Originally Published in High-Scoring Softball - Ralph and Karen Weekly - Human Kinetics
Stealing bases is a key part of aggressive base running. Obviously, speed is a very important element of success in stealing. However, a fast runner can increase her chance of stealing safely by using good running technique and timing (as discussed previously). She must be sure to leave the base as the ball leaves the pitcher's hand-and not a fraction of a second later.
Developing great timing will likely require the use of video, especially if the runner uses the rocker positioning. The advantage of the rocker positioning. The advantage of the rocker positioning is that, if the runner's timing is good, her body is already in motion as the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. The challenge with the rocker is developing the ability to start the feet in motion at the right time, because this must happen before the pitcher actually releases the ball.
Good base runners are also able to adjust to the different deliveries of pitchers. Some pitchers have a fast arm motion; others are much slower. Good base runners will study the pitcher during the warm-up pitches between innings and will get her timing down. Knowing when to start can be the difference between being safe or out in a close play on a steal attempt.
Straight Steals of Second or Third Base
When stealing, the base runner should run in a straight line to the base. Typically, the runner will slide to the side of the base that is farthest away from the ball. However, the runner should not slide around a fielder or slide by the base and reach back with a hand. When using these methods, runners take more time to reach the base, and time is critical in stealing bases.
The runner must also decide whether to slide headfirst or feetfirst. Each method has both pros and cons. Base runners should not slide headfirst into home plate because of the potential for a collision with the catcher's shin guards-and the risk of a head or neck injury. At second and third base, how¬ever, the quickest way to reach the base is to slide headfirst; the runner slides with her hands outstretched and she touches the base first with her hand. If the runner is attempting to disrupt the defensive player making a play on her (break up a double play or get between the fielder and a thrown ball), the feetfirst slide may be the better choice.
Stealing on Balls in the Dirt and on Changeups
Teams should work on being ready to steal on pitches in the dirt and on change- ups. The base runners should try to read the pitch angle as early as possible after the pitcher releases the ball. They should steal on any ball they believe is going to bounce in the dirt before it reaches the catcher. The runners may be tipped off that the ball is going in the dirt by watching to see if the catcher drops to her knees early to prepare to block the ball in the dirt. They also should try to read the changeup (either by a clue from the pitcher or as soon as possible after release) and attempt to steal when they see it.
The leadoff is a very important part of this skill. Leads must be on time but not so explosive that the runner has to stop, read the pitch or angle, and then restart. Once the runner stops, she has lost the opportunity because it takes too long to get the body restarted. The key here is to take a jogging lead. This enables the runner to maintain momentum and transfer to a sprint when she sees the steal opportunity. She is also able to change direction and return to the base if the opportunity for a steal is not there.
A pitcher who throws a lot of drop balls or changeups can create a lot of opportunities for the opponent to steal bases. When the defense knows that the offense is looking for any chance to run, the defense tends to make mistakes. An anxious catcher may take her eye off the ball because she is worried about the runner. She may fail to frame pitches because of the threat of a steal, thus costing her pitcher strike calls. A pitcher may be worried about throwing a ball in the dirt with a runner on base and may end up leaving the pitch up in the zone for the hitter to crush. Aggressive baserunning can result in a defense playing anxious-and when the defense gets anxious, mistakes occur.
The delayed steal is a great play to use to demoralize a defense. Earlier in the chapter, we discussed running through first base on an infield hit and staying on a straight line (the foul line) after crossing the bag. The delayed steal after a safe call at first is set up by two things: (1) the shortstop and second-base player leaving second base unoccupied and not paying attention to the runner who has just crossed first safely, and (2) the nature of the base runner's return to first base.
To execute the delayed steal, the runner turns to her left after she crosses first base and walks back to first base along the foul line, looking immediately to see if the shortstop and second-base player have vacated second base and are not paying attention to her. The runner must walk and take her time on her return to first, allowing the play to develop. Middle infielders often walk back to their positions with their head down after an infield hit. If the base runner sees that the middle infielders are too far away from second base and are not paying attention, the runner should take off for second base. Even if the ball is in the pitcher's circle when the runner breaks for second, this play is legal as long as the runner has not stopped on first base. Once the runner stops at first, she must stay there; otherwise, she will be called out for being off the base after the ball was returned to the pitcher's circle.
Another type of delayed steal (which is more common) is to steal off the catcher's throw back to the pitcher after a pitch. This play will be successful if these circumstances are present: (1) The catcher is getting lazy with her throws back to the pitcher and is not keeping the runners from taking big leads; (2) the pitcher is putting her head down or turning away from the runner when receiving the ball back from the catcher; and (3) the runner lulls the pitcher and catcher into thinking that she is not a threat to run, and she times her break well when she sees the opportunity.
Players are often confused about when to tag up on a fly ball and when not to. Here's a simple rule that takes care of most fly-ball situations: Runners should tag up only when they will advance on the catch. Otherwise, the base runner should get off the base far enough to sprint back safely if the ball is caught or to advance if the ball is dropped. The only exception to this rule is that base runners must tag up on all foul balls, because the runners can't advance on a dropped foul ball anyway.
Coaches must instruct their players regarding what the players should do on the tough plays where an outfielder is running away from the infield and the ball may or may not be caught. Some coaches want to take a chance that the outfielder won't make the play; these coaches instruct their runners to move on the hit. With this strategy, the goal is for the runners to advance extra bases if the ball isn't caught. The downside to this philosophy is that the runners may end up having to go back to their original base if the ball is caught. Other coaches may want their runners to tag up and be sure of advancing at least one base if the ball is caught. The downside here is that the runners likely won't advance more than one base if the ball isn't caught. Whether the game is played on an open field or a field with an outfield fence will play a key role in the strategy used.
To determine when to leave the base, runners should watch the catch rather than rely on the coach to tell them when to leave. They will react quicker to information processed with their eyes than to information they hear with their ears. At third base, the coach will tell the runner either "yes" or "no" when the ball is in the air. If the player hears "yes," she watches the catch and breaks for home as soon as the ball hits the fielder's glove. If the player hears "no," she watches the catch and then breaks off third base hard as if she is going to try to score (fakes going home); she tries to draw a throw-and possibly an overthrow-by the defense. She does not attempt to go on the catch but is ready to score if the defense makes a mistake.
At times, a coach may prefer to instruct the player when to leave the base on a tag-up play. If a particular base runner tends to leave early, even when the defense doesn't have a chance to throw her out, the coach may want to have the runner leave on the coach's command. In certain game situations, the coach may prefer to take responsibility for that decision and not risk a player leaving the base too early and being called out.
Whenever possible, a base runner should try to run in the throwing lane between the two defensive players who are trying to throw and catch on the play (see figure 3.11). For example, when a runner is tagging at third on a fly ball on or near the left-field line, the runner should stay in the line between the left fielder and the catcher when attempting to score. If a base runner is hit with a thrown ball, the ball is still live, and there is no negative effect on the offensive team. If the base runner can run in the throwing lane and interfere with the defense's ability to make a play, she will have a better chance of reaching the next base successfully. She may also cause an errant throw and create an opportunity to advance extra bases.