There is no such thing as a routine double play. Although it may appear routine to the casual fan, a lot has to go right to execute a twin killing.
Throughout the course of this season, I have noticed a lot of potential double plays wind up being a fielder’s choice, or, worse yet, a bad throw that results in an error and advances the runner to second base.
The main problem is that infielders, specifically second basemen, are late getting to the bag. This can be because they were not in the proper starting position, had a false perception of their abilities, or used incorrect pivots.
Here are ways to improve your spacing to turn a flawless double play.
The middle infielders should be in proper double play depth before the pitch is even thrown so they can get to the bag early enough to set their feet. But what is proper double play depth? Before we answer that, let’s start with positioning with no one on base. In that case, each middle infielder should be approximately six to eight steps away from the base and 14 steps back. This is a good starting point from which to adjust.
From this point, when there’s a runner on first with one or no outs, each middle infielder should take three steps toward home plate and two to three steps toward second base. This is standard double play depth.
Know Your Range
Standard double play depth should be adjusted to accommodate your degree of lateral mobility. Knowing your individual skill level will allow you to make the most of your abilities. If you have more range, you can position yourself further from second base and still be able to get to the bag with enough time to set your feet. (Improve your range with the Walking the Dog fielding drill.)
Just as base stealers mark how far they can safely lead off from a base, infielders can use the same tactic to mark how far they can stray from second and still get there in time to receive the feed and make an accurate throw.
During infield practice at your home field (or during batting practice before games on the road), find a visual point—a post in the dugout or a section in the stands, for example—as a point of reference to test your boundaries.
Once you have found a starting point, have your coach hit ground balls to you and your double play mate to see if you can get to the bag in time to make the pivot. Test yourself in practice by attempting to turn the double play in less than four seconds. Keep testing your boundaries to determine the extent of your range. (Master the fundamentals of fielding a double play ball with tips from LA Dodgers infielder Skip Schumaker.)
Shortstop vs. Second Base
When making the pivot, the shortstop has the greater responsibility, but the second baseman has a tougher job because his momentum is going away from first base. To get to the bag on time, the second baseman may have to cheat closer to the base. This is where really knowing your speed and range can benefit you as a fielder.
Knowing you can remain a few steps further away from the base will give you a sense of not giving up the entire right side, especially when a left-handed hitter is at the plate. It is much easier for a shortstop to play further away from the base because his pivot is easier to perform.
If second basemen are late getting to the bag or arrive at the same time as the ball, it seems to be in their nature to fly across the bag to make the throw. While some fielders are very good at this, the problem is that they are usually off balance when they plant their feet and have to adjust their arm angle—their elbow typically drops—to make the throw. This usually leads to an inaccurate throw and can put a lot of strain on the elbow and arm.
A better option is to use the step-back method. This allows the second baseman to harness his momentum and use the base as a springboard to land in balanced state.
To execute this, push off the bag with your left foot, stepping back at an angle with your right foot. Stepping back at an angle will allow you to gain ground toward first base and cut down on the distance of the throw. As you step back, keep your back heel pointed at your target. When your left foot hits, you should be square to and facing first base. To finish the throw, use your hips to thrust as you release the ball. (Watch video of Tampa Bay Rays infielder Ryan Roberts demonstrating the step-back technique.)