We're talkin' softball...
August 7, 2009 12:22 AM   Subscribe

Softball-Hack-Filter: I joined my company's softball game, which we play weekly. I've been at it a few games now and haven't embarrassed myself too much yet, but what sort of tips and rules of thumb can help me be a more confident and competent player?

I've been an MLB fan since I was a kid, so I'm pretty familiar with a lot of the principles of the game, but other than a few casual games in my youth I've never been in any organized league.

I've looked around on the web a lot but mostly find advice for real novices and have been looking more for stuff just above that. I know there's potentially tons of advice to be given, but I'd like to know if there's anything in particular that you learned that really opened your eyes and made you wish you'd known it earlier. Or of any useful online videos or sites. One insightful book I skimmed through was "Baseball's Sixth Tool."

I play outfield, and one interesting tip I've read is to judge incoming balls relative to the brim of the cap (if it goes above it, it's likely to require moving back). Another is how a ball hit by a lefty to LF will tend to veer towards the foul line (and vice versa), though I don't know how much that equates in softball. Anything more along these lines, esp in regards to catching those tricky (and scary) line drives?

One source of frustration is my weak arm. I was not blessed with Ichiro-like fast-twitch muscle fibers, but is there any way to add a little more zip to my throw? And the extra size of the softball makes me feel like throwing for distance will cause my shoulder to explode, so I often just sort of fling it while playing catch.

For the record, this is slow-pitch, no stealing/leadoffs, no bunts, and (for any hitting advice) we start with a 1-1 count, and foul balls hit with 2 strikes are considered an out. And I'm more of the David Eckstein mold than the Albert Pujols one. Thanks in advance.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Little league advice that I found applied when playing beer-league last year, and coaching an LL team myself later.

Back up everything, even plays that MLB players wouldn't bother with. That means back up every other outfielder, and charge ground balls on the assumption that the infielder will miss them. Back up third on hits to right, and so on. Consider every ball "yours" until someone else makes the play, no matter how far away the play is from you.

Make sure the other outfielders know to always back you up, so you're not afraid to charge a ball, dive, or otherwise risk letting it get past you. If you know the other guys are there right behind you, you'll be more aggressive and steal more outs.

For positioning, cheat on hitter handedness. Remember where and how they hit before, and cheat on that, too. If they look like Eckstein, play ten steps in until they prove you shouldn't.

After the pitcher, make adjustments based on their swing, especially if they miss or foul one off. If you're good, you can start moving on the swing, instead of waiting to judge the ball. You can spot a pull swing before contact. Start moving to the pull field immediately. Contrarily, you know that an outside pitch is almost certainly going to the opposite field. React immediately.

The outfield throw is different than the infield throw: it's much more of a whole-arm catapult than the wrist-and-elbow throws infielders (and pitchers) make. You might need someone to teach you, but if you want games with that in mind, you might see what I mean.

Teach your entire team how to line up for a proper cutoff. You shouldn't be trying to throw a strike to home plate with your noodle. But if you get a nice cutoff lined up, the ball will get their faster anyway.

Tape your ankles. Wear sunscreen.
posted by rokusan at 12:33 AM on August 7, 2009 [4 favorites]

A really helpful tip for outfielders is to run on your on the balls of your feet - it helps with the problem of the ball "bouncing" in the air, an impression you get because you bob up and down as you run. Try it out during a practice - it can make a huge difference. And while you're at it, always use two hands - a worthwhile little league mantra.

And like rokusan said, cutoffs are hugely important. A proper cutoff not only can help deal with a weaker arm, but is often the difference between runners staying put or advancing another base.

I also play the same type of softball, and in slow pitch leagues, people pull the ball ALL the time. If you're in left and a righty is up, it's fairly certain (especially if he/she is a power hitter) they will pull it to left. There are plenty of exceptions of course, but it's quite common.

When you're hitting, it's extremely tempting to uppercut those high, lazy pitches. Try t swing level, or even a tiny bit down - otherwise it's almost guaranteed you'll pop up or ground out. If you find yourself swinging early on pitches (quite common), get a heavier bat. And vice versa if you're swinging too late.

