Navigating The Blocking Zone

LANES & LEVELS FOR MAX BALL CONTROL

Effectively controlling the ball in the dirt has always been thought of as a required skill of championship caliber catchers. However, many would argue that it’s simply a lost art or even insignificant in todays game due to an increased awareness in pitch framing and its known impact on run prevention. Nevertheless, if you think back to your best teams – its likely that you had a catcher who could successfully limit extra bases with his ability to block balls in the dirt. Catchers who are proficient in this skill can significantly limit run scoring opportunites via the following.

  1. More double play opportunites for your defense
  2. Force opponent to give away outs to advance runners
  3. Role in pitch calling – more pitch options available without fear of runner advancement

Amatuer training often follows trends expressed at the highest level of the game – whether it be velocity development, launch angles, pitch framing, etc. And although, these shifts in training can be extremely valuable for player development, they sometimes open the door to neglect other important areas of a players game if the approach is to replace one for another. We’ve seen this narrowed approach displayed many times. Hitters overly comsumed with launch angle often neglect barrel control or contact rate. Velocity programs in isolation can pose problems if neglecting arm health, pitch design, command work, etc.

So I pose the question…..

With an increased focus on pitch framing – Are blocking skills declining in amateur or professional players?

That question is difficult to answer. I do think that the evolution of the game lends to a more difficult blocking environment. The most obvious reason is the sound increase in velocity at all levels. Secondly, outs have proven to be a premium, and as a result, managers are less likely to give them away via the bunting game or risk losing them via the stolen base. Stolen base attempts have been on a steady decline at the MLB level since the 1980’s. As a result, blocking today is not only more difficult than it once was, but also more valuable as baserunners look to advance into scoring position in ways other that the sac bunt or stolen base. The ability to not only block the ball in the dirt, but more importantly, CONTROL the ball in the dirt after it contacts the catchers body is extremely important in todays’s game.

The best catchers in the game at controlling the ball in the dirt and limiting recovery distance are consistently getting the ball into one of two places.

  1. Lower Abdomen (belly button) & Centered
  2. Centered into the Glove (short hop)

For catchers to consitently guide the ball into one of these identifyed “Max Ball Control” areas off the body they MUST learn to be versatile in how they tranistion to the ground. I’m a firm believer that an “Always Kickback or Always Gain Ground” approach is problematic. Catchers need to be able to move fluidly throughout the block zone in a variety of ways based on the hop depth (Level) and lateral range (Lane). The Blocking Mat shown in the video above can be used as a training tool to help conceptualize the blocking zone and provide a framework for players to learn the various movement patterns required to control the ball in the dirt effectively.

The spirit of this tool is not to memorize a plot of space and expect players to decode specific lanes and levels in a live blocking environment. The objective is to promote versatility and train a variety of movement patterns centered around the end task and intended goal of getting the ball to an indenifyed area of the body that promotes ball control and security. This process will likely expose some stance vulnerabilities which will force players to make adaptations to their action stancse to become more dynamic, agile, and athletic.

So to answer the question above: are catchers blocking skills declining? I’d say no, instead, the game continues to get harder.