When Stepping out of Line Creates a Straighter Line

When stepping out of line creates a straighter line….

You’re no doubt tempted to file this one away under UTTER NONSENSE along with “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and other impossible Zen koans, or just roll your eyes because you’re well acquainted with my deep love of word-play and lateral thinking problems, wishing I’d get to the point faster, which actually is kinda my point here.

We all know the value of connecting two things with a straight line, especially when time is of the essence. Imagine a sailor returning from his extended tour abroad, victorious in his theater of war but agonizingly separated from his bride for months on end.  He suddenly spots her from across the wharf, his heart leaps from his chest, his greatest dreams materialized yet again, and he…moseys in a zig-zag pattern, for no good reason mixing in turns and u-turns, warmly offering greetings and well-wishes to friends and strangers alike, too often getting mired in pointless conversation and diversion only to eventually arrive in the arms of his great love? Probably not. That dude’s route was the very definition of a straight line. Every additional second would be an eternity, and so there weren’t additional seconds. He steamrolled everyone and everything in his way. Such is the power of the heart’s longing. Sigh.

THE KISS VJ DAY

(Okay, so that’s not a wharf and that’s probably not the first time they’ve seen each other in a while, so you can only imagine what the other kiss would have looked like.)

When a batter whacks a hit to the outfield and one or more infielders head out to relay the ball to a base, “a straight line is shortest distance between two points” jumps to the fore of everyone’s thinking. It’s not exactly esoteric thinking. In fact, it’s so natural to think like this you probably don’t even register you’re thinking like this. It certainly jumps to the fore of your doing, too.

Let’s start with the standard formation for one of many cut scenarios. Here’s an outfielder with a ball, a shortstop in line for the relay home, and the catcher stationed at home for catch and tag; imagine a lead runner past second preparing to round third and attempt to score.

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Looks pretty good. Note that I’ve drawn a straight line that connects all three involved defensive players. I bet you could show this to a thousand players and a hundred coaches and make a lot of friends.

But there’s a wrinkle.

Your outfielder probably doesn’t throw in a straight line.

Throwing in a straight line would mean that the ball doesn’t “run,” or bend left or right, at all while in the air. (Gravity will make all balls bend down, but we’re not focusing on that type of movement right now.) But the overwhelming majority of throws do bend to one side, and you’ve experienced this–painfully–in the batter’s box.

“Did you see that fastball? I thought it was going over the middle of the plate and then it suddenly jumped in on the hands.” That quoted hitter rationalizing his most recent subpar at-bat just fisted a two-hop 6-3 out because the pitch didn’t end up where he expected it to. Because it had bend. It’s an effective tool for a pitcher, but by contrast something that mostly happens unintentionally for players elsewhere. If outfielders have strong arms, and many players with strong arms are also pitchers on the whole advantaged by a lower-than-directly-over-the-top release point, it’s not hard to imagine why many outfielders can’t help but throw with bend. Not all of them, but most of them. And probably the one who is preparing to throw you the ball.

Let’s return to our cut system. Here’s our old diagram. The blue line is what the outfielder thinks he’s going to throw.

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But because he has bend, his throw will actually veer to the left from the infielder’s point of view. (This is either a righty with run away or a lefty with run in.)

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Notice how you the infielder have to adjust to the ball in-flight in order to catch and relay it. You must take a step to your left and a second step away from the catcher . Eek. Moving away from your target, especially if it happens while you’re catching, is a major momentum killer. You’ll have to take extra time to set your feet and reverse course, and you might just decide to accelerate the transfer to make up time, potentially leading to a bobble or inaccurate and weak second throw. None of that sounds appetizing, even if you don’t think of picking off ambitious runners with quite the same otherworldly zeal as our sailor friend in pursuit of his love.

The fix isn’t hard to understand, and it isn’t hard to implement, either.

If we know the thrown ball will work left and come up short if we start where we normally would, let’s instead set up to the opposite side: one step to the right and one step closer to the outfielder. He’ll still aim for you, as he always has–he’s NOT a quarterback leading his receiver across the field, after all. Once you get to your cut spot, you’re stationary with arms raised, and he’s placing his crosshairs on your head, lovingly.  Doubtful he’ll even register a difference in your location.

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We now notice that throw’s bend will naturally lead us to the left to join the “true” line and–more importantly–help us step toward the catcher as we catch and relay. We’ll shorten the distance to home and gain momentum in the process. Read that last sentence again because it’s baseball gold. 

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And now the two different setups and throws overlaid so you can see the differences all the more clearly. To get the outfielder to throw where he hopes to throw, we have to change where he aims.

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Every outfielder is a bit different, and some are practiced and baseball smart enough to already dial in a compensation for their throws. In other words, they’re doing all the work for you, and you can proceed as if you’ve never read this article. Those outfielders are pretty rare, so if you happen to find one, make sure to pick up a couple Lotto tickets while carpooling home. For everyone else, the adjustment will vary by player, as there exist countless different release points and patterns of movement when throwing and it’s nearly impossible to generalize what to expect without experience with the player in question. It’s also true that movement will vary for a given player based on throwing distance or other variables such as footing, weather, whether the outfielder crow-hopped, etc. You’ll have to become a keen observer and experiment with adjustments. A good rule of thumb is to make smaller adjustments when you’re unsure, and then when an outfielder consistently demonstrates that he needs larger adjustments, give them to him. Perhaps for a small fee or a link to this website.

Really, Coach Flu? All this talk (and reading) about such a small difference in positioning when I could be in the cage perfecting my three-run homer? A slight shift this way or that for a throw that may travel a couple hundred feet? Do such minuscule differences in distance and momentum, clearly invisible to the average fan’s eye, genuinely matter?

Take all the time you need…

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…to understand this post and practice your technique. Because time is often in short supply when the game heats up.

If this felt like a circular path to a straight line, there’s some truth there. But lucky for you, it’s finally time to cut this–