Have fun!
posted by ORthey at 1:52 AM on August 7, 2009

is there any way to add a little more zip to my throw

It really is a lot more about technique than muscle. You should be using your whole body on each throw -- like most sporting motions a lot of the power comes from the hips and legs. If you haven't yet gotten the hang of throwing with a "crop hop" you definitely need to work on that. I'm not really sure how to describe it in words; better to watch one of the players with a cannon and note what's happening with their hips and feet. Even on short throws where you don't have time to do the whole crow hop, you still have to draw from your lower body to get speed.

And it's extremely important to warm up properly. This means throwing short distances softly and gradually increasing the distance and speed. It's also necessary to keep warm by throwing during the inning shifts -- you and the other outfielders should bring an extra ball with you every time you take the field and throw a few times before the batter gets ready.

To work on arm strength/technique really you need practice days with your team. The best way is to just partner up and throw with someone for a while, while both of you gradually keep moving farther and farther apart until you're both hurling it as far as you can. Obviously you need to partner with someone of the same approximate arm condition, otherwise you run into the awkward situation where the person with the stronger arm keeps backing up because they want to throw farther and the weaker armed person keeps getting closer because they can't quite make the throw at all.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:53 AM on August 7, 2009

s/crop/crow/, sorry
posted by Rhomboid at 1:54 AM on August 7, 2009

Definitely back everything up.

Also, keep perspective. Getting too competitive can ruin a lot of the fun. Some people get crazily aggressive out there. This is even a worse personality trait on a company team.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:36 AM on August 7, 2009

It's easier to run forward than backwards, so when you're in the outfield and the batter hits a fly ball toward you, back up and then run forward if you need to. The reverse is more difficult, not to mention that, if you're going to miss the ball, it's much better to have it bouncing in front of you than bouncing behind you.
posted by smorange at 4:37 AM on August 7, 2009

Learn to hit to right field consistently. With a little practice, it's not hard to do, and teams usually stick their absolutely least competent player there, so you can hit it right at em and still end up with a double.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 4:43 AM on August 7, 2009

Go spend time at a batting cage. It will help improve your timing and your confidence at bat. Before you focus on trying to hit the ball in specific locations, just focus on getting a nice level swing as suggested above. Learn the mechanics of the batter's stance and swing, which go something like this (for right handed batters):

1) Keep your back elbow level with your lower left arm or raised above it.
2) When you begin the swing, do so by taking a very short step forward with your left foot.
3) As you swing, pivot on the ball of your left foot (turning your left leg toward the picture)
3.5) Keep your head down as you swing, the good ol' maxim, keep your eye on the ball.
4) When you finish your swing, your head should not be pointed at the sky, but actually pointed down in the direction where your bat should have hopefully made contact.

What's important in this form is getting your hips to swing forward. This is where a true batter gets a good amount of power in hitting the ball, not by beefing up like a weight lifter.

I recommend watching some clips of ball players as they hit and breaking down how they swing. Not all players have good swings, but they generally apply the above mechanics in some form or another.

As for fielding catches in the outfield, it just takes practice to judge how high and far a hit will go. A basic tip is that regardless of where that ball is hit in the sky toward you, start off by taking a half step or step back (even if you end up running forward).

You can also use your glove to block out the sun until it's time to catch the ball.

Figure out how to do the crow hop correctly, as mentioned above, that's a very useful technique to get some extra zing on throwing the ball to the infield and is taught to every outfielder worth their salt.
posted by Atreides at 5:28 AM on August 7, 2009

Lots of good points by rokusan and the gang.

With regards to judging fly balls, the best way is just to practice. After a while you'll start to get a better idea of how a ball will travel as it leaves the bat. It's really just one of those things you need to get a feel for, I think. On one of my work leagues, we used to show up to the field an hour or two before game and have some batting practice with everyone else in the field shagging balls. This was a good way to learn to judge pop flies.

With throwing, again, practice will help. Rhomboid makes some good points. Growing up, I was always small and never had a good arm. One thing that helped was when I realized it was less about the elbow and more about the arm/shoulder/body action, at least in terms of power. It's less about spinning around and more about moving yourself and the ball forward.

