By STEVE KRAH
Levi Jordan, an infielder in the Chicago Cubs organization, holds an economics degree from the University of Washington.
To study economics is to look at efficiency, trends and systems. Jordan sees that transferring to sports and, specifically, baseball.
“There are more efficient ways to play the game,” says Jordan, who played 66 games for the Midwest League champion South Bend Cubs in 2019 and shared aspects of infield play at the monthly South Bend Cubs Foundation Cubbies Coaches Club session Monday, Dec. 16 at Four Winds Field. “You can master your foot work or perfect mechanics. There are just little things that you can add on to your game that makes you a more efficient player.”
Jordan covered areas such as pre-pitch routine, science and technique, circle of focus, the difference in corner and middle infielders, where and how to practice, communication and infield positioning and shifts.
Pre-pitch routine can go by many names – prep step, set step, de-cleat/re-cleat.
“Essentially, the pre-pitch routine is a way to adapt rhythm and timing,” says Jordan. “We’re trying to optimize range for infielders. We’re trying to give our infielders the best possible chance to make not only the routine play, but expanding their routine play range.”
And it’s another way for players to be on their toes and locked in.
Jordan explained science and technique in four parts:
1. Eyes register an event, message is set to the occipital (visual) lobe in the brain.
2. Message travels from the occipital lobe to the frontal (decision) lobe.
3. Decision is made to take action.
4. Motor cortex sends control signals to the spinal cord and on to the relevant muscles.
“Between .2 and .3 seconds your brain can react to something,” says Jordan. “I’ve been told it’s not humanly possible to react to something visual in less than .2 seconds.”
With the de-cleat/re-cleat, the cleats are literally taken up out of the ground and back into the ground.
“The reason for that is so that .3 seconds of reaction can happen while you’re in the air,” says Jordan. “Many coaches have told me you want to be on the ground at contact. I argue with them all the time. If I’m on the ground at contact, the next thing I have to do is pick my foot up off the ground, which doesn’t make sense.
“If the reaction process happens in air, your decision to move right or left happens before your feet are on the ground. Your feet can move in a way to move in that direction by the time you’re on the way back to the ground.
“That perfect timing is what optimizes our infield range.”
For right-handed throwers, the right foot hovers above the ground, there is a false step and they move to make the play.
Jordan was first introduced to the circle of focus at Washington, where he started as a walk-on out of Puyallup and wound up on the all-Pac 12 team and played for the Huskies in the College World Series before being selected by the Cubs in 29th round of the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. The Huskies head coach was Lindsay Meggs, former head coach at Indiana State University.
Mental coaches in the Cubs system explain the focus principle to players.
“As a human being if you really intently focus on something, you can only do it for a certain amount of time,” says Jordan. “We don’t want to always be ready. I know that sounds different, especially for younger kids.
“If your brain focuses for shorter intervals of time, you want to relax your brain when you don’t need to be focused per se.’”
Jordan says the infielders step out of the circle of focus between pitches.
“It’s a time to anticipate the ball being hit to you,” says Jordan. “You’re going over in your head that if the ball is hit to me, I know what to do.”
It’s a time where infielders can communicate the number of outs and “flush” their previous at-bat and focus on the next defensive play.
In between pitches is also a time to present in the moment and be where your feet are, something that the late Dr. Ken Ravizza, one of Jordan’s favorite mental coaches, talked about.
“Once I step into the circle of focus, that’s when the pitcher is in his motion,” says Jordan. “You want to eliminate thoughts at this point. You’re going to have some kind of rhythm with your feet, getting in the ready position and beginning that beginning that process of de-cleating/re-cleating with a clear mind. You’re expecting the ball and ready to make the play.”
Jordan has a lower prep step and will wait until the ball is crossing the contact zone to come off the ground.
To illustrate the difference between corner and middle infielders, Jordan used Oakland Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman and Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies.
As a corner, Chapman has a lower head and eye level, a wide base, the glove is his shin or knee. It is the best position for him to move one or two steps left of right.
