Amazing catches from outfielders are really fun to watch. Highlights on evening sports shows are filled with outfielders and their spectacular plays. Most times the grabs made by outfielders defy logic. People say, “How did he make that catch?” “That looked like a sure triple didn’t it?” “That guy wasn’t anywhere near that ball — he seemed to come out of nowhere.”
So how is it done? Almost all great outfield catches are done by getting a great jump, reading the ball, and taking perfect angles to get to the catch. And while the great outfielders are also really good athletes, athletic prowess alone doesn’t make them great outfielders. Effectively working on their jumps, reads and angles makes the catches possible — nothing more, nothing less.
360 Degree Footwork
An outfielder has 360 degrees of area to cover. When the outfielder starts from an athletic ready position, he is facing home plate. So, he is facing one direction — forward. Assuming he can run forward to easily cover 30 degrees of field, that leaves 330 degrees of possible field to cover he is not facing. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of different directions. To get a good jump, he must move as efficiently as possible to the ball. The outfielder must quickly change direction at the start. To do this, he must use footwork.
Cross-Over vs. Jab Step
The steps described in this section are for balls hit in front of, or directly to the side of, the outfielder. We will discuss the correct footwork for balls hit behind, or over the head, of the outfielder later. For a long time in my college career, and all through high school, I used the jab step. And it was wrong.
The jab step is just like it sounds. If the ball is hit to the outfielder’s right, he moves his right foot first — a jab step that only covers about half a stride. And when he wants to go left, he jab steps with his left foot first, again only about half-stride. The player’s upper body is not yet completely turned toward his target. This will not allow him to get to the ball as quickly. In contrast, the cross-over step is more efficient. Why? Because more ground can be covered with practically the same time and effort.
Let’s use the same example: ball hit to the player’s right. In the cross-over step, the outfielder crosses his left foot in front of his right foot and strides normally. At least an additional half-step is gained in covering ground. To quickly use the cross-over step, the upper body must turn as well. The only way, and the best way, to accomplish this quickly is to use the arms, specifically the elbows. When used properly, the arms and elbows will turn the torso toward the catch target and help clear the hip. Just as in golf, getting the hip out of the way so the body can turn completely is critically important.
When the hip clears and the shoulders are facing the intended direction, it is much easier to move the left foot past the right foot in our example. The outfielder pulls his right elbow back behind him, and thrusts his bent left arm across his body, to turn his shoulders and clear his right hip. His left foot is easily moved in front of, and past, his right foot. This is the classic Cross-Over Step.
An important point to remember is the outfielder’s elbows are used to turn the torso. His arms are not straight. Why? Well, we’re back to physics again — with arms bent, it takes less time to swing the arms to the proper turning position. Think about it like this: when ice skaters want to turn slowly in a spin, they keep their arms straight and away from their bodies. Then, when they want to spin faster, they bring their arms closer to their bodies. The same principle applies to outfielders.
In these examples, the player is always moving to his right. The same principles will be executed if he has to go to his left. The left elbow is thrust backward behind him at the same time his bent right arm punches across his body. This turns his shoulders left and clears his left hip. His right foot crosses over his left foot and he is off to the races.
It is vital that the player get his upper body and hip turned in the direction he wishes to go. Without the violent use of his elbows, in either direction, the upper body would stay fixed and he would not be able to properly use the cross-over step.Cross-over steps are the best use of an outfielder’s limited time when he moves toward the baseball. And they should always be used when the direction he needs to go is directly right or left, or any degrees of that in front of him.
But that leaves another 180 degrees of outfield to cover. The other half of outfield coverage is behind the outfielder. And correct footwork will play a huge role here as well. Drop steps are used to quickly get the outfielder headed in the right direction — somewhere behind him. In the drop step, footwork and upper body movements are crucial. As much as pitchers don’t like to admit it, some batted balls are actually hit over an outfielder’s head.
We will use an example of a center fielder. The ball is hit very well and to his left. He has no chance of catching this ball, but he is determined to cut it off before it gets to the wall. If the outfielder uses the cross-over step, he will not be able to cut the ball off. This is because his right foot can’t cross-over and get behind his left foot far enough to start on the correct angle to the ball. Therefore, he must use the drop step. His left foot turns back behind his body. Essentially, he is opening up his stride by expanding the distance between his feet — and his left foot moves behind him. When his left foot hits the ground, it is aimed in the direction he will run.
It is vitally important the player not close his dropped foot to the direction intended. Closing the foot stops the hip turning process and prevents the player’s body from completely opening. Almost simultaneously as he drop steps his left foot backward, he must thrust his left elbow behind him while punching his bent right arm in front of him. Again, clearing his left hip is very important here.
This two segment process (drop step left while arms turn the torso) gets the outfielder’s upper body set in the direction he wishes to run. By dropping his left foot back behind his body, the outfielder is creating an angle of attack to go get the ball. The further back the outfielder needs to run, the deeper his drop step should be, and the more violently he should use his elbows to turn his torso. Thanks for reading!