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Developing the high school catcher

Developing the High School Catcher, Part I

By: Brian Hucks-January 10, 2007

There are two things that I believe in reference to the catching position: 1) You cannot win a championship without an outstanding catcher and 2) Outstanding catchers are born, not developed. With that being said, I do believe you can develop a very good high school catcher with the correct information and the right coach.

As high school coaches, we are not afforded the luxury of being able to recruit to fill needs. One of the best pieces of advice I received as a coach came from Coach Steve Boyd in my first year in the profession working as the receiver’s coach at York High School. I was, as most young coaches do, complaining about several players that we were going to war with. Coach Boyd looked me square in the eyes and said, “They are ours, and they are all we have!” I never forgot those words and understood that it is my job to get those players ready to play and contribute! It is our job to take what we have and get those players prepared to play.

The problem we face as high school coaches is that most are limited with regards to the number of coaches we have, and most have never been a catcher. Therefore, most do not know how to develop that position. That is no excuse, however, for you to send your catchers to the bullpen and tell them to block 100 balls and receive 100 balls without supervision. You would not send your infielders out and tell tem to field 100 ground balls while you are working with the catchers! 

In this article I will outline what I look for in a catcher, and the drills that will develop a good catcher. 

What to look for in a catcher

1. Most important-Baseball IQ. Your catcher is involved in more aspects of the game than any other player on the field. They are responsible for directing traffic, communicating which base to throw to on bunts, lining up cut-off men, communicating which base to throw to on balls in the outfield, talking to pitchers to save your visits, serving as psychologists (because we all know pitchers are head cases), letting the coaches know when the pitcher is out of gas, developing a relationship with the umpire so we may get a few calls later in the game, etc. If your catcher does not understand the game, then he needs to be moved to another position!

2. Athleticism-The days of the big kid playing catcher are over. Catchers do not need to be fast, but they better have great feet. Our catchers will jump rope everyday to improve their feet.

3. Toughness-It takes a special person to be a catcher. Most do not have the “want to” to do what it takes to be a great catcher. It is no fun for most to strap on the gear on those 100-degree days in Columbia. For the good ones it is a badge of honor. 

4. “IT” factor-Your catcher must have the “IT” factor. You can’t describe it, but you know if someone has it. I have had catchers that were text book in drills, but during games in key situations there would be a passed ball, or they would try to pick a ball in the dirt instead of blocking it.

5. Great Hands-Good catchers must be great receivers. They make borderline pitches appear to be strikes. A good catcher can get 10-15 calls a game based on how they receive the ball. Conversely, a bad receiver will lose that many calls!

  • Great catchers are “make up” guys. They have the intangibles that separate the average players from the great players. 
  • They also are among the most respected players on the team.
  • Several years ago I moved my shortstop to catcher because he had those intangibles and this year I may move my third baseman. That is how important the catching position is! 

Drills:

Philosophy: Find time in practice to have a coach work with your catchers. It is a priority! Don’t send them to the pen to work while you work with the infielders and your other coach works with the outfielders. Bring them in early! I have had to do this many years when I was short staffed! If practice starts at 4:00, make your catchers be there at 3:40 so they can get their work in. Then use them to hit fungos while you are working with the infielders, or let them get some extra swings in the cages because I know you pull them out of the cages to catch pens! You know who you are! 

Blocking-They don’t need to get beaten up everyday to prove how tough they are. We block Incrediballs. Don’t use the balls that you have had for 10 years and have been out in the rain and dry rotted! If you can’t afford Incrediballs, talk to your tennis coach and get the tennis balls they throw out! I have about 500 tennis balls that were going to be thrown out!

Stance

By far the most poorly coached aspect I see in most high school catchers. I am hesitant to share this because I gain such an advantage from catchers who do not do this well. This is first thing I do with my catchers every year regardless of how many years they have caught for me. There are three stances:

Signal Stance–Very few teach this and I have stolen more signs from catchers because they are lazy or poorly coached! 

Keys:

1) Point your left knee to the SS and your right knee to 2B.

2) Lay your glove on the outside of your left knee and relax it. 

3) Chest up–Prevents shadows and allows the proper hand position.

4) Hand position–Give signals directly in front of your cup. 

