Outfield Defense: How To Read the Ball
by Steven E. Michael
Amazing catches from outfielders are really fun to watch. Highlights on evening sports shows are filled with outfielders and their spectacular plays. Most times the grabs made by outfielders defy logic. People say, "How did he make that catch?" "That looked like a sure triple didn't it?" "That guy wasn't anywhere near that ball –he seemed to come out of nowhere". So how is it done? Almost all great outfield catches are done by getting a great jump, reading the ball, and taking perfect angles to get to the catch. And while the great outfielders are also really good athletes, athletic prowess alone doesn't make them great outfielders. Effectively working on their jumps, reads and angles makes the catches possible – nothing more, nothing less. In chapter six of my new book, How To Play Baseball Outfield, I explain the best ways to get good jumps, reads, and angles on batted balls. The passage below is an excerpt from that chapter, Reading the Ball.
A big part of getting good jumps is the footwork and principles discussed in the last section. But to know what footwork to use and which direction to run requires the outfielder to read the pitch, the batter, and the ball. This helps to anticipate where the ball will be hit. The only way to be a good reader of a batted ball is to focus on each pitch, each batter, and the direction of the ball.
Read the Pitch
Reading the pitch means watching its location, speed, and travel. Okay, so you know what location and speed are, but what the heck is travel? We'll get in to that last.
Pitch location can be a good indicator for where the ball will be hit. An inside pitch is usually pulled by the hitter. Outside pitches have a high likelihood of being hit to the opposite field. And pitches down the middle or, "right down Broadway", are most apt to be hit in the middle of the field. But there is also the high pitch, which is almost always hit in the air. Low pitches, just the opposite as they are more likely to be hit on the ground. Belt-high pitch proximity can result in line drives, fly balls, or ground balls. However, belt-high pitches are usually hit hard – wherever they go. Location can also show the outfielder the expected force the batter may hit the ball. Pitches down the middle are the easiest for the hitter to put the fat part of the bat on. Outside pitches are tougher to square up. And inside pitches can either jam the hitter (and he hits a weak flare fly ball to the opposite field), or be jolted down the line (when the hitter gets the head of the bat out). So pitch location can give the outfielder insight in to where, and with what force, the batter is likely to hit the pitch. But the outfielder must also see what kind of pitch is thrown. Pitchers have fastballs, sinkers, sliders, curveballs, change-ups, screw-balls, splitters and more. Seeing location and also knowing what types of pitches your pitcher throws can go a long way to helping you read the ball off the bat.
Pitch Type and Speed
Curveballs are slower than sliders, fastballs and splitters. Change-ups can be slower still. The slower the pitch, the better chance the hitter has to put "good wood" on the ball. Or in the case of amateur baseball, good metal. Slower pitches allow the batter more time to get the barrel of the bat to the hitting zone. The extra time the batter gets can sometimes be the difference between popping the ball up, or slamming it over the outfielder's head. By reading the type of pitch and evaluating its speed, the good outfielder factors the information in to his mental evaluation of how hard the batter may hit the ball.
This is closely associated with pitch location. When a pitch travels, it gets deeper in to the hitting zone. How deep it gets before the batter swings depends on the batter. If the batter "lets the ball travel" he allows (or is fooled by) the pitch to get closer to the catcher's Mitt before swinging. Generally, the farther the ball travels in the hitting zone, the more difficult it is for the batter to hit it hard. The exception to this general rule is the outside pitch. Good hitters let the outside pitch travel deeper in order to hit it very hard the opposite way. Good outfielders need to read the pitch location and how far the batter allows the pitch to travel.
