The basics of smart baserunning
Baserunning is probably one of the most under-coached elements of fastpitch softball. That’s a shame, because smart baserunning can turn the tide during a ballgame and generate more wins.
And bad baserunning can lose ballgames by not taking advantage of opportunities to advance when they’re there. Nothing sadder than a runner stranded at third who should’ve scored on the previous play but didn’t. Especially if the original mistake happened upstream.
Coaches really need to make a point of working on and teaching smart baserunning. But it’s not all up to the coaches. Players can do themselves a lot of good – and increase their value to the team – if they take it upon themselves to learn all they can about how to gain every little advantage.
Here are a few tips to help you teach better skills (if you’re a coach) or acquire better skills (if you’re a player).
You don’t have to be fast, just smart.
It certainly helps to have 2.7 speed from home to first. But some of the best baserunners I’ve coached and seen had average speed. But what they were was smart. When they were on first, they would look to see whether the shortstop was covering second after each pitch, or even paying attention if the ball wasn’t put in play. They knew they didn’t have the speed to steal the base outright, but they knew they could pull off a delayed steal pretty easily. Knowing what to do and when is a huge advantage on the bases.
Have an aggressive mindset
The other night I was watching a high school game when one of my students got jammed on a ball and hit a little duck snort out behind first base. Instead of doing what most players would do, which is to trot it out and hope it falls in, she took off like she’d hit a ball to the fence. Sure enough, no one got to it and she ended up on second base instead of first.
You see that in the college game a lot. They go hard on every hit, and they keep going until someone tells them to stop.
Always remember that the goal isn’t to get to the next base. It’s to get home. That’s the only way to score. The faster you do that the better off your team is. That goes double when you’re facing a great pitcher where you don’t expect many hits, by the way. Find a way to get home.
Tagging at third
Okay, now for some specific situations. Each of the next three has to do with whether you can gain advantage through your actions. For example, if you’re on third with less than two outs and there is a ball hit to the outfield that might be caught, don’t stand a few feet off the base to wait and see if it is. Tag up immediately and automatically so you’re ready to go home immediately as soon as the ball is touched.
(You don’t have to wait for a catch, by the way. As soon as it touches the fielder you’re good to go, a rule in place to prevent the outfielder from juggling the ball all the way to the infield to hold the runners.)
Here’s where you want to look at the advantage versus disadvantage. If you’re off the bag and there is a catch you have to go back. That may be just enough time to get the ball in and hold you.
If you’re off the bag and there’s no catch, the extra few feet you gained by being off don’t matter. You would have scored anyway.
But if you’re on the bag, you can go immediately when it’s touched, full steam toward home. It’s your best chance of scoring.
Tag or not at second
Here again you have to look at the possibilities. On a softball field with a 200 foot fence, and assuming the players can throw far enough to get the ball in, on a fly ball you want to go as far off the bag as you can and still get back. That may or may not be halfway, incidentally.
The “halfway” rule is myth. Players have different speeds, and outfielders have different arms. Get as far as you can in case the ball is dropped so you can advance. But be sure you can get back if it’s caught.
There’s no need to tag on a ball to left because the throw is short enough that you’ll likely be thrown out if you make the attempt. Again, unless the players are really young or the left fielder has an exceptionally poor arm.
For a ball hit to deep center or right, however, you do want to tag. If you’re off the base and the ball is caught you’ll have to come back, which will probably prevent you from advancing. If you’re tagging, however, you can take off right away and will at least get to third, putting you 60 feet closer to scoring.
Now, if you are off the bag and the ball is hit toward the right field line there is a chance you could score from second if the ball isn’t caught. But the odds are low on a routine fly with even average outfielders. The smarter play is to tag and ensure you’ll get at least one base.
Of course, on an obvious gapper you won’t tag – you’ll probably just go. But be careful. I’ve seen some pretty spectacular catches result in double plays!
Leading off first
This one is really under-coached. If you’re on first and there’s a fly ball to the outfield, you again want to go as far as you can and still get back. If the hit is to left field, especially if there’s a runner on ahead of you, that may mean getting pretty close to second.
If the ball is caught you’re probably not going anywhere so no need to tag. Also with runners ahead of you the opponent is not likely to pay much attention to you. And if it’s not caught you already have a head start on one base, and maybe too.
The same concept applies to center and right, but you won’t be going as far. Get as far as you can and still get back, even if that’s just a few feet away. If the ball isn’t caught you’ll need to advance to the next base so every little bit helps.
This one is pretty easy. The closer you are to where the pop-up is hit, the closer you should be to the base. If it’s behind second and you’re on second, for example, you pretty much want to stand right on the base. There’s no advantage to being a few feet off, but there’s a huge risk if you get doubled off.
Whenever there’s a ground ball it’s critical to avoid contact with any player making a play. If you’re not sure where the ball is, run behind where the nearest fielder is. If you’re hit by the ball when you’re behind the fielder you’re safe (as long as no one else had a play). If you’re hit by the ground ball when you’re in front of the fielders you’re automatically out.
Never, ever run into a tag
Ok, so things didn’t quite go as planned and the ball got to the base ahead of you. The worst thing you can do is just slide in and let the fielder tag you, especially if there isn’t another runner behind you.
Stop and reverse fields to get into a rundown. Maybe they’ll make a mistake and you’ll be safe. Or try a slide-by, where you go well to the side of the fielder and then catch the base with your hand. I once saw an opposing runner stop dead right before our catcher was going to tag her and then completely leap over the catcher. She was safe. It was a spectacularly athletic play that not everyone can do. But if you can do it, go for it.
One last point. If you’re running between first and second and the second baseman fields a ground ball, don’t just let her tag you and make the double play. Run behind her and try to get her to chase you – even if that means running toward the outfield. Sure, you’ll be out, but you were going to be out anyway. What you’re trying to do is protect the batter so she can reach first safely.
Ok, now it’s your turn. What did I miss? What are some of your favorite baserunning strategies? And have you ever seen any moves that made you just shake your head and say “cool?”