The Pitcher's Second Shift
Pitchers actually work two shifts. Their first shift is throwing strikes. Their second shift begins with the release of the ball. They then become a fifth infielder. Their ability to moonlight as an infielder can impact the game as much as anything they do from on the mound. Their fielding duties will vary with the situation and will be guided by the following principles.
Know What To Do Before The Ball Is In Play
Before every at bat, the pitcher should skim through a mental checklist of his coverage responsibilities. He must check the game situation and the offense's probable strategy, then coordinate this with his pitch selection and where he wants the batter to hit the ball. He can take his mental game one step farther by visualizing himself performing his defensive role.
End In A Good Fielding Position
The pitcher's momentum should bring him directly toward the plate and into his squared-away follow-through position: feet parallel, knees bent, weight evenly distributed over the balls of the feet, head up, eyes on the ball, and hands out in front.
From this position, the pitcher can move quickly toward the ball, prevent come-back smashes from hitting him in the chest or knees, and catch balls which would otherwise sneak through for singles.
Hustle Off The Mound
The faster the pitcher get to the ball, the more time he'll have to set his body for a good throw. Quick feet can mean the difference between inning-ending double-plays and higher ERA's. You don't want him to shuffle around the mound, passively watching the play unfold. His first few steps must be swift and decisive.
Turn Toward The Glove Side
If the pitcher has to come in to field the ball, as on a bunt or a swinging roller, he should come over the ball, field it with both hands, pivot toward his glove side, and stride directly to his target for the throw.
If he receives the ball from another fielder, say when covering first or backing up third, he should also spin toward his glove side to ensure a strong, accurate throw.
Throw To The Letters
The pitcher should deliver the ball about chest high to give the receiver a clear view of the ball and enable him to get off a quick throw or make a tag. We encourage pitchers to use sound throwing mechanics off the mound as well as on it. This involves using a crow hop to achieve body balance and keeping their fingers on top of the ball to apply backspin and to throw straight. Unless impossible, he should always take a step on his throw. Throwing without a step can put extra pressure on the arm-- a potential source of injury. The pitcher's throwing skills can be developed through "focused throwing" at the beginning of every practice. Instead of merely playing catch to loosen up, pitchers can throw at specified targets. The drill can be made both instructive and competitive by making a game of it-- awarding one point for hitting the chest and three points for hitting the head, with a reward going to the winner.
Beyond these fundamentals, the pitchers have specific fielding duties that will vary according to the number of runners on base, which bases they are on, the number of outs, and where and how hard the batter hits the ball.
Backing Up Bases
This usually means standing in foul territory at least 40 feet behind a base (usually third or home) and in line with the throw. If the fence is closer, the pitcher can stand with his backside brushing it. Most hits to the outfield will trigger the need for back up. The pitcher's immediate response should be to sprint half way between third and home, turn around, and quickly assess where the throw will go. Maybe the most important point to emphasize is to expect every throw to get by the base and roll to the fence.
The pitcher should be instrumental in ending the rundown with an out. As a rule, he should occupy a backup position behind either first, third, or the plate. He can become a primary ball-handler whenever he initiates the play or fills a gap created by infielders weaving in and out. Either way, the pitcher's objective should be to keep the runner away from the lead base and to make the put out with just one throw.
In any kind of double-play situation, the pitcher and middle infielders should communicate (with hand signals) to indicate the player who will cover second on a come-backer. After fielding the grounder and spinning toward his glove side, the pitcher should throw to the bag-- delivering the ball chest high to facilitate the ensuing catch, pivot, and throw.
Covering First Base
On all balls hit to the right side of the infield, the pitcher must immediately break for first base. He must always assume that the first baseman won't be able to get to the bag in time. He can take one of two courses to the bag. In a double-play situation, the pitcher should go right for the bag, tag it with the right foot, stop, and turn toward the infielder making the throw. If the initial play is to first, he should run to a point on the foul line about 10 feet from the bag, then run up the inside of the foul line to the bag. This will prevent collisions and give the first baseman an easy target. Immediately upon tagging the bag with his right foot, the pitcher should wheel around (toward his glove side) to check the other runners on base.
With a runner on first or runners on first or second in a sacrifice-bunt situation, the pitcher will share coverage of the infield grass with either the third baseman, the first baseman, or both. The pitcher must field anything he can reach and, whenever possible, cut down the lead runner. If he cannot get the lead runner, he must make certain to get the out at first. He will usually be called to throw without straightening up or using a crow hop, but he should still take a step and throw sidearm or three-quarters.
With runners on first and second, the pitcher has to work closely with the third baseman. The latter should start in on the tap and quickly assess whether the pitcher can reach the ball in time. If the pitcher can get there, the third baseman should immediately scramble back to third for the possible force out. The pitcher should come over the ball, field it, pivot toward his glove side, and throw to third without straightening up. If the pitcher cannot get to the ball in time, the third baseman should continue on in for the bunt and throw to first or, on a hard hit ball, maybe throw to second. The pitcher can then cover third base for a potential play on the lead runner. Rule: The infielders must get at least one out on the play.
Infield Pop Ups
Most coaches want their position players to handle all infield flies. Even in this scheme, the pitcher can still make himself useful. He can: (1) help his teammates locate the ball by talking to them and pointing skyward at the ball, and (2) cover any base vacated by a position player. At the youth level, hard throwing pitchers often dominate the game and can clock out after the "first shift". As they advance to higher levels of competition, the pitchers are expected to do more. They must understand their responsibilities as the fifth infielder and that their extra efforts can contribute directly to solid team defense and more victories.
Brian Priebe wrote several articles on coaching baseball when he was the head freshman baseball coach at Monte Vista High School in San Diego.