8 Essential Fielding Skills For Youth Pitchers

Everything you need to know about pitchers' fielding practice (PFP) and a pitcher's defensive responsibilities

By Steven Ellis, former Chicago Cubs pitching pro
Updated March 15, 2017


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ATTENTION PARENTS: While there aren't many pitching programs that are age-appropriate and safe for kids 7-14, there is one that provides youth pitchers with effective guidelines for strength training, pitching mechanics, and how to pitch faster in baseball.

Click here to learn more about my youth pitching program.

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Are you interested in learning more about a pitcher's fielding responsibilities?

In this article, you'll learn everything you need to know about how pitchers can improve their defensive skills on the field.

You'll also learn pitchers fielding practice drills (pfp drills) and other tips to become more proficient at fielding your position and preventing the other team from advancing bases or scoring.

Let's get to it...

Often overlooked and under utilized, Pitchers' Fielding Practice is an essential part of a pitcher's repertoire and can be a critical factor in winning or losing ball games. 

Greg Maddux Gold Glove imageGreg Maddux certainly knew something about that...

Most agree he was the best fielding pitcher of all-time. And he's got 18 Gold Glove Awards over his 23-year career to back the claim.

In fact, Maddux is the only pitcher in Major League history to sweep an entire decade (1990-1999) of Gold Glove Awards.

As Maddux demonstrated time and again throughout his career, a pitcher's fielding responsibilities include fielding ground balls and bunts, turning double plays, backing up bases and holding runners.

Doing these little things well can mean the difference between a run scoring or even winning a game.

The bottom line is this:

Fielding is something every pitcher should be good at; there isn't any reason in the world why a pitcher should not be a good fielder.

Pitchers fielding skills quote image

Pitching coaches will acknowledge that instinct and athleticism play a role in how well a pitcher is able to field his position, but I also say "situational awareness" in games and repetition through pitchers' fielding practice or PFPs can improve a pitcher's skill and install proper technique.

1. Fielding ground balls

Dallas Keuchel fielding a baseball imageDallas Keuchel fielding the baseball for the out during the baseball game. (Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire)

A good fielding pitcher can help himself and his team by getting a few extra outs, stopping runners from advancing on overthrows, minimizing stolen bases, covering for teammates, and starting double plays.

Here are some basic guidelines for pitchers when fielding ground balls:

  1. The slower the ball is hit, the faster the pitcher must move toward the ball.

  2. The slower the ball is hit, the more important it is for the pitcher to get his feet and body set to throw the ball.

  3. The pitcher should use two hands if the ball is moving, and only bare hand if the ball has stopped.

  4. If the ball has stopped rolling as you reach it on the run, press down before picking it up. It's counter intuitive, I know, but pressing down will actually help you get a firmer grip on the baseball and make it easier to pick it up.

  5. The key to proper fielding is to be square to the ball as it approaches. This position maximizes the glove area open to the ball, and provides a bigger obstacle for the ball to hit should it prove difficult to handle.

  6. If you have time, get over and into the path of the ball. Lead with your glove, always keeping it out in front of your body. Do your best to get in front of the ball; but if you can't, then judge the speed and trajectory of the ball to field it on the run.

  7. Once you're in front of the ball, your glove foot should be slightly ahead of your throwing foot, with your glove wide open very close to the ground. This position allows you to turn, look, step and throwing quickly.

  8. Remember to extend the glove in front of the body toward the ball. Keep the glove low! You can bring the glove up much quicker than you can move it down.

  9. Watch the ball all the way into your glove, using both hands trap the ball in the glove, and then to get the ball out of the glove quickly for the throw.

2. Pick off plays to first base

Let's take a closer look at the pick off move to first base. Check out Johnny Cuerto's move...

Johnny Cueto pickoff play imageJohnny Cueto throws over to first base after his hands come set.

The pitcher can throw over to first base after he comes to a set position, or as his hands move up or down while getting ready to come to a set position, as long as the first baseman is at the bag holding the runner. 

As the pitcher, particularly a right-handed pitcher, is starting his hands up to get into a set position, he may choose to turn and throw over to first. 

Justin Verlander pickoff play imageJustin Verlander doesn't wait to make a throw on this pick off.

He may also turn to throw over as his hands move downward to assume the set position. This move is particularly effective if the base runner tries to get an early lead or if the base runner tries suddenly to extend his lead.

