Base Instincts

When executed properly, an aggressive running game can make the difference between victory and defeat. However, teaching players how to win games with their legs means more than just developing speed and quickness.

By Abigail Funk

Abigail Funk is an assistant editor at Coaching Management. She can be reached at: afunk@MomentumMedia.com.

Coaching Management, 14.7, September 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1407/baseinstincts.htm

At first glance, base running seems pretty simple. Run as fast as you can until you score. But many factors come into play when base runners are forced to make decisions between the bags. How many outs are there? What’s the count? How does the runner’s foot speed compare to the third baseman’s arm strength if the ball goes to him? The pitcher just checked the runner at first a second time—will he do it again before throwing the pitch?

All questions aside, there are a few solid rules most coaches adhere to when coaching their base runners: When in doubt, slide. Hit the inside corner of the bag to save a step when rounding the bases. Always run through first base on a pop fly. But it’s the grey areas, such as how big a lead to take or how to anticipate the right moment to attempt a steal, that don’t have such easy answers.

In this article, we talk to college and high school coaches about the running game. They offer their base running philosophies, detail drills that help runners develop explosive first steps or anticipate where a pitch is headed, and explain why coaching the elusive baseball instinct is possible at any level.

Second Nature
Ask coaches what makes a great base runner, and their answers will vary. Some say sheer speed is the deciding factor, others say aggressiveness is most important, and still others say explosive athletes make the best base runners. But one attribute that comes up again and again is instinct.

“Instinct can make or break a base runner,” says Larry Price, Head Coach at Timberline High School in Boise, Idaho. “If a player hesitates or waits for a play to develop, it can cost his team the game. A great base runner doesn’t hesitate—he reacts simultaneously with the action that is taking place. He studies the pitcher, catcher, and the rest of the defense and knows what is going to occur before it happens.”

Barry Davis, Head Coach at Rider University, says all good base runners hustle, slide well, and are aggressive with their turns. “But,” he adds, “the great ones also have subtle instincts that are tough to teach.”

Which leads to the million dollar base running question: Can you coach instinct? “Absolutely,” says Bernie Walter, Head Coach at Arundel High School in Gambrills, Md. “Knowing what to do in a particular situation—based on the number of outs, the strike count, the position of other runners—just takes practice. I think you can coach every bit of it.”

Price thinks base running, like special teams in football, is often overlooked by coaches, but he practices it every day. “Neither is practiced enough on a daily basis,” he says, “but they can make the difference in the final score. If a base runner makes a heads-up decision, advances a base, and scores an extra run, it’s like a long punt return that can win a football game.”

Davis sees base running instinct as a combination of innate ability and learned situational awareness. “Those that have the instinct learn quicker,” he says. “They have a knack for knowing when to tag up or how far they can go without putting themselves in jeopardy. They get good jumps on short fly balls when on first or second. We spend a lot of time on base running in practice trying to ingrain instinct into our runners’ minds.”

During batting practice, Davis puts runners on each base and has them react to batted balls together. He uses protective screens randomly placed in the infield so his runners have to look past the screens to react. By having base runners react quickly in unison in practice situations time and time again, he hopes that by game day those decisions become instinct.

In a similar drill, Davis puts his pitchers on the field to act as the defense and again puts his runners on the bases. He hits a bucket of balls, and this time has each runner react on his own. His base runners are able to see what each other would do if on base alone in this drill, and are again forced to work in unison. “Repetition, repetition, repetition,” he says.

Getting players to trust their instincts may mean handing over the decision-making power and giving them a green light in some cases. “Ninety percent of base running is on the runner, not the coaches,” says Walter, who won his 10th Maryland State Championship this spring. But as coach, it’s your responsibility to make sure your athletes are equipped to make smart decisions on their own.

The Power Of Observation
A large part of successful base running is taking advantage of the defense’s mistakes. That’s why great base runners constantly observe the pitcher, the infield and outfield positioning, and even the catcher’s set position just before a pitch. Great base runners hone this instinct by continually looking for a competitive advantage.

“Some teams are very good at stopping the running game and some are not. I want to expose the teams that don’t do it well,” Davis says. “For example, a team may be weak against the bunt, so we’ll bunt. Or they may frequently miss cut-off men, so we’ll look to take an extra base. If a pitcher is throwing in the dirt, we steal. We want to keep them guessing, at all times.”

The key to exploiting a weak defense is teaching players to think and react quickly and decisively. For example, Price uses a drill that forces his players to anticipate whether or not a pitch is going to bounce in the dirt and quickly make a decision about whether to try to advance. The drill starts with a pitcher, catcher, batter, and base runner. “We have the runner focus only on the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand,” he says. “But to make it harder, we set up two safety screens covered with tarps between the mound and home plate, so at some point the runner loses sight of the pitched ball.

