So often, players and coaches will ask how to increase range. The question is asked in terms of how can we get to more batted balls. While this question is useful to infield play, the goal of increased range should be to increase our ability to make plays at a greater distance from our starting position. An increased range is only helpful if we can complete the play to get outs. So, what are some ways for us to improve our range to get in position to make those plays?
Obviously, the first thing most think of when talking about range is to improve our first step agility and quickness. Those actions can be improved by training and agility ladders. The actions I’m talking about are baseball specific infield movements, as well as visual cues, that allow us to maximize the agility and quickness we already possess.
Proper Prep Step
The most important way to increase our range is to perform a prep step. The prep step gets us in an athletic position and ready to react to a ball put in play in any direction. The way in which we arrive in this athletic position varies with each infielder’s preference. The non-negotiable in the prep step is that it must be performed ON TIME, EVERY pitch of EVERY game all season. A prep step every pitch is self explanatory as it prepares us for the potential ball in play. The “on time” part is what tends to be the hardest to grasp for beginners. The time when the infielder should land their prep step will vary depending on who you talk to. Land too early and your momentum stalls; land too late and you’re playing catch up with a batted ball. Some say land just before the pitch reaches the contact zone (of ball and bat); others say land at contact; others say land just after contact. My opinion says that it depends on your comfort level with the timing and prep steps in general. At the very least, we need to land at contact. Aiming to land at contact allows time for us to land and react. As we get more comfortable with the prep step and the finer details that become more apparent with experience, as I’ll describe below, the fielder can aim to land just before contact for almost a head start on the ball.
Prep Step Angling
Typically, the backhand play is the play that is least likely turned into an out for multiple reasons, and there are statistics/metrics to back that up. How we align our bodies when we land the prep step can have an affect on our range in the backhand direction. This tip will apply more to the middle infielders as they tend to cover more territory being further from home plate than the corner infielders. When we land the prep step, imagine a line from left foot toes to right foot toes. It’s the angle of the toe to toe line that we adjust slightly that will increase our range to the more difficult backhand play. If we take the perspective of the shortstop, the toe to toe line squared to the pitcher limits the pre-set angle in the backhand direction in comparison to the line that’s squared to home plate. The comparison can be seen in Image A, with the white line squared to home plate and the red squared to the pitcher. From the second baseman’s perspective, it’s the opposite, as seen in Image B. If we square the toe to toe line with home plate, it limits our body angle in the backhand direction compared to squaring the line to the pitcher. Increasing angles in the backhand direction (white line for SS and red line for 2B) presets the body to take a deeper angle to the backhand side, which is almost like checking to that side without leaning or moving in that direction. In my mind, aligning this way in order to get more increased range to the backhand side and thus, turning more of those balls into outs, outweighs the possible slight decrease in range to the forehand side. The forehand side is a more comfortable direction for infielders to move in order to make plays because of their momentum toward the target, glove positioning, and possibly the shorter and potentially easier throw. This comfort will make up for the slight change in range going in the forehand direction that may come with this body positioning.
Read Catcher Signs & Don’t Keep A Secret
Both middle infielders need to be locked in on the catcher’s signs to the pitcher on every pitch. This is almost like being given the answers to the test. Knowing what pitch is on its way allows us to anticipate what might happen. We need to use the pitch information to think the game through. Understanding that an offspeed pitch is coming to a right handed hitter should trigger the thought in the shortstop that there’s a good chance this ball will be hit my way and possibly in the 5-6 hole. The same goes for the second baseman with left handed hitters.
The next part of knowing which pitch is coming should be to let our corner infielders and the outfielders know. A simple verbal cue that’s unique to the two of you is all you need to give them a heads up, as mentioned in this quote from Nolan Arenado.
“…Tulo gave me a little key that he was gonna throw an off-speed (pitch). We have a signal system. So I was ready.”Nolan Arenado on the communication with Tulowitzki before off-speed pitches
For the communication to the outfielders, a simple open hand or closed fist behind your back can alert them about which pitch is coming. Consider using a closed fist for fastball and an open hand for off-speed. This knowledge is just as valuable to an outfielder as it is to an infielder.
Read Pitch-Swing Timing
As we get more experience with the prep step both with timing and visual cues, we can move to a more advanced technique for increasing range that calls for us to read the pitch-swing timing. We should still know what pitch is coming, perform a prep step, and land with the appropriate body angle. The difference using this method is the timing of the prep step landing. This landing should be done just prior to contact. Landing prior to contact almost allows us to get a head start on a ball put in play by reading visual cues from the batter and pitch, as demonstrated in the Read Pitch-Swing GIF. As the pitch is traveling toward home we’re looking at a specific spot and not following the ball. The specific visual cues differ for middle infielders and corner infielders. The middle infielders should be focusing on the area just in front of home plate where the contact area is. The corner infielder’s focus really depends on the batter. If you’re the pull side corner infielder, the focus should be in the location of a low inside pitch because these are the balls that usually end up being pulled with some velocity. If you’re the oppo side infielder, the focus should be a little deeper in the contact area because this is the pitch that tends to be hit in your direction. In these areas of focus, we need to use our peripheral vision to see the batter’s posture, swing timing, and bat angle in relation to the pitch location as it approaches home. If we notice the batter’s timing being early or late we can adjust our weight distribution to begin moving in that direction. When we get better at this method we can actually start moving in the direction of the batted ball, seemingly, before contact is made.
Crossover Step Efficiency
As a ball is put in play that requires us to go get it laterally, the crossover step is used to get our body going in that direction. We push off the inside foot and crossover with the outside foot. As the outside foot is in the process of crossing over, we need to be evaluating ball speed and direction to determine the most efficient route to intercept the groundball. Our crossover step then lands at a depth that puts us in that efficient route. All of the processing obviously happens very fast. The quicker we process the information, the fewer steps it takes for us to get into our most efficient route to the groundball to make a play. Increased route efficiency increases range.
Be engaged in what’s happening around you. Observe and intake the information that the game is giving you and use it to your advantage. Watch batting practice and observe the hitters that will step into the box for the other team. Noticing tendencies or mechanics of the swings of your opponent could help with your range. Analyze how their swing will potentially match up with the pitcher you have on the mound and their “stuff.” This is your own little scouting report that will help you make plays. Your scouting report will and should change with the game situation just the same as good hitters adjust their swings.
“…it started to take my game to a whole new level when I was able to know which pitch was coming, know the hitter, and understand his tendencies on each pitch.”Kolten Wong on the benefit of hitter evaluation to his range in a conversation with Eric Cressey on the CSP Elite Baseball Development Podcast (link to podcast below)
Not only can you benefit from watching the opposing hitters, but it’s advantageous to understand what the hitter may be trying to do given the current game situation. Many hitters will change swings in different counts and with runners in scoring position, among other instances. Analyzing the current game situation and understanding how the batter may adjust their swing to match the situation can help anticipate the next ball in play.
The underlying themes to these tips are preparation and anticipation. Due to the reactionary nature of infield defense, we need to take the information the game provides and think the game through as to what might happen on the next pitch. Some of these tips are easier to implement right away than others. The prep step, reading catcher signs, and body angle are physical adjustments that lend themselves to a “go out and implement today” type of thing. The pitch-swing timing, crossover step angle, and hitter evaluation are some of the finer details that come with experience and understanding what to look for/do. All of these tips get better with practice and maturity as a player. Commitment to these tips will increase your range and place you in the position to make more plays. Remember, getting to the ball is only half of the task. Completing the play for an out should remain our ultimate goal.
Listen to Kolten Wong’s conversation with Eric Cressey on the CSP Elite Baseball Development Podcast here.