Many pitchers, like Royals right-hander James Shields, think the power of a great pick off move lies in a pitcher's ability to make concise movements. Shields said he's always focused on having quick feet and a short arm stroke.

That attention to detail has made him one of the best at picking off base runners. Tallying two pick-offs so far this season, Shields has a total of 26 pick-offs since making his Major League debut in 2006, which is the most by any right-hander in that span.

"For me, it's just identifying and recognizing leads," Shields said. "If you understand how to identify leads at first base, you know when to pick and when not to pick. It's kind of evolved into more of a recognition thing rather than trying to get any better."

David Price pickoff imageDavid Price pick off.

The left-handed pitcher is facing the runner. A lefty may also throw to first base before coming to the set position, but he can create more deception by using balance and timing after he comes to the set position.

If the first baseman is holding the runner, the pitcher can turn and throw whenever he’s ready.  If the pitcher is right-handed, the catcher can keep an eye on the runner’s lead and can signal the pitcher to throw to first. 

If the pitcher is left-handed, he has a good view of first – and the runner will be more careful. 

Since your first baseman will move off the bag once the pitcher starts his delivery to the plate, you can use his movement to your advantage.  

Many runners will key off the first baseman to now when a left-hander is going to the plate.  Develop a signal between your first baseman and pitcher so they’ll know the play is on; then have your first baseman take a quick step off the bag as if he’s getting ready to field his position.

Pitcher pickoff play for first base image

The runner may automatically start to extend his lead, and if the first baseman retreats as the pitcher is throwing to first, you may catch the runner off guard. 

When the first baseman plays behind the runner, the pitcher and the first baseman will have to work out a signal to execute the play.  The pitcher has to know the intention of the first baseman or he’ll throw the ball away or balk.  If he knows the first baseman will move to the bag, a timed pick off can be effective.  This can be done by counting or by having the pitcher visually time the movement of the first baseman.

When the first baseman playing behind the bag, a count pick off works well and can surprise the runner.  Generally, on a count pick off, the movement toward first base by the first baseman begins when the pitcher turns his head to look toward home plate.  The pitcher begins to count one thousand one, one thousand two, and when he reaches the one-thousand-three count, he turns and throws to the first baseman, who should just be reaching the bag to make a tag.  That’s just an example – you’ll have to practice the play to determine the right count to use for your players.

You can also use a timed play for bunt situations.  If the first baseman holds the runner at first, he has to move off the bag and charge toward home plate for a bunt or when the batter simply squares to bunt.    A good planned play calls for the first baseman to leave early on bunt situations. The pitcher waits until the first baseman is ready before throwing to the batter.  As the pitcher throws to the plate, the first baseman charges directly towards home. 

On the next pitch, the pitcher comes set, and the first baseman charges home before the pitcher delivers.  After taking three steps toward the plate, he goes quickly back to first and takes the throw from the pitcher who has timed his movement.  Ideally, the ball and the first baseman arrive at first base at the same time.  If you run this play you can catch a runner who has gone to a secondary lead too early.

3. Pick off plays to second base

Pitcher pickoff play to second base image

Picking runners off second is tough.  At the very least, you’ll need to keep the runner honest and using pick off plays will at least create doubt in the runner’s mind.

The shortstop or second baseman is responsible for keeping the runner close to the bag.

The pitcher should not throw to home plate until the runner at second base is stabilized or forced back toward the bag. 

Never allow a walking lead, unless the runner is hesitant and walking a few steps from the bag.

If the infielder is unable to stabilize the runner or minimize his lead, the pitcher should step off the rubber.

4 pick off plays to second base

There are several basic pick off plays you can use.  Let’s take a look at them:

  1. COUNT PLAY

    After the middle infielder, usually the shortstop, gives a signal, the pitcher turns his head toward the hitter.

    That starts the count for the pitcher and tells the infielder to start moving to the bag.

    The pitcher counts, then turns and throws to the bag.

    The goal is for the ball and the infielder to arrive at the same time.

    To make the play more deceptive, the infielder giving the signal may signal to the pitcher to look back at the plate more than once. The count can begin on the look the infielder calls for.

    For example, your infielder could signal the pitcher to count on two—the pitcher looks back to second, looks back again, and starts his count.

    That will keep runners from being tipped off when a count play is on.