5) Tuck the forearm of your signal hand into your waist so you do not move your elbow when you signal 3 or 4! Also give location without moving your elbow!

6) Square your shoulders and legs to the pitcher. I can’t tell you how many catchers turn to the dugout to get signs and do not square back up to the pitcher when they give signals.

Pet Peeve: Communicate with your pitcher what sequence you will use when a runner gets on second before the game!

Primary Stance–To be used whenever there is nobody on base and less than two strikes on the hitter. Feet shoulder width and feet pigeon toed. Your heels should be on the ground. Knees as close together as you feel comfortable. Rear end is low and your body is square to the pitcher.

Secondary Stance–To be used when runners are on base and any time there is two strikes on the hitter. A lot of catchers rise up in their stance when a breaking ball is coming with two strikes, but will sit down low whenever a fastball is coming. Most coaches will pick up on that. Your feet should be shoulder width apart, but toes will be pointed forward. Upper legs should be parallel to the ground and chest should be over legs with throwing hand behind the glove.

Set Up

  • If the pitcher is throwing to their glove side corner, then the catchers inside knee should be in line with the corner of the plate. This will have their body off the plate, but the ball will cross the corner. If the catcher sets up with his feet splitting the corner, the ball will catch too much of the plate. 
  • If the pitcher is throwing to the arm side corner, then the catcher should set up with his feet splitting the corner.

Depth

  • One of the biggest mistakes catchers make is setting up too deep. You lose the low strike when you set up too deep.
  • The problem is there is not a definitive rule to use. I have been told you should be able to reach out and touch the back knee of the batter. I can tell you from experience that if the hitter has a long swing or is a spin hitter that may be too close. You learn through experience the depth to set up.
  • If you are receiving an inside pitch, you need to set up deeper because you are obviously closer to the hitter.
  • Conversely, if you are receiving a pitch away from the hitter you can move slightly closer.

About the author: Brian Hucks is entering his eighth season as the head baseball coach at Brookland-Cayce. He is a 1991 graduate of Lexington High School. Hucks attended the University of South Carolina after stops at Anderson Junior College and Campbell University. He was a three-year letterman in baseball at USC as well as a tri-captain his senior year. Hucks graduated from USC in 1996 with a B.S. degree in physical education. He was drafted in the 31st round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Cincinnati Reds where he played in the minor league system through 1997. He has one State Championship (2000) under his belt and is well-respected in his profession.

For more on Brian Hucks, click here.

Developing the High School Catcher, Part II

By: Brian Hucks-January 10, 2007

Receiving

The most important skill a catcher needs is to be a skilled receiver. I was working a camp with Landon Powell and he told the kids he catches 100–125 pitches a game and he only has to throw maybe once or twice a game. Makes sense!

Tell your catchers to keep their nose behind the ball! It forces them to look the ball into the mitt and catch the ball within their body. Most umpires are more likely to give you the call if the ball is received this way. You also want to be strong and “stick” the ball where you receive it. Do not jerk balls into the zone! You want to get 3–4 inches off each corner of the plate and at the top and bottom of the zone. If the ball is obviously out of the zone catch it and throw it back to the pitcher!

Hand position: 1) Inside pitch–Thumb up and glove inside the elbow. 2) Outside pitch–Thumb down. 3) Low pitch–Don’t turn the mitt over unless you have to in order to catch the ball. You usually will not get a call if the mitt is turned over. 4) High pitch–Thumb parallel to the ground. Always catch, the outside of the ball and slightly roll your wrist when you receive the ball. Stick the pitch when you receive it and have quiet movement. Good catchers are like chefs, presentation is everything!

Drills:

Receiving drills should be done everyday. On all drills, work all pitches and emphasize keeping the nose behind the ball and see it into the hand or mitt. Also try to emulate game speed. Partners are very important. Make each other better. Do not brother-in-law in these drills. Also work primary and secondary stances in drills. 

1. Whiffle balls without glove–partner should be about 20 feet away and work all pitches. Partners should put some velocity behind the ball. Catchers should try to catch the ball with their index finger, middle finger and thumb.