“This forces the runner to make a decision as soon as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand,” Price continues. “Will it bounce in the dirt? Does he take off or wait? Not only are we working on teaching instinct, but the runner is also practicing getting a jump off the base.”

Sitting on the bench is an ideal time for players to learn good decision making and in-game awareness. At the University of California-Irvine, the bench is full of experts looking to pick up cues from the defense, starting with the pitcher’s tendencies. Assistant Coach Greg Bergeron instructs his bench players to spot signs that indicate whether the pitcher will throw over to check a base runner, or if something in the pitcher’s delivery can provide the runner with a good chance to steal.

“One of the things we demand from our bench is to help our offense,” Bergeron says. “We look to see if the pitcher is tipping his delivery. He may always pick his head up before he goes to the plate, but not if he’s headed to first. And we keep a chart, kind of a checklist of their tendencies. We know what each pitcher tends to do before he even gets to the mound.”

Bob Diepold, Assistant Coach at Rutgers University-Camden, relies on his bench players to bring his attention to a pitcher’s subtle tells. “Pitchers have a tendency to get in a rhythm, take one look over, then go to the plate,” Diepold says. “Our bench usually sees that. They always watch the pitcher and say, ‘Back!’ to our base runner when they can see he’s going to try to pick them off.”

A sharply observant team can take advantage of the defense’s miscues, but only if players are looking for them. “Years ago our bench was louder and more excitable,” Walter says. “Now we’re more professional and try to learn from everything we’re seeing on the field. In the dugout, our players pay close attention to the game, trying to anticipate what the other team is going to do.”

Reinforced Steal
Smart, aware, instinctive base running is most apparent in stealing situations. “Stealing a base is obviously more productive than a bunt since you’re not giving up an out to move the runner,” Price says. “And anytime a runner advances to scoring position, your run production increases.” But is the potential outcome worth the risk?

At UC-Irvine, the answer is almost always yes, as long as the players are aggressive in their approach. “If a player gets the steal sign and worries about getting thrown out, he probably isn’t aggressive enough to stay in our lineup,” Bergeron says.

To keep base runners in an aggressive state of mind, Bergeron takes the pressure off them and puts it on himself. “I tell our runners that if I give a steal sign and they’re thrown out, I’m the one who looks bad,” he explains. “It’s okay with us if they’re thrown out as long as they’re aggressive in trying. I want them to trust our coaching knowledge as well as their own skill and experience.”

UC-Irvine’s work on stealing begins long before opening day. “Early in the fall I give our guys a green light in intrasquad games,” he says. “They’re timid in the beginning, but once the regular season starts they’ve become so comfortable with aggression that I get looks across the diamond saying, ‘Come on, Coach, where’s my steal sign?’ And that’s exactly what I want. Eventually I give our great base runners their own green light, and it’s up to them when to steal.”

Bergeron says the advantages created by stealing bases go beyond the obvious benefit of advancing runners. “Base stealing disrupts the pitcher more than anything else can,” he says. “Teams pitch out on us at times, and the pitcher will try to pick off a runner a lot more often than he’s probably used to. All of a sudden we have him worried about one of our guys stealing a base, and he leaves a pitch up in the strike zone for one of our big hitters.”

Reducing the risk of being caught stealing depends on repetition. “We work on stealing a lot in fall ball—almost every day,” Bergeron says. “And we continue at least once a week during the season, just working on getting a good read from the pitcher and a good jump. The more the players practice, the more their instinct starts taking over, and soon they pick up reads on their own.

“We teach our players that you don’t need a great jump, just a good one,” Bergeron continues. “One of the problems we’ve run into is our guys losing confidence and deciding not to go just because they don’t get a great jump. So we tell them it’s okay to get picked off occasionally, and in the end, it’s how we stay aggressive in base stealing.”

Walter offers a few pointers for base runners to keep in mind as they’re reading a pitcher. “Sometimes the pitcher’s head movements will tell you what he’s going to do,” Walter says. “If he looks at first base, he’s probably going home. If he looks home, he’s probably going to first base. If his lead foot is flexed, he’s probably coming home, and if it’s relaxed, he’s probably coming to first.”

Speed It Up
There’s no doubt that straight-line speed is a major asset for a base runner. “Speed is a huge advantage in base running,” Price says. “The ideal runner is a guy with great instincts who can fly. Before one of my players makes a base running decision, I want him to think, ‘It’s my speed versus the opponent’s arm strength.’ Then I want that base runner to measure how far he can get off the bag once the pitch is made, and calculate how strong the catcher’s arm is throwing back to the base.”

But the fastest sprinters can be lousy base runners and the best base runners aren’t always top sprinters. Bergeron tells his runners he wants to see a maximum lead off at all times. “But that varies from runner to runner and pitcher to pitcher,” he says. “We can get a couple extra steps on slower pitchers, or we may need to be half a step closer to the bag for quicker guys.”

