On the Way to First
When the batter swings the bat they should start running to first base. If there are less than two strikes there is no penalty for starting toward first when the ball is not hit or when fouled. If there are two strikes, perhaps the catcher will miss the ball. If the ball is hit fair the batter may be put out if they do not run. Having the habit of starting toward first after swinging is a good thing.
If the batter walks they should run to first. A walk is just an opportunity to run. The runner cannot advance to second on a defensive error until they get to first. Since the runner never knows when the next defensive error will occur they should hurry to first just in case the error happens soon.
Defensive errors on a walk include:
the catcher not throwing the ball to the pitcher.
the catcher missing the wild pitch.
the catcher missing the pitcher on the throw back.
the catcher throwing to third to get a runner trying to steal on the pitch.
the catcher throwing the ball into center field trying to get a runner stealing second.
I hope the advantages of running to first on a batted ball are obvious.
As the runner gets about half way down the line toward first, they will come to a second line about three feet in foul territory that is parallel to the first base line. If the ball was not hit very far, like on a bunt, the batter should run between the lines the rest of the way to first. If a throw hits the runner when he is not between the lines he may be called out for interference. This is an umpire’s judgement call so don’t argue about it.
If there is going to be a play at first on the runner the runner must touch the base as soon as possible. This means running right across the base at full speed and not slowing down until past the base. Some runners try to leap at the bag when they get close. This is dangerous. I saw a major league player break his ankle that way.
The runner should step on the outside half of the base. That is the part nearest the foul line. This puts them a little further away from the tag if the first baseman has to try to tag them. It also puts them a little further from the first baseman’s foot which may be on top of the bag. Stepping on the first baseman’s foot can injure both players.
On a close play at first, if the first baseman is standing on the bag the runner should slide into the base to avoid the collision. If the first baseman is standing on the foul side of the bag the runner can try to run into the first baseman’s glove to either prevent the catch or knock the ball lose. In no case should the runner try to smash into the first baseman’s body. That would risk injury to both parties.
If the runner has crossed the base on a close play and the ball got past the first baseman, the runner must decide whether to go ahead toward second or stay at first. This decision must be made before any effort or movement toward second is made since once the runner starts toward second even a little bit, they may be tagged out going back to first. It does not matter which direction the runner turns after passing first so long as in the umpire’s judgement the runner has made no attempt to advance to the next base.
When the batter clearly has a base hit to the outfield, they should curve a step or two into foul territory on the way to first base so they can shorten the distance they will have to run to get to second base. If they run straight across first base and then turn toward second they will be running near the outfield grass on the way to second.
They need to hit the inside corner of first base with either foot on the way by. Some coaches prefer to have the inside (left) foot contact the base and some prefer the right foot but with this age players I don’t think it makes any difference.
The runner has reached first and given up on going to second immediately. Now is when the hard part starts. The first thing the runner has to do is develop a fanatic desire to see the ball. Just as the fielders have to see the ball all the time, so does the base runner. It sounds easy but it turns out to be quite difficult to do. If the coach says something, the runner looks at the coach and takes their eyes off the ball. As they take their lead they look back to see how far off the bag they are and take their eyes off the ball. One of the defenders says something to them and they look at them instead of looking at the ball. Most pickoff plays that succeed at this age occur because the runner takes their eyes off the ball. You must endlessly remind them every time they look away to see the ball.
Many leagues do not allow runners to take a lead on the bases. This denys the players much of the fun of baseball. Since the parents control organized leagues and since parents have a strange desire to have their kids look just like the big leaguers, they don’t want to see frequent successful base stealing. This is sad because base running gives even the weakest players a chance to gain a success by doing something. They can walk and steal second. The walk doesn’t give them any pride because all they had to do was stand there. But stealing second is frightening and they are running as hard as they can and, perhaps best of all, they get to slide! In any event, much of what is covered below has to do with base running for runners who can take leads.
As a general rule the runner should be as far off base as is safe given how far away the ball is. If the runner does not see the ball, they cannot know how far off the base they can safely go. Generally they can go about three steps off the base for every 30 feet distance between them and the ball. If the ball is across the infield then can get back easily from nine steps off base. That is about half way to the next base.
As a general rule the players are so afraid of being caught off base that they get only about half the lead they should get. As a coach you must counteract this fear by encouraging them to get big leads in practice. Have the other players try to pick them off base. When the base runners discover that they can gat back safely from the correct sized leads they will get all of 65-70% of the leads they should be getting instead of only 50%. Of the hundreds of players I have coached, only three or four have gotten leads as big as they should.