2. Baseballs with glove–stand about 30 feet away and work tough pitches.

3. Receive from pitching machine if available. I like to use the Iron Mike and have the catchers move closer to the machine with each new set. Adjust the catcher’s position to work on trouble pitches.

4. Bullpens–Very important time because you learn your pitchers and develop a relationship with them. Also, listen to the instruction the pitching coach is giving the pitcher so the catcher will know what corrections the pitcher needs to make during games.

Make catchers accountable for passed balls!

Blocking

As long as my catchers do a good job in games, we will only block two to three times per week. I use Incrediballs unless they give me reason to test their courage. If I am not pleased with their effort then I will throw to them and find out who wants to keep the ball from getting behind them. Blocking is generally “want to.” They either want to keep the ball in front of them or they don’t.

Keys:

1. Get your throwing hand behind the glove. This serves to protect the hand and also turns your shoulders in so the ball stays in front of you.

2. Do not catch the ball! Most catchers revert back to their infield days and will not leave the glove on the ground.

3. Recognize your pitchers spin so you will know how the ball will react when it hits the dirt.

4. Drive your shoulders up the lines on balls to the left and right so the ball will funnel back toward the plate after you block it.

5. When working breaking balls, let them know it is coming. They will have this information in the game. Also work different breaking balls. Balls react differently depending on the type of rotation.

Drills:

1. Hand/Glove Drill–A drill I do to work on getting the throwing hand behind the glove. When I move my hands they move theirs and get in the appropriate hand position.

2. Dry blocking–I point down, right, or left and the catchers all move in the appropriate direction and show proper blocking technique.

3. Blocking–Partner should be 40–45 feet away. This is important because you need to make it as game-like as possible. If you get too close then they do not have time to read the angle of the ball.

4. Block and recover–Work on retrieving the ball after blocking and get into position to throw a runner moving up a base.

5. Combination drill–Work receiving and blocking in the same drill so catchers have to recognize the angle of the pitch and react accordingly. Hands down the best drill!

6. Bullpens–They should not block all balls in the bullpen. Tell them for the next ten pitches I want you to block every ball in the dirt. If there are none, then go the next ten. You do not want to beat them up, but they need to block balls at game speed and they need to build the confidence of the pitchers that they can work low and know the ball will not be at the backstop.

About the author: Brian Hucks is entering his eighth season as the head baseball coach at Brookland-Cayce. He is a 1991 graduate of Lexington High School. Hucks attended the University of South Carolina after stops at Anderson Junior College and Campbell University. He was a three-year letterman in baseball at USC as well as a tri-captain his senior year. Hucks graduated from USC in 1996 with a B.S. degree in physical education. He was drafted in the 31st round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Cincinnati Reds where he played in the minor league system through 1997. He has one State Championship (2000) under his belt and is well-respected in his profession.

To view Part I, click here.

For more on Brian Hucks, click here.

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Developing the High School Catcher, Part III

By: Brian Hucks-February 2, 2007

Throwing

We work throwing drills everyday, but only throw to bases maybe once a week. You do not need to kill your catcher’s arms to work on throwing. They will be good throwers if they are mechanically sound.

Keys:

1. Getting rid of the ball quickly and being accurate gives you the opportunity to throw out runners.

2. Our catchers always throw together during our pre-practice throwing program. They will work “catcher specific” drills during this time, just as our infielders, outfielders and pitchers do.

3. Work the high exchange and transfer of the ball from glove to hand every time you receive a ball.

4. Measure off 60’, 90’, 127’ 3 3/8” and 150’, and mark them where your catchers throw. I put a small black line in the outfield where our catchers perform their throwing drills. They will throw these distances everyday. It is important to train your catchers to throw these distances so they will feel comfortable making all the throws during games.

Drills:

Pre-practice throwing program

1. One knee (30’)–Throwing knee on the ground working high exchanges with partner.

2. 10 toes (45’)–Standing facing partner, continue working high exchange with partner.

3. Standing jab step (60’)–Incorporate jab step (explained later)-receiver will work high exchange.

4. Jab step from squat (90’)–Work from secondary stance, receiver will work framing drills.

5. Jab step from squat (127’)–Same, receiver will work tags at the plate.

6. Jab step form squat (150’)–Same, receiver will work tags at the plate

Footwork to Second Base

  • There are three basic methods that most use. They are the replace, pivot and jab step.
  • All three need to be taught because they all will be used depending upon the location of the pitch.
  • These also need to be done everyday. You cannot make accurate and consistent throws if you have bad feet.

