Judging the trajectory of a fly ball is something that cannot be taught easily. It’s a skill that young outfielders will develop with practice and repetition. And once that ability becomes second nature to a player, there are a number of techniques he or she will have to learn in order to properly field a fly ball.
Like infielders, outfielders should be on the balls of their feet with their knees bent and their glove and throwing hand in a ready position during each pitch, reacting to each swing of the bat. From this position, outfielders will be able to get the best jump on the ball.
Tip: Teach young outfielders to move on every ball that is hit, even if it is not hit to them. It will improve their alertness and reaction time, as well as their stepping techniques (to be discussed later). Besides, even a right fielder can make himself useful on a groundball to third base by putting himself in a good position to back up an errant throw to first or second (depending on the game situation).
From the ready position, outfielders will improve the jump they get on a fly ball by using proper footwork.
For balls hit in front of and to the side of the outfielder, the first move should be a crossover step.
For balls headed behind the outfielder, the first move should be a drop step to the side that the ball was hit to, then a crossover step.
Fly balls hit directly over the head of an outfielder can be one of the trickiest plays to make in the outfield. In this case, a young player should drop step to whichever position they feel most comfortable fielding in (glove hand vs. throwing hand). However, it is generally taught to have players drop step to their throwing hand side and run back with their glove toward the infield because in the case that the fielder needs to change positions on the ball, switching back to glove side can be easier than vice-versa.
Two very important things that all young outfielders should remember:
- Avoid backpedaling at all costs—it’s slow and will probably cause you to trip.
- It’s better to misjudge a ball and have it fall in front of you than to misjudge and have it go over your head.
That said, after the outfielder makes his or her step out of the ready position, the proper route on the fly ball should be a curl—or what’s sometimes referred to as a “banana route”—with the curve towards the fence, so that the player is essentially going behind the ball and circling back in on it.
Depending on how and where a ball is hit, sometimes a player will have to run as fast as they can directly to the ball to have a chance at catching it. Again, the ability to judge this need will come with experience, but for the inexperienced, taking a direct angle can be dangerous because if they are unable to make the play, the ball will go past them. By taking a deeper angle (the “banana route”), you can circle behind the ball and field it moving forward, putting your body in a much better position to make a strong, accurate throw to the infield. This is especially true with fly balls that a player has plenty of time camp under. If your players are advanced enough, teach them to stay back on the ball until the very last second then, as the ball is falling into a catchable distance, they will be able to run up on the ball and catch it in the same motion, providing extra momentum for a strong throw to the infield—of course, this is only useful when there are runners on base.
Catching the Ball
Again, how and where a ball is hit may not allow an outfielder to establish the ideal form when fielding a ball, but using the aforementioned techniques will put your players in the best position to field using good form.
When possible, fly balls should be caught in front of the body and with two hands. The purpose of using two hands is not just for insurance in case the ball pops out, but it also creates less time that the player will need to transfer the ball from their glove to their throwing hand.
Communication is key. A simple shout of “I got it!” can mitigate the chance of an error, and, more importantly, an injury.
Remember, when fielding a fly ball, the centerfielder’s word (not position) trumps everyone else’s. Corner outfielders should learn to defer to the centerfielder’s call. For shallow fly balls, outfielders have rule over the infielders, so infielders should learn to defer to an outfielder’s call. Why? Because it’s easier to move in on a ball than to move back on a ball.