Controlling baserunners is an important part of a baseball team's defensive strategy.
Done right, a team can get extra outs and can severely disrupt the other team's base-running strategies, potentially reducing how many runs the other team can score. Done badly, it can cause the game to blow up and result in many unearned runs. It's important to have this skill down.
With that in mind, this article will discuss the role that catchers, pitchers and infielders play in controlling the running game.
The catcher has two important roles in controlling the opponent's base running. First, he can try to throw runners out himself. Second, since his vantage point allows him to see the entire field, he can relay information to the infielders or pitcher to help guide their actions (such as telling the pitcher when to attempt as pickoff throw, for example).
The top priority for any catcher is to understand what's going on in the game. How many runners are on? How many outs are there? What's the score and situation? Knowing these factors will help the catcher choose the best action for the given scenario. For example, if there are runners on first and third and no outs and the man on first breaks for second, we may not want to attempt to throw him out, as the runner from third would then likely score.
Catchers also must trust their infield. I've seen a lot of catchers who are afraid to make throws to the different bases to get base runners because they didn't think their infield would catch it. Earning this confidence takes time and repetitions.
Catchers also must practice their "pop time." Pop time measures how long it takes from the time the ball hits the catcher's glove to when it hits an infielder's glove after the catcher throws down. Most frequently, a catcher's pop time is measured to second base. Elite MLB catchers have pop times to second under 1.95 seconds. Popping up and delivering an accurate throw to each base is a skill that must be practiced. Each catcher should practice it to each base, and with each infielder who will be covering that base.
Catchers also need to communicate with the pitcher. Since the catcher sees the entire field, I let them call pickoff moves to the pitchers (as the coach, I sometimes signal the catcher to call them, as well). That means there needs to be signs to tell the pitcher to execute a pickoff move, and to which base.
The pitcher executes pickoff moves to throw baserunners out or to at least disrupt their base running. This means the pitcher has a really important role in controlling the opponent's running game.
The pitcher must trust their catcher. Your catcher sees the entire field. If they are telling you to execute a pickoff move, it's because they see an opportunity.
They also must practice their pickoff moves. Pickoff moves are a skill and an important part of pitching. Pitchers should practice pickoff moves routinely and during scrimmages.
The more comfortable pitchers can get with their pickoffs, the better. I've seen pickoffs completely disrupt a pitcher's ability to throw accurate pitches. This is why it's important to practice the combination of pitching and pickoff moves during training. This should be done during practices and scrimmages to help the pitcher mentally prepare for the game.
The infield can make or break a team's base-running defense.
The infield has to know their responsibilities when a runner is on base. They need to understand where to be positioned, how to be ready for a throw from the pitcher or catcher, what to do, etc. There's nothing worse than the pitcher turning around to throw a pickoff to second base and the second baseman not being anywhere near the base.
The infield should also be watching the catcher's signs. The infield needs to be watching the signs the catcher sends to the pitcher. Not only does this help to anticipate what kind of hit might be coming, but it lets them know that a pickoff move is coming.
Infielders should also practice applying tags. It doesn't matter how good the pitcher's pickoff move or the catcher's throw is if the infielder doesn't apply the tag. Sweeping your tag low and close to the ground is a great strategy, as it gives you the best chance of getting some part of the base runner. Javy Baez of the Chicago Cubs is a master of applying tags, and it's because it's something he's practiced thousands of times.
In the early age groups of baseball that allow base stealing, the defense against the run game is often an eyesore. Players don't know what bases to cover, pickoff moves are sloppy and unpracticed, catchers aren't confident in their throws, and the defense ends up throwing the ball all over the field as a carousel of base runners advance. With a little extra practice in these areas, players can build confidence and get comfortable in these situations.
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