In the following descriptions and recommendations we will assume that the pitcher is right handed. A separate section will be provided for changes you should make for a left handed pitcher.
The pitcher cannot legally go near the rubber without holding the ball. Therefore, the runner can begin to get their lead when the pitcher gets near the rubber. While the pitcher is off the mound the runner should stay on the base if they cannot see the ball. So when the pitcher gets over the rubber or is standing next to it, even if the ball is hidden in the pitcher’s glove they should move two steps off first.
The base runner now has to know how to get back to the base if the pitcher throws the ball to first. Naturally they want their body as far away from the ball as possible to make it hard to tag them before they get back. Therefore they want to be on the side of the baseline away from the pitcher. (I always think of the baseline as a strip of ground as wide as the base running between the bases.) To get back to the base in a way that makes them difficult to tag they need to arrive back at the base lying flat on the ground with their body outside the baseline and their right hand touching the side of the base away from the pitcher. For safety they should have their face turned away from the pitcher. If the ball hits their head it will be the back of their helmet rather than their nose or mouth. As a bonus, if the ball gets past the first baseman, the runner will see it immediately and they can jump up and run for second right away.
From only two steps away they should be able to get back easily without diving for the bag. There is a technique for this as well. The first move back to the bag should be by the left foot moving a couple of feet toward the bag. The next move is to pivot on the left foot and reach for the side of the base away from the pitcher with the right foot. This turns the runner’s back to the oncoming ball. If the ball hits the runner it is less likely to cause injury hitting their back. Also, they can see the ball right away if it goes past and their feet are properly placed for a quick start toward second.
Some first basemen attempt to block the runner from getting back. If they do so when the runner is only two steps off the base the runner can run into the first baseman’s glove thus almost guaranteeing a chance to take second since the fielder will be unable to catch the ball.
Still two steps off the bag, the runner should take a third step off as the pitcher places their foot on the rubber. Pitchers almost never throw to first as they place their foot on the rubber. The pitcher now is required to get a sign from the catcher before pitching. But the pitcher can throw to first at any time until they start their throwing motion toward home. Therefore, the runner cannot relax.
After getting the sign, the pitcher may come into the “set” position to pitch out of the stretch. All that the pitcher must do is bring their hands together to be in the set position. The runner has only a “count” of about half a second in which to get the rest of their lead after the pitcher reaches the set position. Thus the runner must get the last of their lead while the hands are coming together. This moment is the most dangerous of the process of getting the lead. The runner’s momentum is toward second and if the pitcher throws to first just as the runner is beginning their move to their final lead position the runner will have to be very quick to get back safely.
The first two steps of lead were taken by walking (right, left, pivot to face the pitcher). From that point on in getting their lead the runner must never cross their legs. The right foot must always be closer to second than the left foot. The changing of position involves moving the right foot several inches or perhaps a foot further toward second and the bringing the left foot that same distance toward second. This type of movement always allows the runner to reverse direction in an instant.
The runner must be able to tell how far off the base they are while looking at the pitcher. They must select some fixed object on the other side of the pitcher that will be directly behind the pitcher when they have the right length lead. If they look back at the base to see how far they have gone they risk being picked off.
The pitcher has come set, the runner has their full lead, and the pitcher is pausing at least a count. How can the runner tell immediately when to run toward second and when to dive back to first? The first thing to move in either case will be the pitcher’s feet. If the pitcher moves the foot on the rubber the runner must get back. The pitcher may be only stepping off the rubber but since he will have to get back on the rubber, take a sign, come set, and pause the runner will have time to get the proper lead again. If the runner hesitates they will always be wrong. They must either go forward or back as quickly as possible. If they are going the wrong way they must continue. Even when the pitcher is throwing home the runner who has started back to first must not steal. If the runner has started toward second on a pickoff move of the pitcher they must keep going for they will surely be out if they go back to first. Often they will be safe at second anyway since the shortstop has to react quickly and the first baseman needs to throw the ball before the shortstop is in position.
If the pitcher moves the front foot, the one nearest home plate, they are probably throwing home. Unless you have scouted the pitcher and know that they have a move to first that moves the front foot directly toward first with no movement of the foot on the rubber, you should have your runners start for second when that foot moves. The above move to first is rare because it is slower than the jump turn pickoff move and sometimes umpires call it a balk because, in a right handed pitcher, the foot comes up first instead of moving directly toward first.