At Rutgers-Camden, Diepold brings in the track and field coach to discuss proper running mechanics. “He talks about a runner’s arms and legs being proportional in movement for efficiency,” Diepold says. “He also shows the players how to kick their legs out for a bigger stride and gives me drills to get my runners up to their maximum speed faster.”

One of Diepold’s favorite drills is called the box drill. It involves three plyometric boxes—one three feet high, one two feet high, and another one foot high. Players run up and down the boxes, concentrating on proper running technique. Once they get back on a flat surface, they’re able to run faster.

“It really makes them concentrate on proper mechanics, and builds strength in their legs,” he says. “Obviously it helps if you’re naturally fast, but I’ve coached plenty of guys who aren’t fast that learn how to steal bases. Every guy on our team has at least one stolen base, and some of our better base stealers have average speed.”

UC-Irvine’s strength and conditioning program has a large component of fast-twitch exercises, power work for the legs, and plyometrics to help athletes develop a quicker first step. Rider’s off-season program concentrates on plyometrics, work with medicine balls, and lots of short sprints to target explosive starts. And Davis is a firm believer in practicing at game speed as much as possible to keep his base runners in the right mindset.

One of Walter’s drills helps his players hone in on explosive first steps. They take turns at bat for one hit apiece, and Walter throws a base randomly into the infield as the batter connects. The batter sprints to the randomly placed base as fast as possible. Because the base is thrown only a few feet away and never to the same spot, only explosive steps will win the contest. There isn’t room to make up for a slow start like there is when the runner is sprinting a full 90 feet to first.

“It becomes competitive between the five or so players batting,” he says. “Because we randomly toss the base anywhere, the winning time could be one or one and a half seconds.”

To throw a little twist into a traditional practice, Walter sometimes has batting practice, infield practice, and base running all going on at once—on the same diamond. “It looks a little bit like a three-ring circus,” Walter says. “And it requires some coordination to keep everyone safe, but it makes practice a lot more fun.” For base runners, the distractions force them to concentrate on their only task: getting to the next base safely and as quickly as possible.

Walter sets it up like this: The pitcher throws the ball to the hitter and catcher like a normal batting practice. But Walter places fungo hitters on first and third. After each pitch, the fungo hitter at first takes turns hitting to the second or third baseman, then the fungo hitter at third hits to first base or the shortstop.

After the first batter is done with his BP swings, he runs to first base and then sprints to second on the following batter’s sacrifice bunt. Once the runner reaches second base, certain rules come into play.

“If it’s a ground ball, it must go through the infield on the runner’s right, or past the pitcher on his left, for the runner to advance to third,” Walter explains. “At third, we practice running on contact as soon as there is a ground ball, and the base runner tags on all fly balls and line drives. The batter reacts accordingly no matter where the ball is hit. He can run immediately or wait to see if the outfielders are going to catch the ball.”

Like Walter’s “three-ring circus” drill, combining physically and mentally demanding drills just may be the right formula to produce great base runners. “Practice it every day,” Davis says. “We cannot hit a home run every time, so I tell my players that speed must show up every day.”


Sidebar: Trip Around the Bases
Bernie Walter, Head Coach at Arundel High School in Gambrills, Md., is also author of The Baseball Handbook: Winning Fundamentals for Players and Coaches and has produced Bernie Walter’s Base Running Video. Here, he takes us on a trip around the bases as he does with his players each year.

“In the dugout, pay attention to the game and try to anticipate what the other team is doing,” Walter says. “Once you’re on deck, you have two responsibilities—time the pitcher so you’re ready to hit, and act as the home plate coach. If someone’s coming home, it’s your responsibility to tell them whether they need to slide or can stay upright.”

At bat, Walter says you should be thinking about your first two steps out of the box. “If you’re slow at the beginning, you may never make that time back up,” he says. “A good base runner is able to take off quickly in those first two steps and turn singles into doubles.”

Heading to first base, Walter says nothing less than a full-out sprint is acceptable. “As you reach first base, touch the inside corner and turn your head directly toward second base, which will shorten your turn,” he says. “Once the next batter is up, you should take a primary lead and then a secondary lead, depending on your abilities. This is different for everyone.”

Leading off base, your next step is to look for pitches in the dirt. “A ball in the dirt should be an automatic steal,” Walter says. “Always run initially on a pop fly. If the fielder catches it, hustle back. And if he doesn’t, you’ve got the extra base.

“At second, check the positioning of the outfielders so you know whether you can score on a line drive or not,” Walter continues. “The rule on second base is to have the ball go through on your right and past the pitcher on a groundball to your left. The cardinal rule of tagging up on fly balls is, don’t make the first or third out at third base.”

At third base Walter has his runners depend on the base coach. “Because all the hits are behind you, look for the third base coach to send you home.”