Make sure to warm up sufficiently or you'll throw out your arm, which is especially easily done when you're trying to make a put-out at home on a cold arm. No fun.
posted by Tu13es at 5:29 AM on August 7, 2009

Someone who can't type broke into my office and impersonated the "pro" writer, clearly.

...after the pitcher pitch, make adjustments....
...if you want watch games with that in mind...
...the ball will get their there faster anyway...

That last one in particular makes me reconsider decaf. Yoikes.
posted by rokusan at 6:01 AM on August 7, 2009

If you're allowed to pitch, practice throwing the ball as high in the air as you can while still throwing strikes. A ball that's coming down vertically is much harder to hit than one that's coming towards you parallel to your swing. I used to do this when I pitched for my intramural team in college and would routinely get all ground ball innings, which is hard to do in softball where everyone is trying to unload.

When you're hitting, really concentrate on staying back with your weight until you're ready to swing. In slow-pitch softball it's tempting to sort of drift forward as the pitch floats towards you, but that will rob you of your power. You want to stay back, and maybe even turn slightly away from the pitcher (show him your back pocket, as they used to say in little league) until you begin to swing.
posted by thebergfather at 6:50 AM on August 7, 2009

One thing I learned by playing in a league that sounds very similar to yours is to not stop running around the bases until the other team is almost certain to tag you out. On any ball hit to the outfield I was always expecting to get to second base. Even if they field the ball cleanly and throw it in, the throw is likely to be at least 10 feet off target and you will be safe at second. After talking with the organizer of my team, I decided for a couple of games to just keep running around the bases without stopping and scored something like 9 times while making one out on the basepaths. This worked really well for us. We stopped just running constantly against really good teams whose outfield throws hit the cutoff man and whose other throws are generally accurate, but you can essentially count on most teams and players not being able to throw you out at a base very often.
posted by battlecj at 7:27 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

When playing left or right field, the ball ALWAYS slices towards the line, no matter who hits it. I don't know why.

So, on a ball hit over you, your default turn in towards the line. In fact, position yourself with the line foot slight behind the other. That will give you the impetus.

If sliding is allowed, practice in a sand pit, or on the grass, and get good at it.
posted by Danf at 8:03 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

The best advice is practice. Try to get some people to stay around after a game and hit fly balls at you. People love hitting fly balls, it's fun.

It is often tricky to judge a ball hit directly at you. However, if you're in left field, the right and center fielders should have a better view. Thus they should shout "short!!" if it is going to drop in front of you, or "deep!" if it is going over your head. You should do the same for them.

For line drives, follow the ball with your glove. Some beginners wait for the ball to arrive and then stab at it, which increases the chance that they'll misjudge it. Open your glove and track the ball as it comes to you.

Pay attention to positioning. In a softball league this can make a big difference since some players can really slug it and some can hardly hit at all. You should play shallow for the weak players and deep for the strong players. The coach or center fielder should be making these calls, but you can help. Try to remember the players and how well they can hit.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:19 AM on August 7, 2009

+1 I am in the same situation.. Joined the team but haven't ever played before. Thanks to the OP and everyone who replies.. :P
posted by bbyboi at 8:58 AM on August 7, 2009

BattleCJ's tactic is called "forcing errors". In any league with not great players, it will definitely work, but depending on where your team and league falls on the whole competitive-vs-fun scale, it could be also be seen as dickishly bad sportsmanship, so be careful.

(Same goes for lobbing little dinky hits to the frightened looking girl in right field. Not classy.)
posted by rokusan at 9:07 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thus they should shout "short!!" if it is going to drop in front of you, or "deep!"

Ha. I was drilled with "go-go-GO!" (for charging) and "back-back-BACK!" as a kid.

I wonder if it's regional.
posted by rokusan at 9:08 AM on August 7, 2009

Go out into your backyard and swing your bat, over and over. Turn your hips, keep your forward elbow in. Stay balanced on your feet; in fact, stay forward a bit. Do this until you've swung the bat a thousand times. This will help your hitting more than anything else, as you will stop thinking about your swing when you actually hit.

Find a friend and play catch. Get gradually farther and farther apart until you're throwing the ball a long way. If you're right-handed, you throw by swinging your left shoulder. That twist in your whole body gives you your distance. Again, about a thousand throws will take you to the point where you stop thinking about i.

