Once the infield unit has been identified and players have been assigned specific infield positions, players can practice more advanced skills. Important skills like tagging, covering bases and bunt coverage are often not covered in practices but are important for team defense. Players will need to be coached in both position specific skills as well as team defensive skills.
Tagging Runners & Tagging Sliding Runners
At first glance, tagging may appear to be a basic skill but at the younger levels, a young player is actually under a lot of pressure in these tagging situations. There might be a lot of action that a player must process before attempting to tag out a runner such as watching a play develop ( like a run down) ,then becoming an important part of that play by receiving the ball, and finally making the crucial tag for the out. What an infielder must remember is that they must tag the runner with the ball. For example, during a run down, if the infielder has the ball in their throwing hand but makes the tag with just the glove minus the ball then the runner is not out. When an infielder must tag out a sliding runner it is important as discussed earlier to receive the ball first then attempt the tag. Also, when the tag is attempted, it is important to get the tag down low and target the body part of the runner that is coming in first such as the foot or the hand. If the ball arrives in enough time before the runner, drop the tag to the base and let the sliding runner slide in to the tag. Practicing these types of plays will not only be good practice for the infielders but also for the runners who can practice their sliding technique among other skills.
One of the most beautiful sights that a baseball coach can witness is the execution of a proper rundown during a game. For this to happen, it will be very important to practice how to execute a proper rundown. Simple rundown drills involving the infield and a baserunner will help the infield master the art of the rundown. The first part of skill to master is the proper throws for a rundown. Start your drill by splitting your players in half and have them practice running to a player at the opposite base and throwing the ball outside the throwing arm side of the base path at the correct time. Next, add a runner. Start the drill by instructing the runner to start off the base ( it can be any base) and then throw the ball to an infielder to start the rundown phase of the drill. Practice every scenario possible so the infield will become used to the different scenarios that they could see in a game. Make sure all the infielders understand their assignment and responsibilities for a given scenario. It is also important to stress the importance of limiting long throws and the importance of shorter, accurate throws that will help trap a base runner. Once the infield looks to be comfortable with one base runner, add a second base runner to complicate matters and challenge the players.
Turning Double Plays
To turn a double play, it takes great fielding, quick hands, excellent throws, and good foot work. The quickest, most efficient way to begin teaching the concept of turning a double play is to simply have the infielders practice throwing the ball “around the horn” in both directions. Hit the ball to different positions to start the drill and instruct which direction the ball is going (for example if the ball is starting with the catcher then yell out if it’s going to third or first base). As the ball goes “around the horn” the infielders can practice both force plays and tag plays. Later, base runners can be added to the drill. The entire time, the focus should be on the fundamentals needed to turn a double play such as quick release, proper footwork, and efficient throws. When the infielders seem comfortable with this drill then move on to specific types of double plays such as the 6-4-3 double play. During the practice of specific double plays, the proper execution of that specific play can now be broken down for the infielders to understand and grasp.
Properly defending the bunt will depend on teaching the infielders what their assignments and responsibilities are for any given bunt play. It is also helpful to know whether your league allows slash bunts where a player squares to bunt , pulls the bat back and takes a full swing. If they don’t, you can instruct players to charge any time a player squares to bunt. Again, every scenario should be practiced such as taking the out at first base verses attempting to “cut down” the lead runner. At more advanced levels, you will want to implement some variation of the wheel play where non charging players cover bases.
Defensive Position Specific Skills
#1 Middle Infielders ( Shortstop and Second Baseman)
Not only will the middle infielders have to learn what their assignments are on a given play and practice how to be a good cut off man but they will also have to learn to communicate with each other. Communication will be the key to establishing who will take a throw at second or who will be the cut off man on a given play. The middle infielders will also need to work on taking throws from the catcher and then applying the tag on a runner attempting to steal second. Turning double plays will also greatly depend on the relationship between the middle infielders.
#2 Third Base
The third baseman will be responsible for being the primary defender against the bunt on the left side of the field in addition to being the guy that must efficiently defend the “hot corner”. The third baseman will also have to develop a good “back hand” against balls hit sharply on the line. A third baseman will also have to learn when to cut off ground balls going to the shortstop ( remember on this play a third baseman will have a better angle for a throw to second or first). The third baseman will make a lot of plays that require throwing on the run so practicing this skill is also a good idea.
#3 First Base
I believe sometimes on Little League teams that the outfield position is not given enough attention or in some unfortunate cases enough respect. I feel this is sometimes true of the first base position. If a first baseman is not given enough attention and taught the proper fundamentals it can be disastrous for the players attempting to play the position as well as the team. A first baseman must be taught proper receiving techniques. Also, the first baseman must be taught the proper way to stretch for a ball which includes when they should actually begin to stretch. If a first baseman stretches too early then the hips will lock and they will be unable to properly field a wild throw. The first baseman will also have to learn how to properly field the position which will include defending bunts.
In addition to catching duties related to receiving pitches, the catcher will have to learn how to make infield plays which will include making good throws to all bases and throwing out runners attempting to steal. A catcher shouldn’t be over worked in practice but at the same time should be given adequate time practicing in gear to become comfortable making plays under difficult circumstances. Catchers should also practice how to properly catch pop ups in foul territory as well as in fair territory. Also, a really good drill to help a catcher with defense against pitches “in the dirt” is to throw tennis balls “in the dirt” at a catcher in gear. This drill allows for more practice but reduces the risk of injury and is challenging due to the bouncy nature of the tennis ball. If the catcher can become good at defending the more challenging tennis ball then they will certainly be able to handle the less elusive hard ball. Lastly the catcher will also have to learn the all important tag play at home plate which will include proper positioning based on where the throw is coming from. As discussed earlier, the key will be first receiving the ball and then making the tag.
The pitcher must learn how to properly field their position and must learn to ready themselves before their pitch reaches the batter. It will be very important for a pitcher to practice covering first base when necessary and learn when they should be covering the plate or backing up the catcher.
There is no denying that the infield is very difficult for young players. Unfortunately, young players can also start to have the attitude that playing the infield is more like having a job and that’s not what should be happening at the Little League level of play. After, physical errors like “booting” a ground ball, a coach should be giving words of encouragement like “Get’em next time”. Mental errors like throwing to the wrong base of course are going to happen too and should also be addressed in a positive manner. To promote less mental mistakes, a coach could run a mental skills drill challenge at practice. For example, the player who makes the fewest mental errors in practice will get five extra pitches at batting practice. Find ways to reward different players each week for good decision making. Finding different ways to teach and have fun at the same time will be the key to having a successful, happy Little League team!