Catching a Line Drive: Coaching Through the Fear
Line drives are some of the hardest hits in baseball, and can signal a batter really making solid contact with a pitch. For that reason alone, it’s understandable how the concept of trying to catch them when they happen can be pretty intimidating, especially for younger or newer players. On top of that, they can be one of the most difficult kinds of contact to field, as they don’t give away their location the same way fly balls and ground balls do. There’s a lot that has to go into teaching players how to properly field line drives, but both infielders and outfielders need to hone the skill to be able to play their positions to their fullest extents. That’s why it’s important to teach the proper techniques and tips that go into catching a line drive so that players can feel confident in their abilities to handle the situation and not be afraid of the ball.
Infielders and Line Drives
Infielders already have a pretty difficult position to play, as plays happen faster for them than anywhere else on the field. As soon as a ball is hit, it’s up to the infielder it’s hit toward to determine where the ball will be when it’s caught up to them, how to best get there to intercept it, and where the play is. Ground balls are the most common plays in the infield, and are also the easiest to teach. Since they give away their location by default, a player just needs to train their intuition for taking paths to the ball and learn to put their glove down -- or their body in front. From there the plays are pretty straightforward, with few exceptions to the common force plays on lead runners and putouts to first base.
Line drives are completely different in nature. While they give away their location somewhat, their beeline trajectory makes it very difficult to pick up the distance between the player and the ball and thus, to approach and field them. And again, them being the hardest hit balls in baseball means that infielders have mere split-seconds to react to the contact, head toward the ball, and play it how they can.
So remind your players of their fundamentals when fielding ground balls in the infield, as the same general rules apply. Fielders are going to want to play the contact with a step back first, so that they can move in the direction of the ball while also giving themselves a little bit more time before the ball travels to their spot in the field. Once a player has lined up the line drive, or is approaching where it’ll be, it’s crucial that they use their glove to catch it out in front of their body, extending the glove ahead of them such that the ball has leather to hit before any body contact. It’s also important to remind players to never shield or cover their faces with their glove, as losing sight of the ball is the #1 cause of misplaying it or even getting hit. The combination of moving the player’s body back in the infield and playing it out in front while honing that trajectory intuition will turn itself into proper line drive fielding etiquette in no time.
Outfielders and Line Drives
For outfielders, playing line drives is a different ball game altogether. Like in the infield, ground balls are fairly obvious with where they’re going to end up; it’s just a matter of timing the ball’s traveling speed correctly to choose a good path toward it and field it. Fly balls are a little different to line up, but generally just trying to get under the ball and behind it a bit will put a player in a good position to field it, whether they catch it or not. Line drives fall ambiguously in between. They come off of the bat like a fly ball, but at a lower angle and with much more zip. This gives the outfielder a lot less time to try to get under and behind the ball, and that time usually needs to be used to get to its landing area faster than it does. Thus, the challenge becomes developing a knack for tracking the ball off of the bat.
Every player is different, but outfielders will generally develop their own system for interpreting a line drive’s trajectory using its angle and speed at different points of its flight. For example, a ball that has already begun to sink in the air in front of a fielder before it’s cleared the infield will likely be falling in front of the player. Likewise, a drive that seems to only have begun its ascent when clearing the grass will probably drive a fielder toward the outfield fence. The key here again is to work on getting in front of the ball such that the only thing they have to worry about is its vertical trajectory. From there, determining the ball’s actual strength becomes really tricky, and is again a skill that must be honed over time. Things like taking their first step back and never taking their eyes off of the ball are the main reactions that will help a fielder actually have a chance to field a hard hit, and line drives are usually challenging the player to a race in the outfield.
It’s All in Their Head
Beyond learning the right techniques and applying them in practice and in-game, there’s not much else a player can do to put themselves in a good position to field a line drive. Chances are they’re intimidated by how hard the ball is hit or are afraid of misplaying it to the point of taking a fall or a hit. Again, here is where it’s important to remind them of their techniques and insist that following through with them will only help them do it right.