Men of Action

The execution and dedicated practice of base running can take any good team to the level of a great team. Understanding and practicing the base running philosophy explained here will allow players to become “men of action” on the base paths.

The goal of any base runner should be to be a “man of action.” By giving an exceptional effort on the base paths, a base runner should return to the dugout, either after a run or an out, tired. Fundamentally, a base runner should always run with his eyes up. Seeing the ball, the players, and the action is vital in reacting to the action, especially in hit and run or bunt situations (three steps and peek in those situations). A “man of action” seeks to take advantage of the other team’s errors and weaknesses, and recognizes that he is not out until the bag is touched or the ball is caught. He will run hard until then. The pace a “man of action” takes dictates the ability to take the appropriate risk. He recognizes that his pace comes from the beginning of the play, not halfway through the play.

A “man of action” will also be aggressive as a base runner and take calculated risks. Base runners who exercise this mindset put constant pressure on the defense and force the other team to make extra throws. When pitchers pick off more often, it adds pitches to their pitch count. When catchers make more throws, it can wear out a lesser athlete. More throws by the opposing team equals more chances for error by the opposition, especially at the lower levels of baseball. More throws also leads to longer innings for the opposition. Runners can extend the amount of time the opposing team is on the field by drawing more throws from the defense. The more time on the field and the more throws by the opposition will inevitably lead to more errors and, eventually, to weaker offensive output by the opposition. In addition to drawing extra throws from the opposition, players should “think in twos” on the base paths - home to second, first to third, and second to home. Active base runners will push their opponents to the limit of competition. Coaches should encourage an “80% decision” by his players – if the player would be safe 80% of the time, it means it was a good decision, a good calculated risk. Open up the conversation with the players. As an aside, when a player gets a bad jump (out of the batter’s box, trying to steal, tagging up, etc.), the player shuts down the 80% rule and probably the idea of taking any risk on that play (“live to play the next play”).

Ball Hit - In Infield

When the ball is hit in fair territory, there are two possible outcomes - a ball that stays in the infield, or a ball that goes to the outfield. When the ball is hit and stays in the infield, the player should run a hard 90-foot sprint to and through the bag. After hitting the bag, the player should break down as quickly as possible (hopefully within three steps) to stop momentum and immediately turn his head to the right to check for an overthrow. If an overthrow has occured, the player should execute an inside turn off of the left foot for two reasons. The first reason for the inside turn is to maintain eye contact with the play with the purposes of reading the players chasing the ball - the first baseman, the second baseman, or the catcher. This eye contact allows the player to make a secondary read on the players after reading the primary read of the overthrow. Second, operating under the logic that the “shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” the inside turn allows the player to draw an immediate line between himself and second base.

Ball Hit - To Outfield

When the ball is hit and goes to the outfield, the player should run until the ball stops him. When executing the turn at first base, he should get wide, but not too wide on the turn. In addition, the player should run with a tilt in his upper body as he attempts to make repeated 90-degree turns. Notice in the movie how the players seek to make the ball stop their movement before planting their right foot and returning safely back to the bag.

Leads (Early, Primary, Secondary)

Once the player reaches first base, the player now has the opportunity to take a lead from the base. The type of lead and the distance from the base are critical components to teach. There are three components to teach: early, primary, and secondary.

The “early” lead position begins with the runner stepping with his left foot off of the base towards second base and followed by squaring up to home plate with his right foot. The runner is attempting to gain an angle to read the catcher’s signs from first base. Many young catchers will hang their signs too low or block the third base coach from reading the signs with no regard to what is happening at first base. Players should take advantage of this with their “early” lead position (see Movie 1.3 for an example of the “early” lead position).

After the catcher has given his signs to the pitcher, the runner will get his “primary” lead and communicate what he saw to his teammates with arm signals. If he saw a sign for a fastball, he will hang his right arm in front. If he saw the sign for an off-speed pitch, he will hang his left arm in front. If the runner was unable to decipher the signs, he will hang both arms in front.

