Running in Baseball:
Most athletes love to run! It’s the most productive way to get things done in sports. In Baseball, running the bases is one of the most fun and exciting parts of the game. Some runners are faster than others, so you might assume that the fastest are the best base-runners. As is the case in superior outfield-play, exceptional speed is a definite asset, but it doesn’t assure one of being an outstanding base-runner. The “good” or “great” base-runner is he who is determined to make something positive happen when he makes ball-contact at the plate or is already on base. His is a totally “greedy” attitude, from which resonates the obvious message that “to him belongs sole possession of each and every base he makes the effort to encounter.” When he hits a routine grounder which he immediately senses is playable by a fielder, he is already in full-sprint, hoping for even the slightest hint of a miss-play that would afford him the base by default. In some situations, when a fielder knows of the intensity of such runners, his thought becomes preoccupied with that aggressiveness and rushes his own actions with a resultant error. (Pete Rose and Bryce Harper are the finest examples to emulate.)
When players do the same things every day, all day long, throughout a long season, there comes a natural tendency to assume a certain mental posture on issues that seem common-place or routine. On the professional level, every player has been thoroughly “schooled” to appreciate the fact that nothing is routine — anything can happen, so expect the unexpected. When a batter hits a “routine” ground-ball to the short-stop, and just jogs to first-base because he expects the fielder to make the play and throw him out, he will no doubt incur a sharp rebuke from his coach and teammates alike if the fielder momentarily mishandles the ball and the runner is out by “a hair.”
When the “superb” base-runner receives a “base-on-balls,” he sprints to first base! Why? For the purpose of directly warming and readying his body for the new prospective confrontations (especially if he is a base-stealing threat)!
When the “great” base-runner strikes a ball for what is an obvious base-hit (to any outfield position), he automatically assumes there is a chance for two bases, and his first step out of the batter’s box is with that intent. As he is rounding first base at full stride, he is listening for his coach’s direction as well as visually contacting the outfielder and making an immediate judgment as to continue “in flight” or stop and “get-back.” If the outfielder “bobbles” the ball, the “great” runner could advance if he doesn’t lose any momentum in the process.
The “ever-aggressive” base-runner is constantly studying the pitcher(for clues to steal bases) as well anticipating the contact point of bat-to-ball, after the pitch, to get the best possible “jump” in order to advance, break up a double-play, or “get-back” on a “pick-off” or “line-drive. When the batter gets a base-hit to left-field with a runner on first base, the runner moves quickly to second, always anticipating an outfielder misplay. Very seldom is there a chance for the runner to advance to third, unless a “giant” mishap occurs. But when “it” occurs the great one capitalizes on it. There is always a greater chance to advance to third when a base-hit occurs to right-field or center-field.
A good base-runner never needs assistance from the third-base coach unless the ball is behind the runner, where he cannot see it. On a ball hit to center-field, the runner moving to second sees the ball in front of him. He therefore needs to decide for himself whether or not he can make it to third. Any hesitation at all will make the difference in “safe” or “out.” If a runner is on second, the runner from first must be sure the other runner is going “home.” On a ball hit to right-field, the runner on first has to be aware of five things before he can intelligently assess his chances of making it to third-base. First, he must know his own running-speed capability. Secondly, he must interpret the speed with which the ball will be getting to the outfielder (based on the quality of the hit– hard line-drive, hard ground-ball, or bouncing ball that just made it through the infield. Also, the position of the outfielder — deep or shallow?) Thirdly, he must recognize if the ball is hit directly at the outfielder, or to his right or left. Fourthly, he must know the strength and accuracy of the fielder’s arm. And finally, he should be familiar with the general disposition of the fielder (does he hustle?). These five calculations must be made at full running speed within a few seconds, but must always be preceded by a conscious thought of their possibilities. Obviously, quick thinking is equally as important as “quick feet,” in base-running of this nature. It is related that Babe Ruth was extremely adept at base-running where precision judgment of this type was required.
Scoring from second on a base hit to the outfield involves the same thinking process, but relies more on help from the third-base coach. On a hit, the runner must anticipate being “sent” by the coach, and round the base at full speed, but be ready to stop if the coach abruptly changes his mind. With less than two outs, the runner gets his best “jump” on hard ground balls down the line, ground balls to the second base-man, low line-drives through the middle, and high line-drives over the shortstop or second base-man. The runner has to hesitate, with less than two outs, when the ball is hit on the ground to the third-base side, low line-drives (in the direction of a fielder), and most balls hit in the air directly toward or close to an outfielder.