“At third base and first base, you have less time to react to the ball,” says Jordan. “You’re closer to the plate compared to a middle infielder. You don’t necessarily have time to get into a sprinting position. The majority of your plays are one, two, maybe three steps to your left or right.”
As a middle, Albies stands with a high, upright posture with his hands at his hips and a narrow base. This allows him to be quick to sprint and is the best position to cover more ground left, right, forward or back.
“We’re trying to cut out nonsense movements — things we don’t necessarily need to do – to be more efficient infielders,” says Jordan. “I don’t know that the timing is different between corner and middle infielders. Everybody should be in he air at contact.”
Jordan says players can get better at pre-step routine etc. during batting practice, drill time and speed/agility/weight room time.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important batting practice is for me to take those mental reps at third base, shortstop, second base,” says Jordan. “Being a utility player, it’s important for me to understand the angles and be comfortable in different positions seeing the ball off the bat.
“You can understand the type of pitch and what time does the bat come off the hitter’s shoulder for him to hit me the ball.”
Jordan notes that defensive shifting is growing in baseball cited a definition of a shift by David Waldstein in the New York Times: “It shows how a batter has the propensity to hit the ball to certain parts of the field. Teams will position their infielders accordingly.”
“I personally like it,” says Jordan. “It can really help your team win with team defense.
“It’s inefficient to put a defender where a batter’s never going to hit the ball, in my opinion.”
The pros of shifting including cutting down the size or something else.
“I see that all the time in Low-A ball,” says Jordan. “Some of my closest friends and teammates were left-handed batters who pulled a lot of ground balls.
“They would step up to the plate and see this giant, gaping hole at third base and try to put or lay a ball down the line for a double. All of a sudden, they are down 0-2 (in the count) because they are doing something they don’t normally do as hitters. That’s an advantage of the shift.”
On the negative side, it can put young infielders in uncomfortable positions. They are at places they don’t take practice reps.
“If not practiced enough, (shifting) can work in a negative way,” says Jordan.
There’s also the idea that many younger batters will mis-hit the ball, making the direction of the batted ball very unpredictable.
“It’s probably not worth putting on a heavy shift unless you are in pro ball or late college ball because hitters don’t really know what they’re doing (at the younger ages) and have a decent amount of bat control,” says Jordan.
Shifting can be done with data or by reading tendencies.
Jordan also sees the importance in communication in the infield.
“I was taught at a young age, if you move and you’re vacating a spot, you need to move somebody with you,” says Jordan.
For example: The shortstop takes a few steps to his left and the third baseman moves accordingly. The shortstop lets the third baseman know he is moving toward the middle or wherever.
The first baseman might let the second baseman know he’s playing on the foul line, moving in for a bunt or might need more time to the get to the bag if he’s shifted to his right. Fielders are talking about coverage.
“Communication is key,” says Jordan. “The success of your team defense and lack of errors depends on how successful you are at communicating with your (teammates).
“You’ve got to be vocal on the infield in order to relay those messages.”
Jordan says the Chicago Cubs use a numbering system for infield positioning (0 for straight, 1 for 1 to 3 steps pull side, 2 for 3 to 5 steps pull side and 3 for heavy shift). These come out of the dugout.
Others might use hand signals. That’s what was done when Jordan was in college.
For the past several off-seasons, Jordan has worked with Billy Boyer (who is now infield and base running coordinator for the Minnesota Twins).
Boyer, who says “Defense is nothing but a glorified game of catch,” is what Jordan calls a true teacher of the game.
“There’s a difference between coaching baseball and teaching baseball,” says Jordan. “A lot of organizations these days are moving toward teaching because they’e seeing the results that it develops players a little better. “Players respond better to somebody teaching them something to do rather than the evaluation part of a coach. A coach will be intimidating to some players because they think they are evaluating.”
Jordan will conduct an infield camp for high school players from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20 at the 1st Source Bank Performance Center. For more information, call 574-404-3636.
Levi Jordan, who played in the infield for the South Bend (Ind.) Cubs in 2019, shared principles of infield play with the South Bend Cubs Foundation Cubbies Coaches Club. (South Bend Cubs Photo)