Saturday, May 23, 2009

Defensive Outfield Rules and Priorities

By Steven Michael
Defense in baseball is both an individual and team function. Being a good defensive outfielder requires correct fundamentals and focused practice. Playing good defense also requires that the players on the field work together. Each player must know the responsibilities of his position. They must back each other up and communicate clearly. And they must know the priorities to which each team member is subject.

When the ball is hit out to the field of play, each defensive position has responsibilities. The players must know where to position themselves. They must also anticipate the play and re-position themselves correctly.

As defensive teammates, each outfielder needs to "pick each other up" as the saying goes. Backing-up fellow outfielders and infielders is key. Covering for each other, and covering the field well, requires following assigned priorities. To do all of these things mandates clear and unambiguous communication.

The center fielder is the "field general" of the outfield. He is considered the best fielder in the outfield. He is most likely the fastest runner of the three outfielders too. Lastly, he is in the middle of the field and well-positioned to see all parts of the outfield better than the corner outfielders.

If the center fielder and a corner outfielder both go after a hit ball, the center fielder has priority to it. This rule assumes that both outfielders have an equal chance to field the ball! This qualification is important to note.

Unfortunately, I have seen two problems with stating this rule to players, or of not informing outfielders of the rule. The first problem usually happens in youth baseball. One of the corner outfielders takes this rule a little too seriously. This results in the corner outfielder not aggressively pursuing a hit ball because "you told me the center fielder should take everything". And the ball ends up very close to him without any attempt at catching it.

The second problem of not understanding, or even knowing, this rule is player collisions. Both the center fielder and a corner outfielder run after a hit ball and neither gives way to the other. Nothing good can come from this situation. The center fielder has priority to catch the ball when both he and a corner outfielder have a good chance at it. In these situations, both outfielders should communicate that they will catch it - they both "call" for the ball.

The center fielder should recognize that they have both called for the ball, and he should continue to call for it. When the corner outfielder hears the center fielder call for the ball, he should immediately veer off and back-up the center fielder. It is important that outfielders understand the nuances of this rule. It does not mean he center fielder should take every ball hit to the outfield. Further, it does not mean that if a corner outfielder calls for the ball first that he has a "right" to the ball. It means only this: if the center fielder calls for the ball, the corner outfielders should give way and back-up the play.

On fly balls, or pop-ups, behind an infielder, the outfielder has priority on the catch. This assumes that both the infielder and outfielder can reach the ball. How do they know if they can reach it? Both the infielder and outfielder should run to the fly ball, and not quit, until they hear the other player call for the ball. Infielders are taught, or they should be, to go after pop-flies until they hear an outfielder call them off. If they don't hear the outfielder, they continue to run and attempt to catch the ball.

Now outfielders have to be smart on these plays. Just because an outfielder has priority does not mean he must take the ball. There are many instances where the outfielder has to run full stride to make the catch. Meanwhile, the infielder is standing under the ball in perfect position. Why is this a defensive rule? It's because the outfielder is running forward and the infielder is running backward, or backpedaling. And remember, it's easier and faster to run forward for a catch than to run backward.

Another reason is back-spin, and/or side-back-spin of the ball. Pop-ups near the middle of the diamond have back-spin. This makes the ball move farther away from the infield as it descends. That means it is moving toward the outfielder and away from the infielder. Much easier play for the outfielder. Maybe you've seen a catcher try to catch a pop-up in foul ground behind the plate. Once in a while a youthful catcher will start to backpedal as the ball is descending. Did he misjudge it? Did he overrun the ball? Yes and yes. But this happened because back-spin is moving the ball toward fair territory. Experienced catchers know this and approach the catch from the infield side of the ball, not the backstop side.

When a pop-up is hit down either foul line, the ball has side-back-spin. This makes the ball move toward center field as it descends. This is a really tough play for first and third basemen. It's a little easier for shortstops and second basemen. And it's very easy for left and right fielders - if they can get to the catch target.

Steven E. Michael played seven years of professional baseball in the Montreal Expos, Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers organizations. He played collegiately at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona earning All-Western Athletic Conference, All-College World Series, and Sporting News All-America honors.

His new book, "How To Play Baseball Outfield: Techniques, Tips, and Drills to Learn the Outfield Position" is available at
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