When you're hitting, study a speck on the ball. See it so clearly you could draw it afterwards. If you're looking at a speck on the left side of the ball, hit to right field, and vice versa. Wait and wait and wait for the ball. Then start your swing by showing your butt to the pitcher.

If you're in the outfield, never throw to home if there's anyone else on the basepaths. I mean never. It just isn't worth it; 96% of the time the runner scores and all the other runners get an extra base or two. Teach your whole team to eat the ball and hold the runners on. Just scream: "Eat it, eat it." Make it a team culture. It isn't easy because some men get their pride all wounded about this.
posted by argybarg at 9:42 AM on August 7, 2009

And just to weigh in:

The endless running on the basepaths, forcing errors, is an asshole move and other teams will rightly hate you. So is (and I've seen this) charging at the infielders like an oaf or smashing the catcher out of the way. Obviously, you make the call on what matters to you in playing softball.

Hitting to right field, however, is not an asshole move. First of all, not that many people can do it; most who try wind up popping up to the infield. It takes some skill, unlike running endlessly. Second of all, most right-handed hitters lose power by hitting to right field, so at least some of the advantage cancels itself out.
posted by argybarg at 9:56 AM on August 7, 2009

You're getting a lot of solid advice.

As a fellow relatively inexperienced outfielder, my defensive tip for fielding a pop fly would be this:

If at all possible (usually on high flies), don't just stand beneath the ball and wait for it to drop. Instead, try to get a few steps behind that spot and as the ball descends move into position to catch it as you move towards the infield.

That way your momentum will help you get a little extra zip on your throws. It might take a little bit of practice, but I've found it has helped my rag arm.

At the very least, stop running and set yourself before you fire a rocket back into the infield. Even if you don't have the strongest arm on the team, you'll still have a better chance of being accurate and getting the ball to the cutoff.

Have fun and good luck!
posted by YFiB at 12:15 PM on August 7, 2009

I figure you've already researched this, but just in case, learn how to grip the softball. I had to switch from a two-fingered baseball grip to a four-fingered grip in order to properly secure my throw. Middle finger on the middle of the ball, thumb opposite on the bottom of the ball, let your fingers drop. Make sure you have a "pocket" between the ball and your palm; this lets you complete the throwing motion with the wrist.

For more power behind your throw, I assume you've already got the basic body mechanics behind the kinetic chain (feet, hips, shoulder, elbow, wrist, fingers). As an outfielder, you can use the "crow hop" to gain some added momentum behind your throw. This also works at the end of your running start in fielding the ball. That's more of an intermediate-level thing, though; you'll need some coordination and practice so that you're not tripping over your own feet.

Another "perhaps you already know." If your outfield is anything like mine, you'll do a lot of running. Your ready position is different from that of an infielder; you should be a bit more upright instead of low, ready to start sprinting.

We also implemented the practice of having two players act as cut-off. This helps for long distances and weaker arms, but it takes some getting used to. Essentially for those big hits, you assume that the runner will automatically reach second (at least). You have one person acting as the first cut-off running out to shorten the throwing distance, and a second person closer to the infield acting as the cut-off for the next throw.
posted by CancerMan at 1:35 PM on August 7, 2009

Since you put David Eckstein out there, he made it to the MLB because he is great at doing the small things that a team needs to win. These things are often intangible and tough to describe, but a few examples would be sprinting upon making contact at the plate to hustle out infield hits, consistently getting on base and letting others bat him around, and being consistent in the field.

If you have ever watched Eckstein throw, he literally uses his whole body just to get it across the infield. His arm strength is almost laughable, but he always makes the right play and in many situations, that is more important than gunning someone down from your knees. Get some tips from the guys with good arms on the team. Often, a good arm is more about technique than muscle mass.

While the destination of a throw may not be as clear cut in the outfield, the same general rules apply. With each batter, plan out the scenarios for where you will make the play. Certainly in softball, it is important to hit your cutoff man to get the ball in as soon as possible, because the one hopper to the plate is nearly impossible.

Another tip, with runners on base and a pop fly on the way, back up a few steps from where you anticipate catching it. When it comes down and you do catch it, your body will be moving forward and in throwing position allowing you to get more velocity on your throw.

