This past holiday weekend, one would assume, was filled with barbeque, beer, baseball and fireworks. As family and friends gathered, the talk was about life, love, loot, and the Jeff Samardzija deal. Some families with baseball kids spoke of summer as a time of rest, while others shared tales of travel ball, tournaments, and Perfect Game. Meanwhile, Matt Williams concerned himself with his current foe, the Braves, and juggling his now deeper roster. So instead of cornering the Nats’ skipper on subjects of the day-to-day, let’s place the four-time Gold Glove winner in the middle of the Independence Day weekend family gathering and allow him to do some youth coaching, specifically infield instruction. The man who played nearly 16,000 innings on the infield in the big leagues shared with me some of the basics for those youngsters who dream of doing the very same thing.
First up is glove talk. How does one know what to select? What if my player might play both outfield and infield?
“First and foremost, we all see games on television and you see big league players that use their specific glove, a lot of those gloves are made specifically for those guys,” Williams shares. “So first and foremost for a younger player, it doesn't matter if you're playing second base, you can use as big a glove as you want to use. You don't have to use a small glove just because you play second base. That's not a prerequisite. It has to be comfortable on your hand, and you can judge that simply by playing catch. If it feels good when the ball goes into your glove and you catch the ball, if it feels good on your hand and it feels good that you have some confidence that you can catch it, that's the glove for you. It doesn't have to be tan, doesn't have to be black, doesn't have to be big or small, none of that really matters. Generally, the third base glove is a little bigger than the shortstop glove, the shortstop is a little bigger than the second base glove and of course the first baseman's mitt—everybody's seen one of those. All of that being said, it's about comfort and if you can catch the ball with the glove that you like, and that feels good on your hand, then use it.”
Now the pitcher is in the wind-up or stretch, getting the sign and about to deliver the pitch. How do you get yourself prepared physically on the infield?
“There are a couple of things that I like to use,” Williams says. “First, you have to know exactly when the guy's going to throw the ball to home plate. You have to be ready for the ball to be hit. Secondly, and you can do this by yourself or with a friend of yours, everybody has different ways that they approach getting ready for that ball to be thrown through the strike zone and potentially hit to you, but I like to make reference to just (being) out in the backyard with a buddy of yours. If you drew a line on the grass and you said, 'I'm going to race you from here to the far gate,' what would you do? How would you prepare? Whatever your body tells you to do at that moment is your most athletic position because that's the way you're going to beat your buddy to the gate. Some guys have wider stances, some guys stand taller in the infield, some guys hop and move, but it's all about what's comfortable for you. So if you're going to race your buddy to the gate and you get in the stance to do so, that's as far as your feet should be apart when you're playing the infield. That's your most athletic position which will allow you to move in any direction as quick as you possibly can move.”
The ball is hit. What should happen with the footwork?
"First and foremost, if there's nobody on you want to get the guy out at first base,” Williams explains. “So what you want to do is create momentum toward first base so you can make a good strong, accurate throw. If you have some momentum, it makes it easier on your arm and it makes your arm strength a little better. All of that momentum is created by getting around the baseball. So shortstop, second baseman, third baseman, sometimes in little league they're left-handed, but most of the time they're right-handed. So we want to catch the ball on the left side of our body, or the glove side of our body, with momentum going toward the base we are going to throw it to, which means that you have to get around the baseball. So you get to the right side of the baseball to create momentum through your left side, or your glove side, toward first base and you make good, strong, accurate throws. Secondly, you want to catch the ball out in front of you where you can see it. If somebody hit you a ground ball and you close your eyes, you couldn't catch it because you couldn't see it. You need to make sure that the ball is out in front of you, that you can see the whole time. Then simply take that glove that you've selected, that is comfortable for you, create momentum through the baseball to first base, catch it out in front of you, see it all the way into your glove and make that strong throw.”
If you’ve made the play and with enough time to spare, what is the best grip on the ball for an infielder to make the accurate throw?
“You should try to grip the baseball with four seams if you have the ability to do that,” Williams says. “If you've caught the baseball and you have time to gather yourself and make that strong throw to first base, it should be a four-seam throw over there, which means that you grab the ball so when you let the ball go out of your fingers there are four seams that are being resisted by the wind as you throw it across the infield. It's a more accurate throw. It doesn't always happen that way. We know that sometimes you're rushed and you just can't simply adjust the ball within your glove after you catch it to get that (grip). Ultimately if you do have time, we'd like to see that four seam throw across the infield.”
For players who are a little bit older or more advanced, how much can they anticipate what a pitcher might be throwing and where he may throw it? How much can this guide your anticipation and reaction?
“It depends on which position you play,” Williams answers. “At third base, you don't necessarily see the sign from the catcher, so you don't know what pitch is coming. You're simply reading bat angle. As that hitter swings that bat through the zone, at third base you can see a little bit more bat angle and you get an idea of where the ball's going to go from there. In the middle of the infield you have the benefit of knowing what pitch it is, what location, and if you're pitcher is throwing it where he wants to that particular day. So the shortstop can anticipate the pitcher throwing a fastball away to the hitter and it helps if he has a very good idea that the pitcher is going to throw the ball where he wants to throw it. He can go ahead and anticipate that ball maybe going up the middle a little more and take a step to his left prior to the pitch or even during the pitch in order to catch that ball that he may bounce through the middle.”
How about few tips for our middle infielders when they work around the bag with the possibility for a double play?
“First and foremost, we need to make sure that we get one out,” Williams says. “You can't get two outs before you get one out. So…if a ground ball is hit to the second baseman and he flips it to the shortstop, his objective first is to catch the baseball. Then make contact with second base before he throws it over to first. But you can't get two unless you get one, so the most important thing for the shortstop is to make sure that he sees the ball into his glove, catches it, even though he's got a runner potentially bearing down on him. He has to catch that baseball first and see if he can get two. We want to make sure that we get one at least so most important is catching it first.”
Even though these are the basics aimed at youth baseball, are these fundamentals still focused on by the big leaguers?
“Every single day,” Williams says. “At this level, it's about not giving the other team too many extra outs, because that's when you get beat. You get beat by, and we talk about this all the time, pitching and walking people. You get beat by making errors. You get beat by not taking advantage of a guy on third base and less than two outs, all of those things. But ultimately you want to take care of the basics first. Because if you do that, you give yourself a chance every night.”
That clears Matt and leads us to a bonus piece of advice for sports parents from fellow dad and MLB manager Mike Scioscia. This was a slice of the conversation from a few weeks back that didn’t fit but seems to now.
“Very simply, this is your kid’s time, not your time,” Scioscia said. “This is your kid’s time to go out there and get on a field, experience all the things that baseball brings—the whole environment. You need to be there to support them. You don’t need to be there on the front lines with them…let them go out there and let them try to achieve. It’s very, very hard as a parent sometimes to sit there and just watch your kid struggle and watch them fail. But they’re going to learn a bigger lesson from that. As long as you’re there to hold them and you’re there to pick up the pieces if they fail. That’s what you’re there for. Enjoy the experience. Enjoy the ride. Go get ice cream and pizza afterward and you’re going to have a great baseball experience with your youngster.”
Skippers keeping it simple in the Loge Level.