The pitcher’s foot has moved and the runner has started toward second. This is one of those rare times when they should not be looking at the ball because they cannot run as fast looking over their shoulder. They should expect to slide into second and already know where they will hit the ground. If they hear the bat hit the ball. They should, while running, look back to see the ball. If the ball is going to hit them they should evade it since they might be hurt and will definitely be out if they are hit by the ball. If the ball is hit in the air (popup, line drive, or fly ball) they and the coach must decide whether it can be caught. If it can be caught the runner should stop at a distance from first close enough to the base to get back before the ball can be thrown there and no closer. If the ball is hit to deep left they may go all the way to second. If the ball is popped up they must get back to first. If the ball is a line drive they should keep going because they will not have time to get back to first if the ball is caught anyway.
If the ball is hit on the ground to short or second, the runner should keep going and expect to slide into second just as if the ball were not hit. If the ball is hit to first or third they cannot be forced out so they should stay on their feet. If the ball goes through into the outfield or is hit to first the runner should look at the third base coach and loop four or five feet to the right field side of the baseline so they can shorten the distance they will have to run between second and third. Unless the coach gives them the hold up at second signal they should go around second as if they were trying to beat a close play at third. The coach must make this decision and it is solely their responsibility if they runner obeys and is put out.
If the runner is a good one who reacts quickly to the coaches signals and will watch the coach, the signal to hold up can be delayed to force a throw to third while the runner can still stop and go back to second safely. Since the coach can see if the throw is a good one or too high or offline the coach can steal an extra base for the runner when the throw is bad. If the first base coach and runner are alert the batter who has gotten a hit to right field can take second on that bad throw. They too must be alert for if the throw is a good one and the runner who has rounded second goes back to second, the batter must go back to first.
If the ball is not hit and there will be no throw to second the coaches should tell the runner (yell loudly) to stay up and not slide. If there will be no throw from the catcher, the runner should round the base and head for third forcing the catcher to react. This situation occurs frequently since wild pitches are common. Catchers often throw to third in this situation risking a bad throw or a missed catch. The third base coach will have to yell at the runner approaching second in this wild pitch situation to get them to keep running. Usually they will stop at second anyway and look at you as if to say “huh?” This is partly due to timidity about being caught off the base and partly due to their expectation of stopping at second. Overcoming these tendencies/habits is difficult but pays big dividends in increased run production.
If the ball is not hit and there will be a play for them at second, they will need to slide. The first reason for the slide is to stop without overrunning the base. The second reason for the slide is to be far from the place where the fielder covering second catches the ball. Thus, the runner should slide for the side of the base away from the covering baseman.
The slide must be started far enough from the base to avoid injury from striking the bag hard. Major injuries can occur from hitting a fixed base with a straight leg while still going near full running speed. The runner of normal speed must strike the ground at least six feet from the base to be able to slow to a safe speed in time. They should also have the leg that reaches for the base bent slightly to make the shock of contact less.
The sliding runner should hit the ground on their butt. Those are the biggest muscles available as a cushion. Landing on the side of the hip hits the hip joint on which there is almost no padding on most players. This is not only painful but can easily cause cuts and abrasions from stones in the baseline.
The head first slide is essential for getting back to first but is not recommended for sliding into a base on a steal. The action around the base is less controlled when the fielder must cover the base on the run. This means that the runner’s face is more at risk of being kicked and their hand is at risk of being stepped on. Unless your league is crazy enough to allow metal spikes, being stepped on is not likely to cause serious injury but it can hurt quite a lot.
The easiest steal of second (or third) occurs when the pitcher stands on the rubber facing the catcher. This is the pitching position for a full windup. A full windup takes a lot of time and even a slow runner can steal second against a superb catcher if the pitcher takes a full windup. If the right handed pitcher has both feet on the rubber and steps back with their left foot the runner can start toward second since the pitcher is committed to throw the ball home. If the pitcher steps back with their right foot and drops their arms to their sides they are just stepping off the rubber. The runner should move a step back toward first if the right foot moves back. Therefore, if the pitcher puts both feet on the rubber watch their feet carefully.
