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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Outfielder Fundamentals For Balls Hit Over the Head

By Steven Michael

From youth baseball to the big leagues some of the funniest and most game changing plays are when an outfielder must go back on a ball. The outfielder must turn and run to catch or retrieve a batted ball that is destined to land behind him. In particular, a ball that can be caught by the outfielder produces most of the problems. After all, the ball that can never be caught does not elicit the same adrenalin rush in the player -- they just run to where the ball lands, pick it up, and throw it in. All kinds of techniques are used by outfielders, but all the best outfielders do these fundamentals correctly.

Look Over the Shoulder
When batted balls are hit deeper than the outfielder is playing, he must go back on the ball. The drop step and straight angle are used to point the outfielder in the right direction. As he runs back to the ball, he should keep his shoulders square to the target -- in other words, perpendicular to the direction he is running. His head should be turned back toward the flight of the ball and he should be looking over his shoulder.

This fundamental has two important advantages. First, because the player is running with his torso (and shoulders) in line with the catch zone (the target), his arms and legs are also in line with the target. The primary means to running as fast as possible is moving the arms and legs along the running line. The outfielder maximizes his ability to cover ground when running after long fly balls this way.

Secondly, by turning his head so both eyes are on the ball, he optimizes his ability to continually read the ball's direction and speed. An outfielder should run so that his vision is clear and without distortion. If he were to only turn his head partially, he would probably only have one eye on the ball -- a bad distortion of his vision.

The Wrong Ways
Since I have explained the right way to run back on a ball, let's look at some incorrect ways. One blatantly wrong way is to backpedal. This goes against both edicts of playing the outfield; which are field the ball cleanly and get it back to the infield as efficiently as possible. Primarily, it slows the player down. He can't run nearly as fast backward as he can running forward -- he drastically reduces his chance to field the ball cleanly.

Backpedaling also has a much higher likelihood of making the player's vision distorted. Why? Because when you backpedal your heel is more easily prone to hitting the ground. This is because your heel is now facing the direction you are going. When running forward, the heel is facing the opposite direction. Try it now in your living room (if there's room). Running on your heels makes your head bounce which makes the ball look like it is bouncing as well -- distorted vision.

Backpedaling has a high likelihood of the player falling down. We have all seen outfielders going back on the ball by backpedaling and their legs get crossed. When they fall, base runners advance quickly, and the outfielder is embarrassed beyond measure. While this may be humorous, it does not help your team or the player.

The other outfield edict that is compromised by backpedaling is "efficiently get the ball back to the infield". When the player backpedals, his momentum is moving away from any throw. Even if he makes the catch, he must change direction and get his throwing momentum going back toward the infield. This results in wasted time which is not efficient.

Another incorrect method of going back on fly balls is more subtle than the backpedal. I call it the Side-Stride. In this move the outfielder does not get his shoulders completely turned toward the catch target. Instead he is only partially turned. This results in his arms and legs churning across the running line; which slows the player down. With only a partial turn, the outfielder can always keep both eyes on the ball though. Side-Striding is very prevalent in players of all ages. Make sure you do not fall in to this subtle, yet debilitating, habit. Thanks for reading!

Steven E. Michael played seven years of professional baseball in the Montreal Expos, Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers organizations. He played collegiately at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona earning All-Western Athletic Conference, All-College World Series, and Sporting News All-America honors.

His new book, "How To Play Baseball Outfield: Techniques, Tips, and Drills to Learn the Outfield Position" is available at

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Hello Baseball Friend,
I welcome any comments or suggestions. If you have a question or a topic that you would like to read about, please leave a comment and I will try to address that topic as soon as I can. Good luck in the coming season!
Have a great day, Nick