It’s not a secret; any good baseball team needs to play fundamentally sound, especially on defense.
One area that certainly can be slighted in practice is an outfielder hitting his cutoff man and the infielder continuing the play with a good relay throw.
“It can be overlooked by some coaches, but it is very important,” Rhinelander (Wisconsin) High School varsity baseball head coach Joe Waksmonski said. “It’s important as well for the guys to really understand it and it’s really important for our guys to communicate to each other.”
During the spring season, Waksmonski usually gets around to reviewing cuts and relays to his players the second week of practice. Since his team plays in northern Wisconsin, weather is a large factor in getting an opportunity to practice outside and adequately drill his players on the fundamentals of cuts and relays.
In normal early-season practices, Waksmonski works with his players daily on hitting the cutoff man. Once games get under way, Waksmonski’s players get about five to 10 minutes per week for reps on that aspect of the game. One reason for the short time frame is Waksmonski doesn’t want to tax his players’ arms on relay throws, since some of those guys are his pitchers.
Waksmonski, who has been a varsity head coach for 10 years, uses a drill he calls CRT – cuts, relays, and tags. He finds it essential to implement tags into each play for his infielders.
In practice, Waksmonski will work with his infielders as a group, and one of his assistant coaches goes over everything with all the outfielders. He’ll then bring the two groups together to simulate game scenarios. Waksmonski’s team doesn’t practice the CRT drill with runners, he’ll just call out if any runners are on base and then hit the ball.
“Our catcher from there takes over and calls out where the ball’s going to go,” Waksmonski said.
On a ball hit to the gap or to the fence in either the left or right field corners, the catcher is the main voice on the diamond. However, every player has to be talking to make sure the play is defended smoothly.
“It takes a lot of communication to [know] what’s going on,” Waksmonski said. “On a given play where there’s a ball hit to the fence, you’re going to have your middle infielders talking to each other – that second person that’s out there, that piggyback cut is talking to that person in front, and they can kind of see what’s going on. The first baseman can see what’s going on with the runner, but ultimately the catcher is supposed to be in charge of where exactly the ball is going to go. But I’ll tell our first baseman, ‘If you see a trail runner that we can for sure get, then let’s get that guy and we’ll concede the run in that situation.’”
Waksmonski uses the piggyback system on cuts for any ball that is hit to the fence. He’ll have both the second baseman and shortstop run out to prepare for the throw. For a ball hit to the right field fence, the second baseman is closest to the right fielder for the cut, and the shortstop will be about 15 feet behind the second baseman.
“Just in case that outfielder misses that cut, we have that backup that’s right there to get that baseball,” Waksmonski said. “We have the first baseman scoot over to second to cover that, just in case we can maybe throw behind the runner that took too big of a turn at second base.”
The piggyback system works well in the high school game, but repetition is key because middle infielders are taught in Little League and Babe Ruth ball that there is only one cutoff person on a play.
Once the outfielder fields the ball, he needs to get an accurate throw to the cutoff man. Waksmonski advises his outfielders to keep the ball down to give the runner or runners the impression the ball will certainly be cut. Waksmonski goes over aiming points with his outfielders.
“We draw a square from right to left shoulder and kind of straight up to our head,” Waksmonski said. “That’s our area where we want our outfielders to throw the ball. That’s the quickest for our infielders to turn the relay to get it to the next base.”
Waksmonski said a ball hit to the corner is the toughest scenario to teach. The outfielder has to run farther to the ball and the middle infielders have to go out farther for the cut.
“You can possibly get the first baseman and third baseman involved, too, on those cuts,” Waksmonski said.
To keep his players’ attention on working on the cuts, relays, and tags drill, Waksmonski will make it into a game. He’ll break his guys into groups of four – two outfielders and two infielders – and have races on which pair can complete a cut and relay the fastest. The losing group generally has to do pushups or sit-ups.
One drill Waksmonski is already planning to implement next spring is to get his outfielders to give the catcher a longer hop on throws to the plate.
“A lot of times when the outfielder will try to throw it all the way to home plate, it will short hop the catcher and doesn’t quite get there,” Waksmonski said. “It will get about two feet short of the catcher and the catcher gets a bad hop. We’re going to try and teach them to throw the ball between the mound and home plate, so that the ball will hop up and give the catcher a good toss.”
Waksmonski is going to set up nets or targets at home plate so the outfielders have a place to aim.