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In the game of baseball, base running is important, especially since it occurs on almost every play. However base-running strategy is often glossed over by coaching staffs at all levels. Stealing bases, advancing on balls thrown in the dirt, and legging out infield hits—every extra base can produce an extra run, which could be the difference between a win and a loss.
In today's game, offensive numbers are down significantly. The decline in offensive production is because a great deal of importance is being placed on good base running. But it goes beyond stolen bases. Coaches are being more conservative with players on base. They seem unwilling to give up outs by sacrifice bunting or risking a player being caught stealing. Coaches regard runner as precious commodities and are afraid of losing them.
This creates a huge opportunity for teams to take advantage of. Separate yourself from your opponents who play station-to-station baseball and who wait for extra-base hits to produce runs. Showing an aptitude on base also creates an opening for you as a player to either get more playing time or to solidify your spot in the lineup (Check out three drills to improve your base-stealing speed).
Base running strategy is fairly simple. Observing fielders' positioning, the pitcher's motion, and which count is likely to produce a ball in the dirt are good considerations. Here are a few tips to consider as you prepare for the upcoming season.
Always Run Hard
This is something you learned back in tee-ball, when you went to practice with your batting gloves on your bike handles. But the advice holds up through the highest levels of baseball. The average player gets down the line in a little over four seconds. That doesn't provide much time for infielders to make a play and throw accurately to first base. Every hundredth or tenth of a second you can shave off your run time can make a difference between a potential run and a routine play by the shortstop.
Most teams put their best fielders in the infield. This offers plenty of opportunities to exploit poor fielders in the outfield. Try taking aggressive turns around the bases with the intent of taking an extra base. This puts more pressure on the defense. You'll be surprised at how distracting a hard turn around first base is to an outfielder. A bobbled ball could allow you to get to second. Don't assume that a grounder through the hole is only a single.
Advance Backside Runners
Look to take advantage of fielders, specifically outfielders. They usually want to show off their arms by trying to throw out base runners. Say there's runner on second and you get a base hit. Look to advance on the outfielder's attempt to throw the runner out at home plate. You should be on third base if the defense attempts to cut off the run at the plate.
Know Your Opponent
Pay attention to each opposing fielder during pre-game infield and outfield routines. Mentally gauge their arm strength and throwing accuracy and how each fielder approaches a ground ball. Some outfielders have trouble moving laterally in either direction. This can come into play when you're trying to take an extra base. During the game, watch from the dugout to see their approach with men on base. Check their arm strength and throwing accuracy. Every play brings a new opportunity to learn. Knowing an infielder's range comes in handy when trying to advance on ground balls hit behind you. If you're on first and the ball is hit in the hole between the first and second baseman, knowing whether an infielder has the range to get to the ball can help you advance to third base. These decisions happen instantaneously on each pitch, so prior knowledge is key.
Every good base runner has natural instincts on the bases. At least it looks natural to the untrained eye. Good base runners have the ability to anticipate certain plays, making it look easier than it actually is. Advancing on balls in the dirt is a great way to display your instincts and your anticipation. Make this easier on yourself by paying attention to the count, what pitches the pitcher is throwing, what he likes to throw in certain situations and how quick the catcher recovers after blocking a pitch in the dirt. In one-run games, every extra base can make the difference.
Check out Jimmy Rollins' base-stealing strategy.
Don't Slide Head First
Stay in the lineup by staying off the disabled list. Avoid sliding into each base head first at all costs. Sliding feet first is exponentially safer for base runners. Plus it allows you to pop up and advance more efficiently on errant throws. Sliding headfirst can lead to broken fingers, hands, wrists, dislocated shoulders or worse. Stay on the field and keep your head up on the bases.