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Let's Get Two!

by Dave
Thursday, August 25, 2005

For some reason we do not place as much emphasis on the standard double play in girls fastpitch softball as our counterparts in boys baseball do. You see some double plays made by a few very good high school teams and slightly more college teams but rarely at younger ages. Even at high levels of play from age 15 up, girls do not routinely make double plays even when the batter is an exceptionally slow runner. Boys as young as 12 do routinely make double plays (and that's with 60 foot bases) because they put a lot of effort into practicing it. Presumably most girls' teams do not see it as sufficiently important. But the double play can be the most demoralizing one to the offense. In the most recent World Cup the Japanese team used a double play to break up a rally by the USA team. It was a blow from which they never recovered.

Learning and practicing double plays teaches not only how to get two outs but also some of the most important skills a middle infielder can develop - quick movement of ball from glove to throwing hand, good footwork, gaining proper balance before making a throw, coordination between middle infielders, and leading the throw to a fielder running to cover a base. It also teaches infielders to work together as a team. The standard double play should be practiced often by those wanting to improve their middle infield game and teams wishing to improve teamwork.

By standard double play I am referring to a runner on first with one or no outs and a groundball hit to one middle infielder. The shortstop or second baseman gathers the grounder, simultaneously removing the ball from her glove and positioning herself to make a good throw to the other fielder covering second. She then leads that fielder so she can catch the ball while in motion away from the approaching runner and make a good strong throw to first.

The first part of the standard double play is positioning of the fielders. With no or one out and a runner on first, the two middle infielders can "cheat" a little towards the bag in expectation of trying to get two. There is no real need of this if you have very quick players but frequently middle infielders choose to position themselves a little closer to the bag in double play conditions. Basically "cheating" or positioning at "double play depth" means taking a step from your normal position towards home and then one towards the bag. This shortens the distance by about a step and a half.

When the ball is hit to one middle infielder, the other dashes quickly to cover second. The fielder starting the play fields the ball and makes an accurate throw to the bag, leading the fielder as she arrives there. Accuracy of the first throw is the most important element of the double play. Let's not forget that getting that out is absolutely necessary. Everything else takes a back seat. Accuracy is more important than strength. As fielders become more accustomed to each other's ability to cover the bag, the speed of the throw can be increased but to start off practicing this exercise, just getting the ball in the right place to the covering fielder is what you are after. It should be about belly-button to shoulder high, directly over the bag. The covering fielder should be able to catch the ball right as she steps on the base so she can continue her motion to the throwing position as fluidly as possible.

The throw from fielder to covering fielder can be overhand or underhand. Generally speaking, underhand throws should be reserved for balls which are hit to the bag side of the fielder. tghe underhand throw is not a "lolly-pop" toss but rather a hard underhand throw as if pitching - it is a snap. If you cannot make a throw from your position at short or second right over the bag at the correct height, you should practice until you can do it well and avoid using underhand motion until you have it down.

The covering fielder (whether shortstop or second baseman) has a responsibility to arrive at the bag just as the throw gets there. If the play is slow to develop, she must hang back of the bag not simply get there and wait for the throw. If the fielding player is slow to gather the grounder or to remove the ball from her glove, she can end up pulling the covering fielder off by her slowness. The covering fielder needs to guard against this by watching the other fielder so she gets to the bag at the right moment. Again, before all other considerations, you must get the out at second. If the covering fielder senses that the play is so slow to develop that two can't be made, she simply covers the bag and gets the first out without even trying for two.

The covering fielder should touch second base with her left foot. This is true whether she is the second baseman or shortstop. Both positions touch the bag with the left foot. If the second baseman is covering, her step with the left foot is followed by a strong forward step with the right foot off of which she then makes the throw to first. This pivoting is a little difficult initially but becomes easy with repetition. If the shortstop is the covering fielder, she touches the bag with her left foot while already having her right foot planted, then removes her left foot from the bag and steps towards first with it and makes the throw also off her right foot. Her right foot should be aligned to make the throw to first - her instep should point to first. This too becomes easy with practice.

There is an alternative method for shortstops looking to turn a double play. That is to drag the right foot across the bag while in a fluid motion then planting it to make the throw. But this is a much more difficult maneuver to learn. Part of the problem is timing. It is difficult to get this down and umpires are not nearly as forgiving in softball as they are in baseball when they make the "neighborhood call." Umps need to see the covering fielder very clearly on the bag in softball. Also, a shortstop running through second base then setting up to throw on to first has all her physical momentum moving off to her right. This can result in throws to first trailing off towards right field which can lead to the runner on first ending up at second anyways! At least intitially I suggest shortstops use very similar body position to the second baseman as both result in the fielder being out of the way of the sliding runner at second and provide for good balance in making the throw to first.