Now your player is safe at second. The pitcher has the ball on or near the mound. As always, the runner is as far toward the next base as they can safely be given where the ball is. The lead at second should be one step longer than the lead at first. The reason for this is that the pitcher is facing directly away from second and it takes longer to rotate 180 degrees and throw than to turn 90 degrees and throw as to first. Thus, the normal runner will take about a 4 and one half step lead off second. This is the lead regardless of where the fielders are located around second. If the pitcher is on the rubber the normal runner should be safe with this lead even if the shortstop is standing on second.
If there is no defender near second and you are willing to pay attention you can move the runner beyond the standard lead. Naturally the runner must be seeing the ball and watching the pitcher. They cannot watch the shortstop and second baseman also. You must do that for them. I use the key words “more” and “back” to control the size of their lead. “more” means advance another step toward third. “back one” means go back one step toward second. A yell of “back!” means the runner should dive back to second. The dive is just like the dive back to first except that the runner takes one step on the way.
When on first the runner should expect to steal second on the first pitch. The runner at second should expect to steal third only if they have a lead two steps more than usual. However, the normal runner at second should start for third on every pitch as if they were stealing third. In this case they watch the pitch which is more nearly in front of them. If the catcher goes to their knees in catching the ball or drops the ball the runner just keeps going as if it were a steal all the way. If the catcher catches it cleanly without going to their knees the runner stops about half way between second and third. They are in the ready position facing the catcher and they stay there waiting to see what the catcher does with the ball. If the catcher brings the ball out toward them they start back to second as if they were getting a lead, that is, without crossing their feet. If during the runner’s first two such “steps” back toward second the catcher throws toward second the runner can go to third easily. But they have to be watching the catcher and they have to have their feet set to go either way.
If the catcher throws to second, the runner goes to third. If the catcher throws to third the runner starts back toward second while watching to see if the throw gets away. If the catcher throws back to the pitcher, the runner goes to third.
To use this system, You must have scouted the opposing team’s pitchers. A well coached pitcher will lift the front foot, then pivot toward second. This takes them off the rubber. If your runner has started toward third as the foot came up, the pitcher has them in a rundown. Few pitchers at this age use this move. If the pitcher is likely to use this “hanging foot” move, the runner must wait to see if the pitcher is throwing home. This makes a steal of third very unlikely. The runner can still go half way to third and wait to see what the catcher will do but only after the pitcher’s weight has started to fall toward home.
As at first, the runner at second should not look back at the base. Therefore they must have a background spot behind the pitcher which lets them see if they are far enough off second.
The runner at second is on their way to third and the batter hits the ball. The runner is watching the pitch so they know right away. If the ball is a popup, the runner stops and heads back to second. If the ball is a line drive they keep going. They will not be able to get back in time anyway. If the ball is an outfield fly they stop to see where it will land. If the outfielder will have no trouble getting “under” the fly the runner should start back to second. If it is obviously a hit, the runner heads for home. If the fly might be out of reach of the outfielder, the runner holds up close enough to second to get back if the ball is caught.
This is too complicated for the average runner to remember in the excitement of the game. The third base coach must yell instructions when the ball is hit. The coach should be conservative. If the runner obeys the coach’s directions and is put out, the coach must immediately and publicly take the blame. Emphasize that the runner was obeying the coach’s orders and that the fault is the coach’s. If you do not do this the players will be much less likely to act on your orders the next time and they will rightly feel rather bitter.
The pitch has been made and the runner is sprinting toward third and the ball is hit on the ground. If the runner can make the ball go behind them, they should continue to third. If the ball will pass ahead of them, they should hold up and wait for the throw to first. If the ground ball is an easy one for the fielder and the play at first will be routine, the runner can try to get in a rundown instead. Since it is so easy to steal second, if the runner off second is put out in a rundown you have lost only one pitch while the batter (now at first) steals second and perhaps not even that if the batter can take second on the rundown. Because a rundown is less likely to succeed than a simple throw to first you increase your chances of avoiding the out. This requires a good runner from second. For most players, they should hold up until the fielder throws to first and then take third. Of course, if the grounder goes on through they should advance.
Now the runner has succeeded in reaching third. At the other bases the lead has been big and aggressive. At third the lead is small (two steps) and conservative. The same “get back to the base standing” move that is used at first should be used at third. The lead should never be so long that the runner has to slide to get back.
There is no need to get a big lead since the runner will not attempt to steal home. A steal of home is quite dangerous to both the runner and the batter. The batter may hit the ball at the runner who would be unable to dodge. The batter may hit the runner with the bat. The batter may hit the catcher with the bat. The runner may hit the batter’s ankle with their slide. Players at this age often miss signs. For these reasons I forbid my players to steal home.