1. Replace–The method most catchers use. However, I hope to convince you there is a better way!

  • In the replace method you basically take your right foot and place it where your left foot is.
  • The problem with this method is you do not gain any ground toward second base and your momentum is going toward third base.
  • This method should only be used when the pitch is off the plate on your glove side.

2. Pivot–You must have an extremely strong arm to use this method.

  • In the pivot method you are going to just pivot on your right foot.
  • 95% of high school catchers do not have the arm strength to do this.
  • This method should only be used when the pitch is off the plate on your arm side

3. Jab–The best method to use. It will take some time to convince your catchers they should do use this method.

  • Most catchers naturally want to step with their left foot as they catch the ball. Whenever they do this it will take three steps to get rid of the ball and that takes too much time!
  • In the jab step you take a six-inch step with your right foot as you are receiving the ball. I tell my catchers it is like a mini crow hop.
  • This allows you to gain ground toward second base and their momentum is also going toward second base.
  • They will be able to make stronger throws and they will be more accurate.
  • The step must only be six inches. If the step is longer, you will take too long to get rid of the ball.
  • You also must emphasize the high exchange because this will allow the shoulders to get lined up toward the target. When I first teach this, most of my catchers leave their chest facing the target and their throws will be short and tail to the right side of the base. They must get their shoulders in alignment and pull violently with their front elbow into their left side to generate arm speed and utilize the entire body rather than just using their arm.

Footwork to 3rd Base

  • I teach my catchers to go behind all right-handed hitters. A lot of coaches teach to go in front of right-handed hitter when the pitch is away, but I personally never felt comfortable doing this. I always felt like the hitter was in the way. You also have to take a 45-degree step toward first base to clear a throwing lane and that is very tough.
  • You want to take a reverse step with your right foot while keeping your shoulders in line with third base.
  • The mistake most make is they do not step toward third base with their lead foot because their momentum going toward the third base dugout. This causes them to change their arm angle to a ¾ arm slot and the ball will sail on them.
  • Quickness is even more important at third because the distance of the throw is not a problem.

Drills:

1. The pre-practice throwing program is very important. If done correctly, these will work to make a major improvement in their throwing. Again, they need to be coached during this time. I am usually with the catchers while they are throwing. All our position coaches are with their position players during this time. It is also important to have the distances marked off during this time so they are making throws at the correct distance.

2. Line drill–Have your catchers straddle the foul line. They need to get into their secondary stance and, on coaches command, they will work the jab step and make a full arm motion like they are throwing to second base. The foul line gives feedback to the catchers. Their feet should be on the line. 

3. Net drill–Have catchers line up ten feet in front of a net. Have a coach or partner flip a ball to them underhanded from about 4–5 feet away and the catchers will work their jab step and throw to the net. This allows them to work on their throwing without putting a lot of stress on their arms.

Conclusion

1. Make working with your catchers a priority in every practice. There will be times that they will have to work on their own, but try not to make it a habit. Even the most committed players will slack off when they are not being supervised. 

2. Don’t be afraid to move a player. Like I said before, I have moved my shortstop, and this year probably will move my third baseman. You cannot win championships without a solid catcher.

3. Make your catchers accountable in practice for passed balls and wild pitches. They must learn to take pride in keeping the ball away from the backstop.

4. Work receiving and throwing drills everyday.

About the author: Brian Hucks is entering his eighth season as the head baseball coach at Brookland-Cayce. He is a 1991 graduate of Lexington High School. Hucks attended the University of South Carolina after stops at Anderson Junior College and Campbell University. He was a three-year letterman in baseball at USC as well as a tri-captain his senior year. Hucks graduated from USC in 1996 with a B.S. degree in physical education. He was drafted in the 31st round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Cincinnati Reds where he played in the minor league system through 1997. He has one State Championship (2000) under his belt and is well-respected in his profession.

To view Part I, click here.

To view Part II, click here.

For more on Brian Hucks, click here.

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