Every Spring Training as Red Sox players and staff descend upon Fort Myers, there is usually one of two specific points of emphasis that will essentially be the theme of camp that year. Generally speaking, that focal point is determined based on something that our system might not have done well in the previous season. One year it was getting our infielders locked in on the tiny details of their position with things like where to setup on the base for tag plays or making sure they were lined up and out far enough for cutoffs and relays from the outfield. Another spring stressed to our base runners anticipation on balls in the dirt when on base to be in a better position to advance, while our attention was placed on backing up bases and plays to start a different camp.
A few years ago, our emphasis was placed on aggressiveness to get the lead out on our bunt defense. We wanted our pitchers to dart off the mound to be ready to make a play at 3rd. We instructed our catchers to take charge and direct traffic loud and clear. We wanted our infielders to cheat, creep, and crash on top of the hitter in order to get what could be a key out in a key spot in the game. Essentially, that year we simply hammered the point to our players to give themselves a chance to get the lead out when a bunt is put down, and if that lead out wasn’t there, then we’ll just handle the ball cleanly to take the out the opposing team is giving us at 1st base.
When we first practice our bunt defense on the back fields at Fenway South, we do so with no baserunners in a very controlled environment, making sure everyone is where they are supposed to be on the diamond. In many ways, it’s very much like an NFL team doing its walk-thru on a Saturday without any defense in preparation for their game on Sunday. We then roll bunts at varying speeds at varying spots to give everyone on the field different looks as they will likely see over the course of the long season. With the emphasis on being aggressive towards the lead out, the first few rolled bunts were sure-fire plays to 3rd; hard pace, right at one of our fielders in a position to make the play we were looking for, all with the catcher yelling, “THREE! THREE! THREE!”. The next few reps were what we would consider tweener sacs, bunts that our defense would have to execute to perfection in order to even have a chance at the lead runner. Again, with our attention on aggressiveness, every single tweener bunt went to 3rd base.
We then move on to the well-placed sac; that bunt when laid down in the perfect spot at a perfect speed, it is near impossible to get the lead out, and just as challenging to get the batter at 1st. Well, that first rep went to 3rd base. Our staff instructed that the play should have gone for the sure out at 1st. The next rep went to 3rd. As did the one after that. And the one after that. At this point I realize what we had done: with our constant stressing of aggressively going after the lead out, we had taken a group of what was at the time relatively inexperienced A-ball professional baseball players, and created bunt defense robots.
Stopping the drill right then and there, we gathered as a group on the mound to address this issue.
“Guys…we have to listen to the ball,” I started. “The ball has a voice and it will tell you what to do with it. We want that out at third, but sometimes it just might not be there. So stop memorizing the game, and let the play develop and make our decisions accordingly.”
The more they learned how to “listen to the ball”, the more they were able to slow things down and trust their eyes, as their decisions got better and better. This mode of thinking the game doesn’t just apply to bunt defense; it can and should additionally be implemented with baserunning (the ball will tell you when to go 1st to 3rd, when to go back to tag, etc.) and defensive (where to throw the ball from the outfield with a runner advancing, when to create a short hop by coming in or a long hop by going back in the infield). When players can constantly look at the ball and themselves what is it saying to them, they will begin to see the game in a different, clearer light.
The idea of listening to the ball also can aid in individual player development. Some of the best players in the world are likewise the most self-aware players in the world with an astute knowledge of who they are, what they do, and how they do it. When a player can effectively become his own coach without the constant need for feedback from someone else, they put themselves in a great position to get better all the time, not just when a coach or teammate is watching.
Hitting and pitching are two facets of the game right now that have become incredibly mechanically driven. Many players think internally, based on the feel of their swing or delivery. Putting a focus externally on what the ball is doing can offer a different way for them to perfect those mechanics without necessarily thinking about them.
For instance, when a hitter is working to improve his ability against velocity, they may initially think about shortening their swing to get the barrel to the ball. But if they instead listen to the ball, and saw how everything is going to the opposite field or foul, they may very well then make an adjustment in their timing to make contact to the middle of the field, fixing an internal flaw by listening to what the ball is saying off the bat. A pitcher can use the same train of thought with regard to things like arm angle, release point, break, or command. When they try to make the ball do something else, the mechanics have a chance to fall into place.
Baseball is very much a thinking man’s game, where two identical balls in play may require two completely different decisions based on the variables that come up over the course of nine innings per day, five-plus months of the year. While some decisions are no brainers, others require instincts and intellect just to have a chance at collecting an out, taking the extra base, or having a productive at bat. Those decisions don’t have to be made alone; let the ball help you. That ball indeed has a voice. Learn how to listen to it.