The delayed steal of home is another matter. If the catcher is lobbing the ball back to the pitcher and is ignoring the runner off third, the runner can try to score as the ball is thrown to the pitcher. In this case the batter will not be trying to hit the ball and will be out of the way because he will know what is happening.
The runner will stay just two steps from third until the pitcher’s weight begins to fall toward home. The weight shift commits the pitcher to throw the ball home. While the ball is on the way home the runner starts down the line under control. The runner will try to time their movement to place them about one third of the way down the line when the ball strikes the catcher. If the catcher catches the ball, the runner stops and starts immediately back toward third sideways, never crossing their feet. If the catcher comes up throwing the runner can score. If the catcher waits two steps worth, the runner cannot score but can get back to third safely.
If the catcher fails to catch the ball the runner keeps going a step or two. If the runner can see the ball they can decide to go ahead or to go back. This decision must be quick and the runner dare not change their mind. If the runner (and coach) cannot see the ball they must assume that the catcher has it and they should start back. If the runner has done all this properly, they will be able to reach home before the pitcher can. This forces the catcher to make the tag. Unless the catcher gets a really lucky bounce of the ball off the backstop they will be unable to get back to the plate in time.
On batted balls, anything hit up in the air, including line drives, should send the runner scrambling back to third at top speed. The runner can tag up and advance after the catch on outfield flies and foul popups. The runner can score on any dropped fly ball.
Runners at third should try to draw throws toward home by both outfielders and infielders so long as it can be done safely. Such throws are often too high for the catcher and the runner can score or are too high for the fielders in cutoff position to reach and a runner at first can advance.
The players tend to be timid about getting leads and stepping off the base once there. Since they are not really safe until they have scored and since being forced out at the next base is just as much an out as being picked off, runners need frequent encouragement to get as far off base as it is safe to go.
A drill for this is to load the bases with runners who are not allowed to advance past the next base and who can only be “safe” at the base they start from. Then give the pitcher the ball and tell the runners to get as far off base as they can safely. Once they have gotten these leads, tell them to take one more step and see if the pitcher can throw the ball to any of the fielders in time to get any of them out. When the ball is thrown to a base, both runners on the other bases should move further off their bases since the ball is now further away. When the pitcher throws the ball home (pitches to the imaginary batter), the runners should start toward the next base. If they “break” the wrong way they are “out.” This drill should be run with the pitcher obeying all the rules of mound behavior. After the runners have been able to get back safely from the “one step too much” position several times, have them take a second “extra” step off base from their usual leads. This drill works on the pitcher’s moves to the bases, the fielders’ base covering techniques, as well as the runners’ back to the base dives and alertness. Note that there should be a catcher and the pitcher should sometimes throw the ball home.
When there is a runner at second and a pickoff move to first base gets behind the first baseman, the runner at second should run to third. Unless there is a throw to third the runner should round third and head for home. If the ball is 15-20 feet or more behind first, the runner can be perfectly safe half way down the line toward home. This is almost sure to draw a throw home and get the runner at first to second. If the coach at third sees the throw will be too high to catch at home they can send the runner on home.
The base coach’s first responsibility is to the runner(s) rather than to the batter. The runner needs to be reminded of things they already know just so the proper thoughts will have gone through their minds right before the play. Warn the runners that you will tell them things they know just to keep the thoughts fresh in their minds.
Signs for the base runners are unnecessary if you have given them good base running doctrine. They will know when to steal and when to hold up. Also, players at this age miss a lot of signs so it is better to not depend on them. If you really want the player to do something tell them during a time out. Also, tell them two or three ways. I once told a batter to “take a pitch.” I meant for him to not swing while the runner at first stole second. He thought I meant “take a swing” so he hit the popup that ended the inning with a double play.
If the third baseman is in covering a bunt, they cannot also be back at third covering the base for a steal. Therefore if the third baseman is alert and quick you can get a “free” steal of third just by faking a bunt with a runner at second. The runner off second must look to see if the third baseman is charging home. If not, do the usual thing. If they are running toward home, third is open. If the third baseman does not charge when the batter squares to bunt then a decent bunter can easily get a hit toward third on a bunt. The runner from second also has a good chance to score on such a bunt since the first baseman often is so concerned with the play at first that they do not look up in time to get the out at home.