Read the Hitter
Pitch travel is only one of the reads the outfielder should make about the hitter. The good outfielder also reads the batter's swing. We can all tell when a batter has put a good swing on a pitch. His swinging motion is quick, seamless, and powerful. We can also see when a batter takes a bad swing. These reads are important to getting a good jump. Lastly, the outfielder uses any prior knowledge about the hitter to his advantage. Where does he hit the ball? What are his swing tendencies? Does he pull all pitches, or does he "hit the ball where it's pitched?". If you don't know anything about a hitter, or hitters, watch their batting practice. See where they hit the ball. Do they let the ball travel on outside pitches? If they hit the ball the other way, does it always spin to the foul line, or do they put back-spin on it? Are they fly ball or ground ball hitters? These and many more questions can be answered by paying attention to your opponent. Don't fool around with your teammates, watch the other team's batting practice and learn how to beat them.
Read the Swing
A lot can be processed by the outfielder by reading the swing of the hitter. Is he off-balance? Did he time the pitch correctly? Is he behind or out in front of the pitch? Did he pull his hands closer to his body to hit the inside pitch? Did the breaking pitch buckle his knees and make him not swing at all? These instantaneous reads are a result of finely-tuned mental focus. The batter's swing also has very slight angle changes. When hitters swing at pitches above the waist, they usually make contact at the underside of the ball. Below the waist swings most likely will hit the top of the ball and ground balls result. But it gets more complicated than that.
When a hitter stays "inside the pitch", it means he has timed it correctly – and he has stored energy in the angle of his wrists. This tells the good outfielder that the hitter could put a charge in to the ball. Even if the batter is off balance, as long as he has a good angle to his wrists, he has the potential to hit the ball hard somewhere. But, if he doesn't have wrist angle, he has little stored energy and probably will not hit the ball very hard.
Growing up, my father always told me to "keep my hands back". What he was so delicately suggesting was to retain my stored energy. Because of this time-proven rule, I have hit home runs when I was completely fooled on a pitch. Outfielders need to read the hitter, and even though he may be off-balance, watch for the stored energy in his wrist angles.
Read the Angle Off the Bat
One of the most useful tips I learned about reading the angles of the bat and the ball came from base running practice. At Arizona State University, we were taught to be very aggressive when on third base. We took pride in the fact that we could score on batted balls that no one else could. The secret to getting great jumps from third base to score was reading the angle that the ball came off the bat. We would practice at third base by focusing solely on the point of contact. If the ball came off the bat downward, we knew it was a ground ball and we were bolting toward home plate. If the ball came off the bat at any other angle than downward, we would freeze and see where the ball went. By putting pressure on the defense to field the ground ball and make a quick and accurate throw to home plate, we forced a lot of infielders to make errors – and extend the big inning. With concerted effort and repetition, I learned to be very good at this. So naturally, I took that skill with me to the outfield. The outfielder needs to read every batted ball possible. Batting practice, fungos, even Pepper can be used to train the eyes and brain to instantly recognize the angle of the ball off the bat.
Read the Sound
To this day I can tell you if a pitch is hit solidly or fouled off – with my eyes closed. And I haven't played competitively for a couple of decades. Reading the angle off the bat is very important for getting good jumps. But the outfielder's sense of hearing should also be used. Wooden bats make it easy to hear solid hits. But, even with aluminum or metal bats, the sound is different when the ball is hit really well. When the outfielder combines the sight of a ball jumping off the hitter's bat, and the sound that it makes, he is well on his way to getting good reads. So what does hearing the bat hit the ball do for you? Obviously, it tells you the batter has hit the ball solidly. Solidly hit balls always have more velocity. More velocity means the ball will travel faster. Faster moving batted balls tell the outfielder where to run to field the ball. And where to run means reading the ball correctly.
I've said before that I have season tickets to the Arizona Diamondbacks games. Without fail, when a hitter really puts a charge in the ball, I know it before anyone around me. My first reaction is to say, "Get out of here" when an Arizona hitter smacks a homer. And I say it at a fraction of a second after contact. The fans sitting around me are not trained to see and hear the ball come off the bat. Their reaction is delayed about one full second after mine. It's all about concentration and repetition. Use every opportunity you have to read the ball off the bat."