Baseball is a simple game: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. However, there is a difference between simple and easy—inexperienced pitching, growth spurts and a broad range of playing conditions/surfaces can literally “make the game harder than it is.” Granted, the team that does the basics better typically wins youth baseball games, but there is another large component that I believe makes a great impact on success, particularly at the youth level: baserunning.
Aggressive, heads-up baserunning provides the opportunity to score runs, invites the other team to make mistakes and allows us to take advantage of those mistakes. Having said that, it is something that has to be an emphasis and it has to be taught, not just talked about. It is not something that we can expect our athletes to suddenly turn on in a game. This article will cover skill progressions for teaching and practicing baserunning.
After a team warm-up, I like to start practices with baserunning. Not only is this a great continuation of the warm-up, but it emphasizes how vital I feel it is to both our short- and long-term success. It’s important to understand that a coach doesn’t have to work on everything associated with baserunning in every practice, as long as they do something each practice.
A youth baseball team needs to understand the coach’s philosophy with baserunning. I phrase it something like this, “When you get on base it is your job to get to the next base. If you are on first base, I expect you to get to second and eventually third base within a few pitches.” This sets the tone and the expectations for everyone, including the base coaches. This is also very doable, especially when you consider youth field dimensions and how fast some of these players are!
It all begins with a good lead (depending on what your league allows, of course). A good lead allows the baserunner to shorten the distance to the next base. It also means that the other team has to take the baserunner into account. The pitcher may have to interrupt their pitching to throw pickoffs, which could be good for batters. The catcher may get tired popping up, distracted with the baserunners, or less focused on receiving each pitch, which can create opportunities later on.
A poor lead, on the other hand, sends the message that a team is not serious, confident or even knowledgeable with baserunning. This means that the other team does not have to be distracted by it. It also means that our baserunners are starting out further away from the next base.
Baserunning at the youth level can be taught in several steps. I do believe it’s good to build this into a progression that starts very simple, establishes a foundation and builds from there. First, have the athlete take the lead you are looking for, get into an athletic position facing in, and then practice sprinting to the next base. This is a really important step because we want the athletes to be comfortable with their lead, and we do not want to waste any movement with our breaks, secondaries or steal starts.
Second, incorporate the pitcher. There isn’t much time to make it to the next base if the runner waits for the catcher to have the ball. The runner will have the most time if they begin their steal when the pitcher is moving forward in their delivery (again, depending on what your league allows). Some rules state that baserunners have to wait until the ball crosses the plate to advance into lead offs, secondaries or stolen base attempts. Either way, we are talking about the point where the pitcher is committed to delivering the ball homeward and is unable to stop and respond to the runner. This has to be practiced to become second nature in a game. Waiting until a game to start this will not work, fumbling through awkward secondaries only gets the other team’s attention that you’re not sharp in that area, and can even put umpires on high alert, ready to call a violation because your team looks like it may not be familiar with the rules. Runners need practice learning to watch the pitchers and time their moves accordingly.
Third, incorporate pick off moves. Put the runner on base, have them take their lead. Start with an infield defense and a batter, which will keep your players engaged longer in terms of their attention span. Help the runners learn what they can and cannot get away with when it comes to lead offs, steal starts and secondaries. This in turn should also help your defense and your pitching staff deal with uber-aggressive teams on the bases. Make sure to rep out situations that include runners on first base only, second base only, and both first and second, where you can incorporate double steals, wild pitch/passed ball awareness, and so forth.
But what about third base? It’s a long way from third base to home plate, even if the ball gets past the catcher. This is frequently a stopping point for the advancement of base runners, who may feel like they actually have to be a “run batted in” instead of looking for opportunities to score by themselves. The first way to help this is to shorten the distance between third and home. This begins with a good lead off third base. Remember, a wild pickoff means an opportunity to score! And you have the safety net of a coach that’s able to stay very close to you, since third is the only base on the field where you’re leading off in foul territory.
Along with the lead, tell the runner to aggressively move towards home as the pitcher commits to the pitch. Again, this has to be practiced before players can do it in a game. This means practicing with the pitcher’s motions to become comfortable with this. After working on the lead and the secondary, pickoffs should be incorporated to help both offense and defense practice the situations.
What about signs? Some teams just use a “red light” or “green light” system, but if you are a team that uses a lot of signs to direct the baserunning, then this has to be layered on top of everything else. They should be incorporated as the skills are taught.
Now that we’ve talked about our approach to baserunning, we’re going to work on your leads. As you get into your leads, glance at “Coach Smith” at third base. He’s going to give you the sign to take a bigger lead. Good, let’s practice that!
Now that we’ve worked on our leads, we’re going to practice getting into an aggressive lead. Look at third base, Coach Smith will give you the sign to steal when the pitcher commits to his pitch. We’re now going to practice that while our pitchers pretend to pitch.
As the team with runners on base, you would like to influence the other team to make some mistakes that you can capitalize on, even if you’re just making them pick off to bases more often. After all, the more times you have to throw and catch the ball, the higher the likelihood of making an error. If all other parts of the game were equal and one team had to make an extra dozen pickoff throws throughout the course of the game, who do you think is more likely to make a mistake?
Developing a well-coached team on the bases doesn’t necessarily require a lot of fancy drills, but you do need to detail and emphasize your philosophy as the coach, prioritize baserunning in practice, and teach/practice what you’d like the team to do in games with as realistic a situation as possible. Here’s to wreaking havoc!