  2. DAYLIGHT PLAY

    When the shortstop is covering the bag and gets closer to the bag than the runner so that the pitcher can see daylight between the two, the pitcher should turn and throw to the bag.

    When the shortstop gets far enough ahead of the runner to show daylight to the pitcher, he should always continue to the bag.

    The pitcher must throw to him or step off—if he throws to the plate the shortstop will be way out of position.

    To let the pitcher know he’s continuing to the bag, the shortstop can point his glove toward the bag to show he’s definitely going all the way to the bag. That signals the pitcher that a pick off play is on.

    If the second baseman is covering the bag, his bare hand should extend toward the bag to tell the pitcher that a pick off play is on.

  3. FAKE-AND-GO PLAY

    Both middle infielders and the pitcher are involved in the fake-and-go play.

    After the signal is given, one middle infielder moves quickly to the bag. This action should force the runner to step back toward the base.

    After drawing the runner back, the covering middle infielder moves quickly back to his position, causing the runner to move toward third base and re-extend his lead.

    As the covering middle infielder starts back to regain his fielding ground, the other middle infielder moves quickly to the base to receive the throw from the pitcher.

    The pitcher times the second infielder. 

    His throw ideally arrives at second base as the second infielder gets to the bag. Either middle infielder may break first and retreat from the base, leaving the other middle infielder responsible to time the action, move in to receive the throw, and make the tag on the runner. 

    A signal lets the pitcher and infielders know which infielder will fake and which will to take the throw.

  4. IN-OUT PLAY

    The in-out move is a pick off play one infielder executes.

    The play starts with the normal process of driving the runner back to the bag.  As the shortstop moves toward the bag, he can read the base runner's reaction. 

    If the runner immediately moves back to take a lead as the shortstop goes back to his fielding position, the in-out can be effective.

    To run the in-out, the shortstop moves off the bag in a different angle than normal.  The pitcher will need to be able to recognize the difference in the angles. 

    The shortstop moves off the bag but drifts toward center field so that the pitcher can recognize that a pick off play is on.  The runner assumes he’s moving back to his position, extends his lead, and the shortstop heads back to the bag to take the throw from the pitcher. 

    The shortstop can also indicate the pick off play is on by opening his glove to the pitcher. 

    This pick off is like the daylight method – it can be done on the fly.  The second baseman can use the in-out play as well.

4. Pick off plays to third base

Prearranged pick off plays can be used at third base.

The pitcher and third baseman can use the count method, or the third baseman can break for the bag when the right-handed pitcher is at the top of his leg lift. 

The third baseman can also work an effective pick off with the pitcher by pointing with his bare hand toward the base, indicating to the pitcher that he is going to the bag.

The pitcher should time the third baseman and get the ball to the bag as the third baseman arrives.

Not as many pick off attempts are made at third as are made at other bases, yet they should be in my opinion—that's because holding the runner makes it less likely he’ll advance on a passed ball. 

Just like with any other base, though, if the runner is taking a cautious lead, keep an eye on him but don’t risk a throw.

5. Pick off plays with the bases loaded

The catcher starts the bases-loaded pick off play, which is most effective when the shortstop covers second. 

This planned play requires a signal to the shortstop and the pitcher. 

The catcher signals the pitcher should pitch from a wind-up.  That will make all runners relax. 

Then, the catcher signals the pitcher and the shortstop that a pick off at second is on. 

The shortstop breaks for second, and the catcher signals the pitcher when to turn and throw to second. 

The catcher will have to time the play so that the shortstop and the ball arrive at the same time, and he is responsible for the timing between the shortstop and the pitcher. The shortstop has to stay alert for the runner at third breaking for home. 

This pick off can also be used when runners are at second and third.

6. Pick off plays for first and third situations    

Pitcher pickoff play first to third image

With runners on first and third, the pitcher can control of the situation.  At a minimum, he can cause the runners to be cautious.

You’ll often hear people say this play doesn’t work. 

Does it result in an out? 

Not very often…

...but if it freezes a runner or causes him to be hesitant, it’s worked. 

And if your pick off moves get a runner out, great!  If they don’t, but they cause the runners to be less aggressive, they’re still working, in my opinion.

The right-handed pitcher should make the start of his delivery look normal by lifting his stride leg to its normal height.

He should look home before and during the leg lift. 

