Inside Pitch is proud to introduce our latest guest contributor, Brandon Turner. Brandon currently serves as the Infield/Hitting Coach and Recruiting Coordinator for head coach Matt Bragga's 2013 OVC Champion Tennessee Tech, where he guided the Golden Eagles to a .979 fielding percentage, good for eighth in the country. In 2010-2011, he helped Carson-Newman College to a fielding percentage that ranked top 50 in the country. Prior to that, he coached at Lee University (2009-2010), where the Flames were NAIA national runner-ups and led the country in fielding percentage.
As a player, Brandon was a College World Series participant and a former All-American shortstop for head coach Ron Polk at Mississippi State University, where he hit .399 in 2007 (2nd in the SEC) and was drafted in the 12th round by the Florida Marlins in 2008.
Brandon shares his insights with us on teaching mentality to infielders. Enjoy!
When talking to most infield coaches, one of their biggest complaints is that their infielders want to sit back on ground-balls. Why is this so? The answer is simple. Most infielders are scared of making a mistake. Think about all the possible scenarios that could happen when taking a groundball. The ball could hit a lip, go left, go right, hit a rock, have a lot of top spin, a lot of back spin, or any other uncontrollable variable. That's the thing that we do entirely too much of in the game of baseball, coaches included. We worry about the "uncontrollable" more than anything else. As coaches, we wonder if our number one pitcher will stay healthy the entire year, if our conference foe will lose today in order to move us up in the standings, if the rain will hold off today to allow us to play, and the list goes on. We often spend more time worrying about the uncontrollable than the controllable. The same concept applies with infielders. Now, how can we change this? Like I tell my infielders, we want to play with a burn in our stomach, with a "take no prisoner" attitude every single play of the game. That mentality is imperative if we, as a team, want to reach our goals.
Every single day, I preach to our infielders that there are aggressive infielders and there are safe infielders. Safe infielders get the least out of their potential. They are happy as long as they make the play right to them. They never want to step outside of the box and attempt to make the extraordinary play that could determine a win or a loss. I don't want that in a player. I want the guy who looks at each groundball as a challenge. Even on a ball that is deep in the hole, where there is no play, I want a guy who wants to at least get a glove on it. There are no longer enough infielders in the game with this approach and the reason is because we as coaches preach to "make the routine play". My question is always the same: why not make both? All too often, I hear coaches saying "we tell our guys we are not worried about making the spectacular play, we are worried about the routine play." While I do understand the concept, I do not understand why we are taking the aggressive play away. Secondly, why do we wonder why infielders are not aggressive? The only way we can help tentative infielders who sit back on the ball, is to take the chain off and give them free reign. Let them know and believe that every ball that is put in play is a potential out.
The approach that I take with our infielders is simple. I explain to them that balls down the lines, up the middle, as well as in the 4 and 6 holes are considered base hits. So in other words, imagine everyone is telling you, as an infielder, that you "can't" make that play. As I tell them, take it personal because someone is telling you that you can't do something. Every ball that is hit deep in the hole or down the lines is a challenge to prove people wrong. There is no greater motivation, not only in the game of baseball, but also in life then having someone tell you that you can't do something. This teaches our guys to play with a tough mentality, which will result in aggressiveness. The benefit of establishing that aggressiveness is that it spills over into routine plays. If a player is accustomed to selling out on every play, then sitting back on the baseball never enters the mind.
So, the question now remains: "what are the best ways to instill this attitude in my players?" There isn't an exactscience to teach mentality to your players, but there are many different routes you can take. Here at Tennessee Tech, we have installed a lot of the following drills to help reach that goal. They are as follows:
• Touch Drill-
This drill is done during batting practice. Every groundball that is hit during BP, our infielders will go after. They may have ZERO shot to make the catch, or even come close to making a throw in time to get the runner out. However, the goal is for our infielders to somehow find a way to get their glove on it. This teaches guys not to look at a ball as if there is no play. Every ball is obtainable and we will stretch the limits to get to the ball.
As a coach, I will hit balls down the lines, 6 hole, up the middle, and 4 hole. Our guys will make diving attempts at all of these balls and try to get up and make the throw. Your guys will actually love doing this particular drill because of the thought of making a web gem. We will have a board everyday showing the leader for web gems in practice, as well as games.
•Side-to-Side Dive Drill-
This drill is exactly as it sounds. Everybody has heard and probably has incorporated the side-to-side drill, having infielders work back and forth while really working their feet in order to get to the ball that their partner is rolling to them. It is the same concept with this drill, except one partner really extends the other partner to their left and right, causing them to dive, make the play, get up and get to the next ball. Go back and forth about 4 or 5 times before going to the next player. This drill teaches aggressiveness and really gets guys out of their comfort zone.
•Going Deep Fly ball Drill-
This drill is one that all of our infielders love. With no outfielders, I will set up a machine at home plate and send fly balls very high to regular depth in the outfield. I will have our guys run each ball down. If your guys are getting to these balls, go a little further with the fly balls. Your players will be amazed at what balls they can get to, as well as teach them that every ball is theirs until they are called off.
•Slow Roller/Race Back Drill-
In this drill, you have someone hitting slow rollers that are extremely hard plays, possibly requiring a bare hand. Immediately after completing that throw, a coach or manager will be shooting the players a fly ball that they will have to turn and run down. Your infielders will be tired after this drill, having to continue to push to get to each ball. Incorporate a reward or benefit for this drill so that you are rewarding those players who get to the most balls.
• Game Saver Groundball Drill-
During this drill I, as a coach, will hit fungo and will call out situations where there is an important runner on second base late in the game. I will hit balls in the holes and down the lines, while having them do anything they can to keep the ball in the infield. I will also hit "screamers", having them do anything they can to keep the ball in front of them and out of the outfield. In this drill, players usually get fired up because of the effort they see everyone putting in.
These are only a few drills that we use here in our program. I believe the most important thing a coach must do is communicate the importance of mentality each and every day with your infielders. Let them know that we, as a team, are going to exemplify a tough mentality and if they do not buy into this philosophy, they will simply not play. Every day I talk about mentality, mentality, mentality. The more they hear this, the more likely they will buy into this philosophy.
Every player has a decision of what mentality he wants to bring to the field each and every day. My goal is for our infielders not to have to make that decision because they have already made a commitment to aggressiveness on every play. Do I want our guys to make the routine play? Absolutely. As I tell them, if we are worried about just making the routine play, then we need to have the mentality that every groundball is routine.