|Making Sense Of Baserunning Strategies
|By: Ernie Smith
Provided by: NFCA
It can be a lot of fun - or disconcerting - to listen to the “peanut gallery” in the stands as a game plays out. Many freely second-guess coaching tactics and strategy without having the insight of those in the dugout about player capabilities, injuries, mistakes made or signs missed, or knowing where the players are in their training cycles.
Clearly, a team’s strategy for baserunning will be impacted by its personnel, and circumstances will create certain dilemmas for coaches that favor a particular style of play.
If loaded with capable hitters who are somewhat slow afoot, for example, a team may need to be conservative on the base paths and use a station-to-station approach. Each team will fit somewhat differently on the continuum from slow to fast and individual programs will vary from year to year.
Coaches are wise to consider an early evaluation of their talent pool, strengths and weaknesses in determining an overall approach to training before the season starts, and maintain some flexibility when personnel capabilities do not favor a preferred style of play.
Important aspects of that evaluation, which have nothing to do with foot speed, but may help you solve some dilemmas, are the team’s ability to move baserunners via the bunt, hit-and-run, sacrifice fly and hitting behind runners with zero or one out.
Another critical factor to evaluate is what I call “ baserunning smarts.” We’ve all seen those players who run the bases extremely well and make good decisions. Even with a team average speed that is low or below average, a coach’s impact in cultivating baserunning smarts is crucial to a team’s success on the field.
Each of us has to decide how much control to exercise over our baserunners. Some like to tightly control the running game and will only allow a baserunner to take an extra base if waved on by a coach or will verbally direct a tagging runner as to when (or if) they should move up on a fly ball.
Tighter control may be justified, particularly when a player has shown poor judgment consistently over time. The downside is that time is lost in communicating both verbally and visually - and time lost trying to take an extra base can be devastating.
Especially when developing young players, I’ve always favored letting them make their own decisions and giving them instructions to be aggressive.
By making their own decisions, they will be thrown out occasionally, but they will also learn from the experience and be better baserunners in future. A coach can always put on the stop sign if a player is running aggressively.
The good news is that baserunning techniques can be taught that will enhance the skill set of every player on a team no matter the strategy employed. There are plenty of good books on the market that discuss baserunning techniques.
The space required to properly cover those topics is not available in a short article such as this one, so I will try to focus on a few things that may not be covered as thoroughly, or emphasized as much, and that may help your team be more successful.
• Get your hitters to move up in the batter’s box, not back.
Staying back narrows the field of play (more foul balls), puts a runner farther from first base and allows pitches to break over a greater distance, making them harder to hit. Moving up in the box opens up the field of play (more fair balls), puts the runner closer to first base by a minimum of two feet, and cuts down some of the break on specialty pitches, making them easier to hit.
• Try putting a video camera behind your right-handed batters pointed directly down the first-base line.
When they hit a ball, almost all batters will run to the baseline, then to first base. If you draw this out on a piece of paper, they are taking an indirect route to first. Running straight to the base, on the inside of the first base line, is a shorter distance by at least four feet if one does the math.
Remember the only time runners are required to be on the right side of the first base line is when a play is being made from behind them, for example, on a bunt.
• For your runners that hit an infield ground ball, teach them a flash look to their right as they accelerate through first base.
They are often in a far better position than the coach to see if the ball gets through on an error, to see where the backup is in relation to the ball, and to quickly make a decision to try for second base.
• When not stealing, have your runners lead off behind the base line.
At first base, this should be four feet behind the line, allowing a runner to dive back into the back side of the base if the side is blocked by a first baseman down on one knee to stop a low pickoff throw. A deep leadoff also predisposes the runner for the turn at second going first-to-third on a hit, saving time.
At second base, this lead can be even deeper, allowing a very tight turn to the plate on a hit and providing the ability to go inside or outside of a catcher attempting to make a tag.
In both these cases, you can shave off 10ths of a second rounding bases, making your players quicker without actually increasing their foot speed.
• Be consistent in your approach to baserunning strategy during training, the regular season and the playoffs.
The tendency for teams is to change what they do in the playoffs and this temptation should be resisted. The easiest way to cross up your team is to change philosophy on the fly.
Hopefully, the suggestions above will benefit your team as much as they have our squads over the years. Good luck with the “ peanut gallery,” because no matter what you do there will be detractors and people who do not understand your team’s baserunning dilemmas.
Ernie Smith is the former head softball coach at Rich East (Ill.) High School and ex-assistant coach at Bradley University and with his father, Dick, at the University of St. Francis. He also spent time as an assistant baseball coach at the University of Illinois and has been a collegiate coach, clinician and speaker for over 25 years.