Getting a Good Jump on the Ball
By David Krival with Tito Landrum
From Winter 1993 issue of HardBall Magazine
Getting a jump on the ball is key to playing the outfield. Outfielders who are able to get a good jump will make difficult plays look easy.
MSBL players of any age can still perform well in the outfield, providing they maintain and improve their skills by practicing the fundamentals.
Don't Just Stand There!
Stance is important. Jimmy Piersall, Tito Landrum's first minor league manager, teaches outfielders to square their shoulders toward the plate with knees bent and feet about a shoulder's width apart. A good fielder never rests his hands on his knees or his weight on his heels. He must be prepared to go either way, with a quick crossover step.
Every pitch presents a new game situation for which the outfielder must prepare. To adjust and anticipate, Landrum weighs many factors: 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” a step or two in the direction he thinks the ball will travel, as the pitch is released.
If an outfielder tends to charge with more confidence than he has when he chases a ball hit behind him, he should play a little deeper, especially if the hitter has power. If an off-speed pitch has been called, he should expect the batter to pull. With a runner on second, he must be ready to charge a grounder, especially if the grass is high. When a good hitter is behind in the count, the outfielder should expect him to shorten up and hit to the opposite field. A strong cross-field wind will exaggerate hooks and slices. On a dry, hard field with short grass, the outfielder must hustle extra hard to cut off balls hit to the gap. A good outfielder is never caught napping, because he expects the ball to come to him and he knows what to do with the ball.
Know Your Play
An outfielder must know his play beforehand. For example, with a runner on second, the batter drives a hard, one-hop single. The play is at home. The outfielder must hit the cutoff man on the infield grass, directly in line with home plate. On a ground single in the same situation, the play is still at home. The throw to the cutoff lets the catcher call the play, which is in front of him. A good throw may nail a slow runner, or the cutoff man may catch a runner between bases. On a ball in the gap or down the line, the outfielder should hit the third base cut-off, preventing the triple and possibly catching the runner straying off second. These decisions should be automatic, but they won't be without practice.
Ozzie Smith says that a player who doesn't practice—often and correctly—is wasting his time. 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.
First, run on the balls of your feet. Running on your heels will jog your field of vision and may even jar the ball from your glove. The inability to run properly is a sign of inadequate physical conditioning.
Don't catch the ball standing still. Get a step or two behind the ball. Line yourself up with the cut-off. Catch the ball on our throwing side, moving to the target. Use both hands. Branch Rickey said, "God gave us two hands for a reason.” Keep the free hand near the glove to block the sun or trap a bobbled ball. Watch the ball into the glove. Crow hop. Plant your front foot. Throw through the cut-off. Hit him in the chest, on the line.
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, and to look for hard, bare patches that may cause bad hops and skids.
A good outfielder always charges a grounder. The first few steps should be as fast as possible. Then the fielder must get himself under control and align himself with the cut-off before fielding the ball. If the field is smooth, he will catch the ball on his glove side coming in, crow hop, plant and throw. On a bad field, the outfielder must get down on one knee to block a bad hop with his chest.
To develop a strong, accurate arm, outfielders should train year-round, like pitchers, and practice specific techniques. To ingrain good throwing habits, do it right every time. Outfielders grip the ball across the seams to reduce sideways rotation and prevent sailing. Between fielding the ball and throwing, an outfielder has no time to spare, so he must learn to correctly position the ball by "feel.” This may sound difficult, but it can be learned by means of a simple drill:
Keep a 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. Do it until it is easy. Then do it some more.
Outfielders throw overhand to prevent sailing or floating and to ensure a true hop on throws to the plate or a base. Get "on top” of the ball when you throw. Get behind the ball. Move toward the target as you catch it. Crow hop, plant and follow through directly toward the cut-off. Warming up, make line drive throws, never lob, even in long toss. On every throw, game or practice, hit the man directly in the chest.
Playing the Fade
Catching a hard-hit ball driven a good distance directly behind him is the outfielder's most difficult play, because it requires him to turn his back on the ball. Inexperienced outfielders often misjudge the hook or slice, resulting in foot-tangled futility, but experience and practice can make the ballhawk's job much simpler.
Right-fielders and left-fielders have it easy. Whether the batter is left-handed or right-handed, the ball will drift towards the line. In left, right-handers' drives will hook, and lefties' drives will slice. Inright, the tendencies are reversed.
The "fade” is also predictable in center: always away from the batter's side of the plate. Piersall worked with Landrum for hours on this vital skill. The key is to maneuver within our "wingspan.” The ball will behave predictably. Make a quick, sharp turn. Run to where it must be. After a few steps, look back and correct course if necessary. Run the ball down. Plant. Hit the cut-of. Smile. Tip your hat to the crowd.
Piersall uses a fungo drill at a distance of 40 feet, plunking the ball over the fielder's head until he learns to react instantly. Equally useful is the "wrong turn” drill. After intentionally turning the wrong way, the fielder learns to correct an initial misstep without panicking.
No one improves without practice. Professionals do it every day. 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 can make a world of difference on Sunday.
Tito Landrum played no high school baseball in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "The fields were terrible, so I ran track instead,” he said. Even so, his speed impressed a scout, who placed him on an American Legion team. After a semester at Eastern Oklahoma State, Landrum signed with St. Louis in October of 1972. Tito toiled eight years in the minors, becoming a fine outfielder. "Jimmy Piersall was my first minor league manager. A great player and a great teacher,” said Landrum. In 1980, St. Louis promoted Landrum to The Show.
Valued for his speed and defensive skills, Landrum was a utility player on the great Cardinal and Orioles teams of the 1980s. Though not known as a great hitter, Tito starred in the 1985 Series, hitting .360 with a home run and two doubles.
Tito played in the Senior Pro League in 1989-90, and then joined the Long Island MSBL National Division Blue Jays in 1993.