-2 or 1-2, and I saw that Mike was going to throw a fastball on the outside edge, I would move during the pitch up the middle to the left of straight away. I knew that Albert would be a little more defensive in an 0-2 count and would protect against Mike's knuckle-curve. I also knew that Mike was likely to hit his spot. Therefore, I could take comfort in my positioning knowing that the best Albert could do with that pitch would be to hit it up the middle.

Number of outs

Sometimes you can gain insight to a hitter's approach just from the number of outs. A hitter might have a different approach to hitting when leading off an inning as opposed to when he is batting with two outs and no one on base. In the leadoff at-bat he might shorten his swing and try to just get on base. The same hitter batting with two outs and the bases empty might lengthen his swing in an attempt to drive the ball for an extra-base hit. The outs also helped me predict the likely strategy of the offense. There are certain times when teams will take chances with plays like hit-and-runs or steals. Over time, middle infielders can get a good feel for when these strategies are likely to be used and to position themselves accordingly.

The Game Score

The game score helps you decide when to take risks and when to be conservative. Usually, for a middle infielder, this involves the depth of your positioning. With a big lead you can afford to play a little deeper and try to cut off more balls by moving laterally. I used this approach mostly when there was a runner on first base. By playing deeper, I could turn some would-be hits into a force out at second, preventing a potential big inning for the offense. In a close game I'd take a risk and play a little more shallow and closer to the bag in hopes of turning a double play and getting us out of the inning without allowing any runs.

Baserunners

Obviously, with runners on base your positioning can change based on double play situations or steal coverage responsibilities.

Other information picked up during a game

Many spectators will go to baseball games and complain that there is a lot of standing around, time between pitches and stretches where there is no "action." Well, those knowledgeable in the sport understand that with every pitch there are nine guys in the field processing a wealth of information and reaction to an endless number of subtleties that go unnoticed to the average person. On the other side of the coin, the batter, baserunners and opposing coaching staff are trying to figure out what the pitcher and defense are doing. Every pitch is a chess match.

Swings and misses and foul balls during the game can be valuable bits of information, providing an indication of the hitter's approach, feedback on your pitcher's stuff and a current assessment of how the batter is tracking the ball to home plate that day. For example, if Alex Rodriguez is hitting against Sidney Ponson, and in the first at-batSidneyfalls behind 3-1, he is forced to come right at Alex with the fastball. Alex is a good fastball hitter, especially when he knows he's going to see one. Alex swings at a fastball right down the middle and fouls it down the right field line. This could mean that Sidneyhas a really live fastball or Alex is having trouble getting the bat head out. Either way, I'll store this little bit of information while continuing to gather more clues and adjust my positioning accordingly.

Watch your pitcher's control to see if you can rely on his location. Does he have his good change-up today? Scott McGregor was a pitcher that had a very good change-up. I needed to determine each game if he had his good change. If he did, the right-handed hitters would either top that pitch weakly to third or they would hit it hard up the middle. If it was bad they would pull it sharply to the left side of the infield. Just by observing closely and determining the quality of this one pitch, I could either position myself up the middle or deep in the hole.

This article doesn't cover all of the considerations that can affect a middle infielder's positioning in a particular game. But, hopefully, it gives you a base to work from and will allow you to impress upon your team the importance of being mentally focused on each pitch, not only to be prepared to react to that particular situation and make a play, but also so that you can use the information gathered on each pitch to give yourself a competitive advantage. They say that baseball is a game of inches, and so often that old adage proves to be true. Positioning yourself one inch in either direction can be the difference between winning and losing a ball game. Good luck. See you next time!