That's actually all there is to turning a double play. Like everything else, it needs to be practiced a lot before it seems quite that simple. To begin with, drill the throw to the covering middle infielder. Put your infielders into position then walk through the steps necessary for each to end up with the left foot on the bag then stepping to make the throw.

There is no need to have a live grounder just yet. The fielder beginning the play should have a ball in her glove and shoulders square to home just like she was waiting for a ball to be hit to her. On "go" the covering fielder runs to the base, the fielder turns to make a throw and then leads the covering fielder to the bag. Now vary this by making the player starting the play move away from the bag to field a pretend grounder to her other side. She turns and throws a good leading throw. When she can do this without looking for the covering fielder, things are going well. Next have the fielder move as if to field a ball hit towards her bag side. Work on the underhand snap I discussed briefly before. It is very easy to do many repetitions of this sort of drilling within a very short period of time.

Once you have perfected this walk through and drill, it is time to work this play with live grounders. I suggest having a first baseman cover her bag and a group of runners of varying speeds start from home. This will allow your middle infielders to gain a sense of how much time is needed to turn two. It is unimportant to have the runner coming from first and this is a good way to avoid sliding injuries in practice. The object of the drill is timing and there is no reason to be totally live.

Hit a variety of grounders to your middle infielders so they can gain confidence in their sense of time. Hit some slow ones on which there is no way to turn two. Hit to both sides of both infielders. Don't work one side than the other. Hit the ball randomly without either fielder knowing who is going to initiate the play and from where. Hit the ball from homeplate in order to be as "real" as possible. This sort of drilling should be worked into your normal infield practice.

Non-Standard Double Plays

Once you feel comfortable with your middle infielders' ability to turn two, you can bring your third baseman into the mix. It is relatively easy to bring in third but the throw to second is much more difficult because it is longer and because the third baseman is usually in front of the bag, sometimes as much as 2o feet in front. The second baseman approaching the bag on a grounder to third should approach the bag by running parallel to the base line and then cutting in towards the bag rather than running straight at it the way she does on a ball hit to short. The route to the bag is a little more circuitous or rounded. This avoids balls being thrown into the outfield due to the angle from which a third baseman is throwing.

It is far more difficult to incorporate the first baseman into the double play because of the question of who covers the returning throw to first. Generally speaking, you should only attempt this if your second baseman or pitcher can cover the bag. Typically most girls softball teams do not work their pitchers on covering first because the distance from the pitcher's finished motion leaves her too far from the bag. Only a fast running pitcher can get to the bag before the base runner. So if your second baseman can cover the bag, you can run a double play where the first baseman initiates. The shortstop, just like the second baseman, makes a more rounded approach to the bag because of the angle of the throw. Once the throw has been made by the first baseman, she must get out of the way so there is no confusion. One of the things you want to avoid is the first baseman making the throw while her body's momentum is moving towards home or the pitcher's position. This generally results in a throw which ends up off-line. The first baseman must be taught to stop her motion on pivot and make a strong, straight throw directly over the bag. Remember, we need to get one before we get two. And many double plays beginning with a grounder to first end up with errant throws to second.

You should drill first and third basemen in the same fashion that your middle infielders are drilled when beginning work on the double play. Start by focusing on the throws the play initiator will make. Then move on to live hit balls. Double plays commencing with grounders to first or third should similarly be worked into your normal infield practice.

Other Considerations

We often teach boys learning the double play that if the runner comes at you in an attempt to break up the play, you should throw the ball to first side arm right at the runner face in order to teach him a lesson to never do that again. I've seen major league baseball players' noses broken in this fashion. We don't teach that in girls softball because we are more refined. Well, that's not entirely true. We don't teach that in girls softball because frequently runners are wearing helmets with face masks. Hitting a runner in the face will not teach her anything and because of the nature of face masks, the ball usually ends up in right field thereby defeating the purpose of the play.

Also, we often teach baserunners to go hard into second in order to break up the play. I tell middle infielders who are baserunners at first, never to try to do this. There is an unwritten rule which says middle infielders who go hard into second to break up a double play will have that favor returned to them as soon as possible and preferably on plays which are slow to develop. It is a common courtesy for middle infielders at first to get out of the way of a developing double play. It is for your own protection and this unwritten rule should be observed by all who try to turn two.

Conclusion

Practicing double plays is a great way to teach your infielders to work together. We do not do enough drilling of double plays with girls. Boys routinely work double plays beginning at young ages. Work on the footwork, then throws, then bring the whole thing together with live grounders. Work double plays into your routine infield practice and even if you never actually turn one, your fielders' confidence in throwing to each other will improve drastically.


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