The “primary” lead is accomplished by reaching the right foot towards second base, then the left, and then the right foot again. The runner should never cross his feet in this position. If a runner does cross his feet while gaining a lead off of a base, the pitcher should immediately attempt a pickoff move. Be aware of this as a base runner. The distance from the base in the “primary” lead position is around two body lengths from first base.

Another important coaching point regarding the “primary” lead position is for the base runner to keep his feet moving slightly, seeking to never be in a stationary position. This should be a relaxed movement as opposed to a fast, wild, or jerky movement (see Movie 1.4 for the desired pace and activity in this phase of the “primary” lead). The activity allows the runner to stay loose and to be prepared to move back to the base, engage in his “secondary” lead and react to the pitch, or to steal the base.

The “secondary” lead is accomplished once the pitch is thrown. There are two acceptable executions of the “secondary” lead - an aggressive shuffle towards second base or a fake steal. In both of those scenarios, the base runner’s right foot must be planted in the ground upon the ball’s contact with the catcher. This gives the base runner the proper physical position to retreat to the base as he draws a possible throw from the catcher. Going back into the base should be accomplished by either diving back with the right hand or driving the right foot into the base to protect one’s self from an errant throw or contact by an opposing player. The aggressive shuffle is the most common method of executing the “secondary” lead, but the preferred method is the fake steal. A base runner who is seeking to be a man of action on the base paths will execute the fake steal somewhere around once every three pitches in an effort to create a “cry wolf” mentality in the defense. The more often the defense calls “runner” and the runner doesn’t go, the more likely the team will be able to sneak stolen bases in during the course of the game.

Balls in the Dirt

Before moving on to the technique of stealing bases, it is important to discuss what the runner should do when the catcher goes to his knees to block the baseball. The base runner should see the path of the baseball even before the catcher goes to his knees and when the catcher drops, he should steal second base. This skill takes considerable practice but can result in multiple steals a game when he sees the catcher drop to his knees. Players should learn this skill at a young age and begin to take second base with confidence when the catcher drops to his knees. The runner will begin to gain a sixth sense for advancing on a pitch on a downward angle with a catcher dropping to his knees.

Stealing Bases w/ Mind Switch

Stealing bases is an art form. As with anything in art, certain techniques should be applied. The techniques that will be shared here will help base runners of all shapes, sizes, and levels of speed learn how to successfully steal a base.

To begin, players must find a way to be tension free, relaxed and comfortable, in order to achieve the best possible jump. This concept applies to so many different aspects of the game of baseball that it should become part of the instruction of every part of the game. In addition to being tension free, the player should exercise more of a soft focus on the pitcher versus a hard focus on a specific body part. The base runner should see the pitcher but not stare at him as staring causes and increases tension.

More specifically, as mentioned previously, the player should reach a lead around 12 or 13 feet. Also mentioned before is the idea of keeping one’s feet active. Some players struggle with having relaxed and active feet in this process so if that is the case, have the player put a little more weight on the right leg as they attempt to open their toes to second base ever so slightly. Whether one is active or more stationary with his feet, it is the final concept that is the most important - “mind switch.”

Every player should be looking for a pitcher’s “tell” - that point in time when he changes his focus from the runner on base to executing the pitch. This looks different from every pitcher. Some pitchers use the same or similar timing on a majority of pitches. For those pitchers, the U-C-L-A method should be employed (once the pitcher comes set, the runners and coaches should say U-C-L-A to find which letter the pitcher delivers the pitch most often). For other pitchers, there might be a physical tell - a shift in the head, the eyes go from looking over the shoulder to the plate, or something to that effect. Whatever that moment is, an excellent base runner will know that moment of “mind switch” and be able to steal bases because of it (see the movie for examples of “Mind Switch” as exhibited by Brian Roberts).

Since employing these strategies over the past two seasons, the Valor Baseball program has doubled the total output for stolen bases (187 stolen bases in 2011, 217 in 2012, 241 in 2013 as compared to 96 in 2010 and 104 in 2009). The methods take a lot of dedicated practice and it is practice that bears much fruit.

