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I normally write about hitting. However, everything I've discovered in hitting was made possible because of my fielding abilities. In college, I was able to essentially "buy myself more time in the lineup" because of my fielding. How many college shortstops would still have a starting position after hitting .197? Not very many. But I did. And it was only because I turned heads in the field. So in a way, this is about hitting.
But let me be clear, I am not talking about fielding percentage. Although I had one of the best fielding percentages in the league, and fielding percentage is important. Obviously you have to make the routine plays. But I realized early on, that it is the one or two spectacular plays during the course of a season, that solidifies your reputation.
Let's face it, job security in baseball is important. And even coaches are subject to putting a defensive label on players. Do you think coaches look at your fielding stats to determine whether you are better than the next guy? Maybe. But mostly they think of one or two plays that you fumbled or came through on in the clutch. In their mind, they come to label you as someone they can or can't rely on. Coaches are human too. They are influenced by the drama (I hate to use that word, but it applies here) of the game like everybody else. What to do about it? Make spectacular plays. I'll show you how.
What is the most talked about defensive play in the past ten years? Take a second and think about it. Ok. Got it?
If you said Derek Jeter's flip during the American League playoffs against the Oakland A's in 2001, you are right. It's not even close. And guys, it wasn't a difficult play. The only thing that separates it is that Jeter was out of position - a negative in the proverbial "book of fundamentals!" Jeter's thinking? Once Jeremy Giambi reached base, Jeter said to himself, "We cannot let him score, because he's the tying run." And that thought ruled his actions. People call this play great because of one reason. It's not that it was a physically difficult play. Omar Visquel could make that play in his sleep with one arm while singing the national anthem.
Consider this situation: runners on first and second, less than two outs, slow rolling ground ball to second base. Second baseman flips to shortstop to get the out. What does the shortstop do next? He won't get the guy at first because the ball was hit too slowly. He won't get the guy at third because he's already safely there, right? Wrong. If the guy on third is like 95% of players in this situation, he's rounded third, is twenty or so feet off the base, and has just looked up to see if he can go ahead and score on an overthrow to first. I've dropped jaws in this situation because as a shortstop, I would take the flip, fake the throw to first as I jumped in the air, letting the momentum of my throwing arm rotate my body and reposition my feet to be perfectly set to throw to third. I then blindly send a bullet to third base and pick off the lead runner.
I've had people create nicknames for me from plays like that. And they never stop talking about it. EVER. Most importantly, my coaches never forgot them, and if it came down to me and another player, I got the nod. And plays like this are simple. The way you drop jaws is not just by being talented physically in the field. Obviously that is important, but dropping jaws is done by ANTICIPATION. Coaches often talk about knowing the situation. But it never helped me to just "know a situation." Here's how to really anticipate and create a jaw dropping play (JDP):
1. Know the play. I give you some situations below that could get your mind going in creating new plays.
2. Physically practice the play. This is easy, just give it five or ten reps after practice - have a partner or two help you with ground balls or flips. While you are doing it, first visualize the situation happening.
3. Know the Triggers and the "If - Then." Every JDP is preceded by very specific situations. These situations are "triggers" and should trigger you to become aware that a JDP is possible - ie. man on first and second, less than two outs. Then there's the "If - Then." Stay with the same example, as a shortstop, the "if -then" in this situation is - "if a slow ground ball is hit to the second baseman, I am taking his toss and spinning and throwing to third." Coaches: write your Triggers and If - Thens on paper and hand them out to your team. Stop going over situations during practice while 75% of your team is twittling their thumbs.
As you collect JDPs, write them down on paper, along with their triggers and "if - thens." After games, read through the plays and make a mental note of whether you noticed the triggers during the game or not. Doing this will make you more aware of them when they happen.
4. Be Aware in Games and Visualize. This is the step that most coaches never teach and is key in making these plays happen. If you notice a trigger during a game (and good for you if you do), YOU MUST VISUALIZE THE JDP! You can visualize them away from the games for practice and I recommend you do. BUT YOU MUST VISUALIZE THEM DURING THE GAME, ONCE YOU NOTICE THE TRIGGER. See the play unfolding in your mind and you reacting the way you want. In ten seconds, you can visualize the play three times! That is enough to shape your future. Make sure you tell teammates who are involved to be aware of what may happen (ie. whisper : "hey third baseman, I'm coming to you on a slow roller to second").
It is an amazing feeling when you visualize the play in your mind and then it ACTUALLY HAPPENS. You'll see. And make sure you enjoy the amazed silence of other players and the crowd. Great feeling.
DEVELOP YOUR LIST OF JDPs -
1. Learn to ask yourself often during games, "What if this happened?" Every time a pitch is thrown, a new situation develops. Is the runner on third slow? Could you throw him out if a ground ball is hit to you? What if the hitter pulls a line drive? What if he pulls a slow roller? What if he pulls a high pop up?
2. Try these (all are from the perspective of a shortstop, but you'll get the idea if you play somewhere else):
a. Man on first, less than two outs, runner goes, hitter smacks a base hit or pop up to right field. This is a decoy opportunity for the shortstop. Simply put your hands in front of your chest as if awaiting a throw from the second baseman as you run to second. This is enough to make the runner think you are turning two, and he slides into the bag. If it's a base hit, you've kept him at second. If it's a pop up, you just turned a double play by doubling him off at first base.
b. Fast runner on first, slow runner at the plate. Line drive hit right at you. Let the ball hit your glove and drop to the ground. Force the fast guy out at second, then throw to first and get the slow guy. One out turns into two. At the very least (only get one out), you've taken a fast guy off the bases and put a slow guy on.
c. Have trouble with your team's bunt defenses? You aren't alone. Ask your coach to go through the different plays and when to do each. Know the triggers and the "if - thens." THEN VISUALIZE THEM. It's a waist of time for the coach to go through all these plays while his entire team is on the field and extremely inneffective. All he has to do is get his team to visualize them unfolding - that is the key. It is each player's resposibility to go over them in his mind - it saves time and energy, is more effective, and allows the team to work on other things. You can do 100 repetitions in your mind for every three repetitions on the field. Use time on the bus or pregame warm-up for your visualizing different plays.