The Framework for Fielding a Ground Ball
by Erika Smyth
As fans of the sport, we all love the homerun hitters and the offensive numbers that get put up in a game. Unlike many baseball and softball fans, I was an outlier when it came to this. As a young girl and Washington state native, I was (and still am) the biggest Seattle Mariners fan. My dad and I would watch the Mariners every game day on the tiniest, Michael-Scott-sized television (see The Office Season 4, Episode 13: "Dinner Party" here) after he got home from work – this is how I grew my softball IQ and first started learning how to field.
I loved and obsessed over watching a defense work and make plays: the more ground balls, the better. Granted, I also did not hit my first homerun until I turned 18 years old as a senior in high school (I am 5’3” with not a lot of muscle, SUE ME), so it makes sense that I wasn’t as interested in Bret Boone’s homeruns as much as I was with his footwork on a double play.
My garage took a beating just about every day from throwing a racquetball against it so I could field on my own. Working on backhands, lateral movements, and tough plays were always the most fun and challenging parts of my fielding sessions. These difficult plays have a low expectation of success, there is less time to think, and the play is impressive if you make it – it’s a win-win situation whether you make the play or not. However, the most vital practice I put in was by far the most boring: routine ground balls.
To be honest, I am aware that this may also be a boring topic for you to learn about in a blog post. I thank you for hanging with me and keeping an open mind to its importance. We underestimate the value of this practice because it’s a ball hit right at you and that’s a play that should be made, hence why it’s called routine. We all love the flashy plays, but there’s a reason why we position ourselves as an infield and outfield in spots where we expect the ball to go to.
The routine plays are monotonous and redundant to practice, I GET IT. But they are the most common putout made in a 7-inning game. They’re also the foundation of our approach to making the tougher, much more exciting plays. My time as a Gopher Softball player truly taught me the importance of the broken-down intricacies of routine plays and repetition. We worked on and talked about them every day. Every. Day.
I have a short, general philosophy and framework on fielding a ground ball at all ages and skill set levels. We must have intent with every rep, start low in an athletic position, stay low, and come through the ball to close ground and create our own short hop. Here is how I break it down:
The Framework of Fielding a Ground Ball
PRACTICE WITH INTENT - Whether it’s hitting in the cages, taking grounders on the field, or pitching in your garage, we will never get better at any skill if we do not practice with intent. It’s easy to take reps of routine grounders and get away with not doing the little things correctly. Defensive reps are monotonous – you must hold yourself accountable and stay focused and present during this time. If the direction you are being given is unclear, always ask WHY you are doing it so you can better apply it.
START LOW - We need to be in an athletic position as the pitch is crossing the plate. I put an emphasis on the less glove movement the better, keep your glove out vs. messing around with it (touching it with your throwing hand, flipping it upon approach, etc.). We are bending our knees, staying low, expecting the ball (HUGE!), and staying athletic on the balls of our feet.
STAY LOW – As we continue to move forward towards the grounder, we must continue to stay low with our approach. Field the ball off our glove-side foot and out in front. It is so important to stay low and react UP vs. starting high and reacting down – if we start high and react down, this is when the ball goes between our legs or tips off our glove. We want to stay low, have our chest over the ball, eyes following the ball into the glove, and reacting up if we do get a tougher hop.
COME THROUGH THE BALL – There is no such thing as a bad hop if you are aggressive (kind of). In softball we must be aggressive because the game is so fast. Any advantage we can get as fielders is huge. Moving through the ball and closing ground allows us to create our own short hop and get closer to our target at 1st base. Fielding back on our heels is when we become a backboard and the ground ball eats us alive. We are always on the balls of our feet, using our legs to move through the grounder, coming through to get the short hop, and staying low as we transition into our throwing position.
How to Teach the Proper Framework of Fielding a Ground Ball
There are a handful of drills that can help us touch up on the framework of fielding a ground ball. Short hops, resistance band work, right-left footwork, and repetition are some drills that can improve our fielding approach. One of my favorite drills I teach is demonstrated in the video below:
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
Defense wins games! Specifically, defense saved and won the University of Minnesota softball team our first Big Ten Championship (see my ring finger #B1GChamps) in 15 years during our 2014 season (shout out Tyler Walker for the game saving catch in the top of the 7th). The only way we can get better is with practice, just make sure that there is always intention behind each rep!