Stealing Third Base

Many base runners believe that third base is actually the easiest base to steal. There is truth to this idea, especially when excellent technique is employed. To begin, the same three stages of the lead still applies: early, primary, and secondary.

The early lead from second base requires the runner to gain enough of an angle off of the bag to see the signs from the catcher. Most often, the catcher moves to the second sign as the desired pitch. As a reminder, if the runner believes he read the sign properly, he will signal to his teammate the sign. If he saw a sign for a fastball, he will hang his right arm in front. If he saw the sign for an off-speed pitch, he will hang his left arm in front. If the runner was unable to decipher the signs, he will hang both arms in front.

The primary lead from second base will be somewhere between 3-3 1/2 body lengths. Again, the runner should practice the habit of active feet at second base. If the third base coach feels it is desirable to gain a bigger lead, he will say “clear.” If the defenders are moving in position to pick off the runner, he will say “back.” if at any time the coach is able to say “clear” three times in a sequence without saying “back,” the runner should steal the base. Once “back” is uttered, the runner has had to stop his feet and stealing third base on that pitch is not in the cards.

The secondary lead from second base presents two options for the base runner, either of which is acceptable and will depend on the preference of the runner. The first option is a “vault” step as the pitcher turns his head, either on his first or second look, depending on the pitcher’s tendency. The second option is an active feet option in which the runner starts shuffling his feet towards third base, again at the time the pitcher turns his head. Movie 1.7 exhibits all of these techniques, including more footage of Brian Roberts now stealing third base using a mixture of these techniques. The concept of “mind switch” is still in play as well as the runner seeks to advance to third base via the steal.

To reiterate, the base runner’s right foot must be planted in the ground upon the ball’s contact with the catcher so the base runner can read the play properly. However, a ball that forces the catcher to drop to his knees with a runner on second base requires a different reaction from the base runner. The base runner requires the catcher to drop to his knees and the ball to kick away from him to advance to third base. The runner is looking for “knees and a kick” when moving up on a wild pitch at second base.

Leads from Third Base

The final base from which a base runner can take a lead is third base. From third base, a couple of simple rules apply. The runner’s lead is predicated on the third baseman’s distance from the bag. The base runner can feel comfortable taking a lead that is inside or at that distance from the base as it will take the fielder the same amount of time to reach the bag while the fielder will still have to execute a catch and a tag. That will represent the primary lead for the runner from third base as there is no early lead for a runner from third.

The secondary lead from third base is more of a walking lead towards home plate, again to create activity in the feet. The right foot plants upon the ball entering the contact zone and the base runner reads the play appropriately. A couple of important notes on returning to third base. The base runner should always go out in foul territory to avoid being struck by a batted ball in fair territory which would result in an out. The base runner should always retreat back to the base in fair territory as to cut off the angle from a throw from the catcher. A ball that hits or glances off of the base runner could result in the ball ricocheting into left field allowing for an easy run. It is for this reason that the runner should avoid sliding back to third base on a throw from the catcher as well (see Movie 1.8 for the proper execution of the primary and secondary lead from third base).

Practicing Base Running

There are a number of excellent ways to practice these elements. Making sure that there is a base running element to every practice is critical. If you emphasize it through dedicated practice, your team will be good at it. One way to work leads and breaks from each base using four lines. Take the existing base and line up three throw-down bases right behind the existing base. The drill can be run from any base and the pitchers should work in the following pattern:
-    All pitches to the plate (no picks, runner warm-up)
-    All high leg kick, runners get good jumps
-    Pitches and Picks
-    Pitches with Slide Steps
-    Pitches, Picks, and Slide Steps
-    Pitchers should be 1.3-1.4 to home plate

In addition, coaches should include practice on running to each base so that different situations becomes second nature for the players. A cycle such as the one listed below is an excellent example of base running as conditioning while still getting in excellent practice:
-    Infield single
-    Outfield single
-    1st to 3rd
-    Sac Fly
-    Double
-    Score from 2nd
-    Triple
-    Squeeze
-    Home run (jog)