When a runner is on third base, he is in a prized offensive position, especially with no outs, and can’t afford any mistake that could squander a scoring opportunity. He could score on a base-hit, fly-ball, passed ball, wild-pitch, “suicide-squeeze,” ground ball to “short or second” (if they’re playing back), or “steal-home.” Therefore, the runner must secure a “posture” that will prevent being “doubled-off” on a line-drive, as well as prepare to respond quickly to one of a few unique opportunities to score. With no outs early in the game, the short-stop and second base-man are probably playing back, while the third and first basemen are even with the bag. Any grounder to first or third, the runner will hold unless he’s quick to detect a slow “squibbler” to the far right or left of the pitcher, or a high bouncing ball off the plate, and his walking (side-shuffle) lead would allow the necessary momentum to race “Home.” A routine grounder to short or second almost automatically scores the runner, unless the ball is hit hard in a “low liner” that forces the runner to hesitate momentarily while the fielder catches the ball off the ground. When the runner hesitates, then goes, the fielder could have a play at the plate.
With one out, the runner is more aggressive. His “walking lead” covers more ground as the pitcher releases the ball. At contact, if the ball is hit on the ground, the walking momentum gives him the “jump” that will secure a score if the ball is routinely hit to second or short, or a possible score if hit slowly to first or third. Anything hit hard in the air, his first instinct is to “get-back.” If the ball is hit moderately-to-deep in the outfield, the runner will “tag-up” and score. If hit to “shallow out-field,” the runner should go part-way, anticipating a base-hit (then score quickly) since he couldn’t score on a “tag.” When “tagging,” the best of runners knows that the body doesn’t ever respond as quickly as the mind dictates, so he takes off a split second before he sees the outfielder catch the ball. This way he will be off the bag the instant the catch is actually made, thus getting the best possible “jump” on the throw.
Adept base-running calls for constant alertness, high energy, and masterful judgment. “Base-stealing” entails all three of the preceding qualities, but also includes the additional characteristic of honing the mental and physical reflexes to instantly detect and react to the first impulse that the pitcher expresses which indicates he is throwing either to the plate or to the base.
The runner must first assume the same posture that he normally does when he is leading off the base, or he runs the risk of “telegraphing” his intentions. A low center-of-gravity is requisite in order for the body to be in position to get the quickest possible jump on the pitch. When the moment to respond occurs, the runner’s feet are spread comfortably, with the right foot slightly below the left and toes pointed slightly toward the on-coming base. When the explosive burst of the first step occurs, this position makes it easier for the body to transition into running directly toward the base. It allows the hips to “open” quickly and the sprint to begin.
When the runner detects the pitcher’s commitment to the “plate,” his shoulders have just “shrugged” gently upward to brace the arm sockets to facilitate quick arm action as the “burst” begins. Two things happen simultaneously at this point. The bent right leg (from buttocks down to the foot) braces itself for the first power-stride after the initial turn-pivot-thrust of the left side of body. While the right side “braces,” the left side of the body turns forcefully inward, led by a darting left shoulder along with hip and knee rotating inwardly off a pivoting left foot. At this point the body is now in a classic sprinter’s position already taking off.
The initial thrust of the left shoulder puts the bent left arm slightly ahead of the body, ready to be pulled backward as the left leg strides forward from the powerful backward thrust of the right leg. As the first stride is taking place, the body remains low for quick, but short, steps. As the body gradually rises, the strides become longer as momentum facilitates the increase of speed.
With the body now in full flight and the base coming closer into view, the runner has to decide when and how to “slide.” Very seldom does a runner not-slide in a stealing situation. To avoid injury, it is wise to predetermine “I will slide.” Therefore, he needs only to decide when and how he’s going to do it, head-first or leg-first.
There is debate over whether it is more effective to slide head-first or legs-first. The answer is determined by the position of body as the runner approaches that critical point when the decision is imminent. When a runner gains momentum rapidly, and his upper body is still leaning forward when he reaches the “critical” stage, he is probably in a better anatomical position to slide head first, since it would take too much effort to transition to a lower body thrust for the feet to go first. The extra effort would slow him down.
However, if the body has gotten to full stride and is upright with the feet ahead of the torso, then the “leg-first” slide seems more efficient. Most people do agree that the head first slide is more hazardous to the runner’s well-being, since head, neck, fingers, arms, shoulders, as well as back come into greater jeopardy as compared to the leg-first technique. So, it is probably wiser to learn to become a proficient “leg-first” slider.(Ricky Henderson, Lou Brock, and Joe Morgan are the prime examples from whom all ardent students of the Art of Base-running should learn their trade!)
Coming Soon: Batting Prowess!