Have fun. It sounds like you are doing well.
posted by clearly at 5:32 PM on August 7, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments. Had a pretty good batting practice as far as solid contact went, although I couldn't quite get it to the opposite field. Unfortunately it didn't carry over into the game, as I struck out looking and then grounded out.

A problem I have with hitting in the game is that with only two strikes, I often find myself needing to swing at almost anything close after the first strike, and when I've put the ball in play, it's been grounders to the left side every time (save for one liner to short). Any advice on how to approach hitting with those rules? Unfortunately, fouling pitches off to stay alive is not an option.

I'm not sure if I'm swinging too late (and thus hitting the top of the ball because it dropped too much), or if the high approach of the ball makes me swing just above it. But again, it's not a problem in BP.

Also, I ended up at catcher this time, and I had a hell of a time throwing back to the pitcher at times (throwing wide to his left). It was a serious case of the yips/Knoblauch-itis. I arrived late for the pre-game practices, so I only got fielding in and no tossing. The only problem I've had before with playing catch is my throw dipping and coming up short, rather than missing left or right.

I think it has to do with not knowing where to place the pinky, and the ball slipping out between the ring finger and pinky. It seems like the extra finger would slow the ball down a bit, but if not, should the pinky be on top with the other fingers, or a little lower?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 5:16 PM on August 9, 2009

I think it has to do with not knowing where to place the pinky.

The pinky?

Maybe I am strange, but from the time I was throwing a baseball at six years old through to today, when it's usually a beer-league softball... I grip and throw with two fingers and a thumb. I just picked up a baseball from my shelf to make sure I wasn't imagining this, too. The other two outside fingers do nothing. They're not even clenched.

If you have time, and this is a trick I learned as a child-shortstop, you learn to instinctively roll or shuffle the ball around in your hand for a half-second to "find" a seam to grip with those two fingers. Even if you use those rubberized softballs that have no real stiches, it helps you get a truer spin. If you're throwing without "holding" a seam, your throw will often sail. I find a seam without thinking whenever taking a ball out of my glove or even in mid-windup before throwing. I don't think about this anymore, it's just automatic, and I'm sure if you told me to stop I could not.

My release (and I'm no MLB gold-glover but I am a decent fielder, and I win all those milk-jug contests at the fairgrounds!) includes pulling those two fingers down, as if I'm making "air quotes". Again, this pulling down on the ball adds spin, which equals straightness.

(If there are any pro coaches who can point out that these habits are bad, I'll believe you, but it was drilled into me in childhood and worked well enough. I haven't thought about them for decades.)
posted by rokusan at 7:23 AM on August 10, 2009

IANABattingCoach. If you are a right-handed batter and you're hitting constantly to the left, it could mean that you're swinging too quickly and pulling the ball. It seems to be the case if you say that during BP you're getting solid contact, so perhaps it's the excitement or tension of the actual game that's making you jump on the ball.

I have this problem when I'm batting; I can delay my swing all I want, but in my excitement I try to whip my arms around because I instinctly want to get my bat on the ball before it passes me. I'm used to baseball and I incorrectly anticipate the speed of the ball versus the speed of my bat. As a result, I don't get full extension of my arms and I'm not using my hips, relying instead only on my arms. What I end up with are small grounders to third or short.

Unfortunately, I have no advice beyond what I'm trying to do myself. I basically need to learn to relax and take a deep breath as the ball reaches its zenith and begins its approach. Then I think I have to temper my swing and concentrate on working the mechanic whilst keeping my eyes on the contact point. I have yet to try this, but I'm thinking of hitting the ball as it passes right in front of me. That means I'll have to really keep my eyes on the softball; are you doing the same?

I'm also using a heavier bat to help slow my swing down, and get some weight behind the impact. I don't know if that's the recommended advice or not.

Otherwise, you're right in thinking that you need to swing at whatever's close when you're on the verge of striking out. I'd rather put the ball in play and force a throw than strike out looking. Keep your eyes on the ball and try to remember the motion you had during BP, and adjust to make contact with the ball.
posted by CancerMan at 1:20 PM on August 10, 2009

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