Another cycle to practice base running from first base is (repeating each 3-5 times each):
-    Lead, Hold, Extend, Sprint back
-    Lead, Hold, Extend, Ground ball break
-    Lead, Hold, Extend, Line Drive Read - break or back
-    Lead, Hold, Extend, Fly Ball Read - Tag, find ball, break or hold
-    Lead, Hold, Dive back into bag at 1B
-    Lead, Hold, Break, Straight steal

A final cycle to practice base running:
-    Home to First, ball in infield
-    Straight Steal to 2B
-    Rolling Ball to 3B
-    Ground ball with infield back to Home
-    Home to First, ball to outfield
-    Catcher’s Knees to 2B
-    Ground ball behind to 3B
-    Tag on Fly ball to OF to Home
-    Home to First, ball to outfield
-    Early Steal to 2B
-    Pitch in dirt, Knees and a Kick to 3B
-    Contact play past P to Home
-    Home to First, ball to outfield, stretch to 2B
-    Tag on Fly ball to RF to 3B
-    Squeeze to Home

More Base Running Notes

A couple of notes on more obvious situations but ones that bear constant repeating by coaches on the field. Coaches should constantly encourage the base runner to run with his eyes up to see all of the action. Holding up a hand and making the base runner shout the number of fingers the coach is holding up can help the runners realize on what they are focusing. For fun, in a situation where the base runner should be making the decision and not the coach (i.e. – a ball in right field and the runner is going from first base to third base), the coach could do a dance of some sort to bring some humor to the practice situation. Stress the concept of vision to the players at all times.

In a more specific example, when a runner is on second base, the coach should remind the runner at second base that a ground ball hit in front of them must get through the infield, while on a ball behind them they should advance to third and look to score.

Also, runners should recognize their place on the field and the distance of the next possible throw. For example, if the pitcher picks to the runner at first base in a first-and-third situation, the runner at third should gain ground and not retreat to the bag. Any time the ball is two bases away, remind the base runner that the ball is over 120 feet away from him and that he should gain ground until stopped.

Because we encourage such an aggressive style of baserunning, getting picked off may happen more frequently. Though the goal of our teams is to make zero outs on the base paths, aggressive baserunning necessitates a strategy for being in rundown situations. When our base runners get into a rundown, the base coaches will be encouraging the baserunner(s) to “win the rundown.” By encouraging the runner to maximize the amount of time he is in the rundown, we increase the possibility of an error by increasing the number of throws. One of the techniques to teach the baserunner in the middle of the rundown is “run to the glove.” As the area of the rundown decreases, the baserunner should run towards the glove of any player receiving a throw from a defensive teammate. The movie shows an example of a baserunner in the College World Series executing this technique. By running to the glove of the defensive player, the baserunner blocks the alley through which the thrown ball is traveling and potentially deflects the ball unintentionally while getting to the base safely.

Stopwatch times are important in base running as well. Understanding basic times of common plays are valuable. A commonly accepted infield to first base time on a ball in the infield is 4.5 seconds. A pitcher should be roughly 1.3 seconds to the plate and a catcher 2.2 second from pop to second base. The collective total is 3.5 seconds for this play. Finally, an outfielder should be able to throw the ball to the catcher in 3.3 seconds. A runner who commonly runs any of the above times faster than the numbers above will be a damaging base runner and one who can change the game for your team. Runners should be classified in three colors – green, yellow, and red. All players, no matter their color must take ownership of their base running. Green runners must own how, when, and why to do it. Yellow runners absolutely have to know and understand the concepts. Red runners must learn and work hard to improve on their speed.

One way to teach green and yellow runners to get better jumps from the physical perspective is to encourage them to get on a slick surface (i.e. - linoleum or hard wood floors at home) and work on their jumps. This will give them a better feel for their body - their feet, their center of mass, etc. - and how to waste no movements and no steps in trying to steal bases.

There is a lot more to base running and many more intricacies. Little things in the game such as never making the first or third out at third base, knowing when to be aggressive, trying to go from first base to third base with one out, and trying to get to second base with two outs, and over the years this document will continue to expand to include those elements as well.