By: Marty Berson
Baseball, being a game of percentages, is the basis for our program's philosophy of getting runners to third base with less than two outs and scoring them with productive outs. Putting the ball in play consistently is a skill that can be developed. We want our hitters to put balls in play that force defenses to make compound plays in order to get them out. Our program is predicated on swing development that enables our hitters to put the ball in play with a consistency that produces swings that eliminate the easiest outs, the strike out, pop out and lazy fly ball out. We do not talk launch angles. We want our swings to produce a predominance of ground balls and line drives with back spin produced by hitting down through the ball. Hits, after all are a matter of luck. The more consistently the ball is put in play the luckier the hitter becomes. If our hitters are making four plate appearances a game, and are making ground ball or line drive contact, a higher percentage of those balls will find holes and avoid gloves. If not finding holes, those balls that force compound outs area harder to defend.
Once we get runners on base our goal as stated, is to get them to third base with less than two outs. We disdain from giving up outs by just sacrifice bunting. Being true to our philosophy with a runner on first with 0 outs, we are either stealing, slashing or run and hitting. We may even attempt to run and bunt. Hopefully inducing the third baseman to crash and leave third base open if the catcher fails to switch with the third baseman, allowing our runner from first to advance two bases. We have always considered it bad coaching to allow your team to hit into double plays. For that reason, we are always on the move.
Once a runner gets to second base with less than two outs, it is imperative that we find a way to get him to third with less than 2 outs so that he can score on a productive out. Our preference is a ground ball over a fly ball. We believe it is easier to hit a productive ground ball than a fly ball.
For us stealing third is easier than stealing second. Speed is a main component of stealing second base whereas stealing third is more technique oriented, as we will explain later. Don't misconstrue my statement, speed is always an asset when attempting to steal any base.
With a runner at second base in a 0-out situation and with the 3B anchored, we will usually drag or push a firm bunt toward third bunting for a hit not sacrificing. Worst case scenario, the runner is advanced to third. We are not sacrifice bunting. The push and drag are harder plays for the defense to make consistently. With no outs, the runner from second is free to attempt to steal third. Everyone is acutely aware of the number one rule of baseball, "don't make the first or third out at third base". However, if the runner has employed the coaching techniques that will be presented in this article, stealing third is encouraged regardless of the number of outs.
Our statement that stealing third is easier than stealing second base is based on the experience of how poorly most teams hold runners at second base compared to first base. Runners can get bigger leads off second than at first. Also, pitchers are predictable as to how many looks back at the runner that they are going to take prior to pitching to the hitter. With a right-handed hitter at the plate usually the second baseman has the responsibility of holding the runner. The shortstop covers with a left-handed hitter. Our runners are instructed to take the lead of the middle infielder holding them on. Pitcher's are either going to take one, two or three looks at the runner prior to pitching to the hitter. There is a new trend where some pitchers also use a zero-look approach at times. The number of looks is immaterial.
We teach our runner to make an educated guess as to how many looks, they believe the pitcher will take prior to pitching. We tell our runners to pick a number, always starting with ONE and modifying from there. Once our runner has assumed his maximum lead, he remains stationary as the pitcher looks back. Anticipating one look the runner takes his two shuffles toward third as soon as the pitcher's head begins to turn toward the hitter. If the pitcher's front leg lifts, our runner is stealing third base. If our runner was anticipating multiple looks, he remains stationary until he gets the number of looks that he had anticipated. Once this occurs, he shuffles and steals third as the front leg lifts. It is imperative that the runner not attempt to steal if he has not taken those shuffles and gained momentum.
When stealing third it is imperative that the runner has momentum toward third base and does not attempt to steal flat-footed.
Anytime our runner does not get the number of looks he was anticipating, he simply retraces the two shuffles he had taken and does not run on that pitch. Once the pitcher pitches he just gets lead extension. Our runners always retrace the two shuffles back toward second anytime he does not get the amount of looks anticipated. Our runner then repeats the same technique on the next pitch, shuffle as the head begins to turn and steal if the front leg lifts. If his prediction was correct, he is stealing, if not he retraces. We want our runners to learn to trust their instincts not doubt them. Be fearless is our watch word.
Stealing third is different vs the righty then it is vs the lefty. The differences occur when there is a pick off attempt at second base. Our runners are also taught to watch the feet of the pitcher as the head turns. If the front lifts or the heel of the back leg of the right hander pivots to his glove side and he is spinning away from the runner on his pickoff attempt, we are stealing. our runner who has shuffled toward third as the head began to turn steals third as the pitcher back picks to second base. This is contrary to what is normally taught but we have had a high rate of success with this technique. However, the runner cannot attempt to advance when the back heel of the lefty pivots to his glove side as he is spinning into the runner. There have been times vs the lefty that we have successfully stolen third base despite the lefty spinning glove side into our runner. We were successful because the lefty had his mind-set on back picking and threw behind our advancing runner. This happens frequently.
We also teach our runners to LOOK IN as they steal any base. We want our runners to have the ability to also read the inside move or spaghetti move of the righty. Besides, it is embarrassing to be sliding into third and the ball is at the backstop. We are not concerned with that move by the lefty. The inside move is easy to read provided that the runner continues to look in. We do not want our runners stealing on the inside move of the righty. It is our opinion that it is easier to steal third on a lefty in comparison to the right hander. Once the lefty lifts his front foot even if he uses the inside move, he will not be able to throw out our runner at third.
Stealing bases is the core of our offense. In that vain we spend an enormous amount of practice time on the art of stealing. It is not unusual for this aggressive style of play to be completely foreign to our new players. Getting them to be aggressive and fearless takes time and confidence building drills. Having them learn to anticipate the number of looks a pitcher will take off second can be achieved with the aid of live repetitive drills. Initially, our players instinct in respect to stealing third when the righty back picks is always to retreat not go forward. That's what they have been previously taught. This takes time to develop and instill the new instinct of stealing and not retreating when the righty back picks.
Be patient and stay the course, it will pay dividends down the road. It has been said and it is true of our program, "We live by the sword and sometimes we die by the sword".