Because this is prearranged, he can use balance to make it look as though he is going to throw the pitch to home.  But instead of striding toward the plate, he sets his stride foot down by using a shorter stride and directing the stride foot toward third base. 

After a short stride toward third base, the pitcher releases his push-off foot from the rubber and then quickly pivots and throws to first base. In essence he’s faking to third and throwing to first – just make sure he takes his foot off the rubber before he throws to first.

At the least, this move causes the runner at first to stay closer to the bag.  If the runner at first base starts to steal as the pitcher lifts his leg, the runner can be picked off. 

This play can also be run the opposite way. The right-handed pitcher should quickly step back off the rubber, fake a throw to first, and then use a full pivot and try to pick off the runner at third base.

The left-handed pitcher can step back off the rubber, fake a throw to first, and then pivot to try a pick off at third.  The left-hander can also fake a throw to third, get off the rubber by stepping back, pivot quickly, and throw to first base.

7. Covering first base on balls hit to the right side of the infield

On all weakly hit balls to the right side of the infield, the pitcher should move toward first base.

It should be automatic. Every time the ball is hit to the right side.

If the ball is caught by the first baseman too far from the bag, the pitcher will have to take the throw. Even if the first baseman doesn't catch the ball, and it is caught by the second baseman, often the first baseman finds himself too far from the bag to take the throw, and again the pitcher has to cover.

The best way for a pitcher to cover first base is to run on a straight line toward a point on the foul line about 15 feet from the bag, and then, just as he reaches the line, turn sharply left, running up to the bag, where he can take the throw.

8. Backing up bases

A pitcher’s job isn’t over when he throws to the plate. 

On ground balls to the right side (the first base side of the infield), he’s responsible for covering first. 

On balls hit to the outfield, he’s the backup for most throws back to the infield.

The key to backing up bases is to know where the play will probably end up. 

For example, on a base hit to left field, the pitcher should move to a spot between first and second, in line with the throw to second and out of the way of the base runner.  He becomes the back up if the outfielder overthrows second or the ball gets away from the infielder. 

If the pitcher will end up in foul territory when backing up a base, he should go as deep as he can.  Moving up to get a bad throw is always easier than having to go back – and that way the play will always be in front of him.

With a runner on first and a routine hit to the outfield, the pitcher should back up third.  If he’s in doubt, many coaches teach their pitchers to go to a spot closer to than home than third, and then to adjust depending on where the play develops.  The reasoning is simple: the left-fielder should be moving to help back up third, so the pitcher’s priority is backing up home.

If the ball gets by the outfielder or is an extra-base hit, the pitcher should back up home and be ready to move to back up third base in case the play shifts to third. 

On all plays at the plate, the pitcher should back up the catcher, again about twenty feet behind him in direct line with the incoming throw.

When an extra-base hit occurs with runners on first and second, the pitcher should hustle to a position between home and third base where, and as he sees the play develop, he can adjust to where the throw ultimately goes.

If the ball is hit to the right side, the pitcher will break towards first in case an infielder stops the ball and he needs to cover first. Once the ball goes through the infield, he needs to hustle to be ready to back up third or home.

If the ball is hit to left field with a runner on first, the pitcher can back up third by moving over the third base line into foul territory.  If there are runners on second and third, he should move behind home in line with the throw from the outfield. He should be ready to cover home plate as well as get any wild throws.

The goal of backing up bases is simple – if a throw is off target, you can still hold the runner from taking extra bases. 

If you have trouble convincing your pitcher to hustle to back up plays, remind him that it’s the best way he can help himself stay out of even worse jams on balls hit to the outfield.

Get my youth pitching program

Youth pitching program
If your son a pitcher, you're going to love this guide...

While there aren't many pitching programs that are age-appropriate and safe for kids 7-14, there is one that provides youth pitchers with effective guidelines for strength training, pitching mechanics, and how to pitch faster in baseball.

Click here to learn more about my youth pitching program.

What do you think?

Now it's time to hear from you:

Are there any pitcher fielding techniques or tips that I missed?

Or maybe you have an idea of how I can make this list even better.

Either way, leave a comment and let me know.

Before you do, make sure to grab your free PDF version of this checklist that you can print out and use as a reference. It shows you all 8 essential fielding skills for youth pitchers (and get 4 bonus drills not found in this article).

Click below to download the free checklist: