Category Archives: Team defense

Tips for executing a successful rundown

Teja throw

In my last blog post I talked about the value of practicing rundowns, and all the good it can do. But I didn’t get into the details of how to execute them successfully from a defensive point of view. So guess what we’re going over today?

Step one is to understand what makes for a good rundown. When you watch a rundown on a TV show or in the movies, you see a lot of running back and forth, faking throws, and actual throws.

While that makes for good drama, it’s pretty bad technique for a rundown. Here’s how to do it better.

Limit throws

The first rule of rundowns is the fewer the throws, the better. In fact, as I mentioned last time when I am working with teams I will ask them how many throws in the ideal rundown. The correct answer is zero.

When you make a throw, especially on the run, there are all sorts of things that can go wrong. You can throw the ball away (obviously) – high or wide. You can throw the ball into the runner. You can lose your grip on the ball and send it rolling or even behind you. You can throw too early or too late.

The better bet is to do what the technique says – run down the runner and apply the tag.

Run hard at the runner

The best explanation I’ve heard is when you run at the runner, you should put the “fear of God” in her. The mistake most defensive players make is running at the same pace as the runner. Why?

You want to put the tag on her if you can, so run at her as hard as you can. I used to love demonstrating this part. I’d take one side of a rundown, get the ball, and start chasing the runner like a monster in a horror movie – crazy eyes and a maniacal look on my face. The runner would usually freak out while the others laughed, but the point was made.

Leave no doubt. Make the runner think your plan is to tackle her before you tag her and she will start running full speed to get away. That’s a good thing because it takes a lot more effort, and a lot longer, to turn and run the other way if you’re running full speed.

Keep a Line of sight

Sometimes the speed mismatch doesn’t lend itself to just a run and tag. If you do have to make a throw or two, be sure you can see the person you’re throwing to, i.e., keep a line of sight to the other side.

Rather than running right behind the runner, run a bit off to your throwing-hand side. If the runner moves, you should move too. It’s a lot easier to make good throws if you’re not trying to throw over or around someone.

Use dart throws

Everyone says to use dart throws, but what does it really mean? To understand, get a dartboard and some darts and try to hit the bullseye.

Odds are you’re not going to wind up as throw as hard as you can. Instead, you will use more of a pushing motion, with no wrist snap.

It’s the same for rundowns. If you wind up and throw hard, especially as you get closer, there’s probably a better chance that the receiver will flinch than you will execute a successful throw and catch. Use that more direct push-type throw and you’ll put the ball where you want it.

Oh, and if you have to use more arm to make the throw, you’re not doing it right. Or you’re not in a rundown.

Pinch in

Another mistake teams will make is standing at the two bases and running back and forth between them. That’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Instead, both sides should start pinching in to shorten the distance the runner has to work with. If you run hard at the runner and get her to commit, as we said above, it will take her a little time to stop and reverse direction.

If the receiver on the other side is close, she can get the ball, run up, and make the tag before the runner has a chance to change direction. That’s way better than trying to run 60 feet back and forth each time.

Run the runner back

Whenever possible, get the ball ahead of the runner and try to run her back toward the base she’s coming from. While not as good as getting the out, keeping the runner at the base she started at is better than having her advance a base.

Time your throws

To make sure you’re running the runner back, anytime she gets more than halfway to the next base make the throw and get it in front of the runner. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but more of a rule of thumb.

The closer you let her get to the next base the more chance the runner has of advancing. So try to make sure you’re only working within the 30 feet between the last base and the next one whenever possible.

Peel off after the throw

Again, if you do have to make a throw, it’s important to know what to do next. Start by getting out of the way. Peel off to the side so you don’t interfere with the play going on. Then keep going and get in line on the other side, just in case you’re called on again. Although hopefully you won’t be.

Watch the trail runner

If there is more than one runner on base, don’t forget about the trail runner. As soon as you get the out on the lead runner, start looking for the trail runner.

High five

When you get the runner, and the play is over, don’t forget to celebrate! You just got a free out.

Practice these techniques until they become automatic and you’ll win your unfair share of rundowns.

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A quick rundown on why you should regularly practice rundowns

Practicing rundowns can pay off on both sides of the ball

A few years ago, when I was still coaching teams, I heard through the grapevine that one of the parents was griping about how much we practiced rundowns. He was a “baseball guy,” and as such was of the belief that rundowns didn’t happen very often. He couldn’t figure out why we would spend so much time on them.

Forget about the fact that if he’s opened his eyes a little more he would’ve seen that in fastpitch softball, rundowns tend to happen a little more often. It’s a faster game than baseball, with shorter distances between bases (60 feet v 90 feet for those who don’t know) and a smaller field overall.

As a result, baserunning tends to be somewhat more aggressive, and runners (as well as coaches) are more likely to take chances. Especially if they’re not sure they’re going to have many opportunities to score.

But even if that wasn’t the case, there are a lot of other things your team can gain from practicing rundowns other than the specific skill of handling rundowns. Here are a few.

Precision

Rundowns occur over shorter distances overall, and they tend to squeeze in more as they go on. That means there isn’t a lot of room for error. Throwers learn to throw to a specific spot instead of a general direction, and receivers learn to focus intensely – especially when the throw may be coming from an odd angle because the thrower didn’t maintain a good line of sight.

Grace under pressure

This goes along with precision. Things happen quickly in a rundown, and they can go wrong very quickly. If you panic, you’re likely to pull the glove down early and miss a throw, or make a throw you don’t need to make, or hold the ball too long. Rundowns help players learn to handle pressure and stay focused on the task instead of the outcome. By the way, that goes for the person running too. Their job is to stay alive until the defense makes a mistake. Can’t do that if you’re in panic mode.

Communication and teamwork

The ideal rundown has zero throws: the ball gets ahead of the runner, and the fielder chases her down until she makes the tag. But that doesn’t happen too often, so fielders need to be able to communicate effectively to coordinate their efforts. I’m not a believer in the receiver calling “ball” and the thrower holding the ball until they hear that, but if one side isn’t doing their job the other side needs to be able to tell them. Or if the thrower is running with the runner between her and the receiver, blocking the line of site, one of them needs to tell the other to move over so she can see. Or think about a first-and-third situation, with a runner caught between first and second. The team needs to know how to communicate effectively if the runner on third starts heading for home, so the team can break off the rundown on the trail runner and get the lead runner. So much going on!

Conditioning and agility

Yeah, you could have your team line up on the baseline and run a bunch of sprints to build up their speed and recovery time. But why not have them practice rundowns instead? They can get the same level of conditioning – especially if you limit the number of runners who can sub in – and you don’t have to listen to all the complaining. Create a little competition with a prize at the end and they’ll practically kill themselves trying to win. They’ll also learn how to change directions quicker – a valuable skill in several aspects of the game.

It’s fun

When I was a kid, we used to call it “running bases.” Others call it “pickle,” and I’m sure there are other names. But the basic rundown was something we used to do for fun when there weren’t enough kids around or we didn’t have enough time to play a regular game. All you need is a couple of gloves, a ball, something to use for bases, and some space. Instead of treating it like a drill, treat it like a reward – something fun to do at the end of practice.

The beautiful thing is if your team gets really, really good at executing rundowns, they can generate more outs in the field. They’ll look for opportunities, and will be more confident in going after the lead runner in tag situations. On the offensive side, they’ll be more comfortable if they do wind up in one, helping you avoid some outs on the basepaths.

Don’t take rundowns for granted. Make them a regular part of your practice routine and watch the difference they make.

Now it’s your turn. How often do you practice rundowns? How good is your team at executing them? And if you played running bases/pickle as a kid, what did you call it?

Defense can make a fastpitch pitcher look good – or bad

While it may same rather obvious on the surface, after watching the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) championship game on TV I thought it might be worthwhile to bring it up again. It, of course, being the effect defense has on making a fastpitch pitcher look good or bad.

(By the way, kudos to my hometown team, the Chicago Bandits, for taking the title for the second year in a row.)

Normally at the NPF level you expect to see a lot of dominant pitching. While the pitching was good in this game, I wouldn’t call it dominant. The definition of dominant being a lot of strikeouts or weak infield hits. Fastpitch defense can make a pitcher look good or bad

There were some of each, but there were also plenty of balls that got tagged pretty well; all three runs came off of solo home runs.

So in the absence of huge numbers of Ks, it becomes pretty obvious that the other 7 players who are not part of the battery had to step up to keep this a 2-1 game. If you watched the game you certainly saw that.

Which brings me to my point. The game ended 2-1, but the score could have easily been much higher were it not for some spectacular plays on both sides, both in the infield and outfield.

Those defenders made their pitchers look awfully good. And that’s ok, because I really believe the pitcher’s job isn’t to strike everyone out. That’s just fortunate when it happens. Instead, a pitcher’s job is to induce weak contacts that are easy to field.

In other words, the perfect inning isn’t 9 pitches for three Ks. It’s 3 pitches, all easy popups to 1st base so the first baseman can just pick up the ball and step on the bag if she drops it.

So contrast that defensive performance with others I’ve seen or heard about over the years, where the pitcher does her job. But instead of weak grounders or popups resulting in outs, they result in runners on base because of errors or lack of effort on the fielders’ part.

And what happens after a few of those? The coach calls time, heads out to the circle, and replaces the pitcher (who hasn’t made an error yet). It’s clearly not the pitcher’s fault, but I guess it’s easier to replace one pitcher than four defensive players.

So in the stats as well as in live action the pitcher ends up looking bad. Especially if those errors get marked as hits. (Anyone ever seen a box score that showed one error when you know there were at least 6? I sure have, especially in high school games.)

The thing is, having a porous defense doesn’t just have a short-term effect on the team, i.e., losing a game or a tournament. It also has a long-term effect. Because good pitchers don’t want to look bad, or have to work overtime every game to get three outs. So what happens? Good pitchers will leave, and tell other good pitchers why. Then it gets tough to get good pitchers, so the team has to settle for lesser pitchers, who give up more contacts that turn into even more baserunners. Then you’re in the death spiral.

Here’s another way to think of it. What coach would sign up for a tournament where the rules stated certain teams would be given 6 offensive outs per inning while theirs only got 3? You’d have to be crazy to agree to that. But that’s what happens when the team can’t play good defense behind their pitcher. And that makes it tough to win.

So while it’s easy to blame the pitcher, or give too much credit for that matter, the reality is the better your defense is the better your pitching will look. Just ask the world champion Bandits.

Playing the softball time game

Let me start out by saying I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I am NOT a fan of time limits in fastpitch softball. The game was designed to be played across seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Yogi Berra’s statement “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” doesn’t make as much sense if you’re playing against a clock, because there is a definite point when it’s over. But then again Fastpitch softball shouldn't have a time limit, but when it does don't game the system.Yogi never had to make sense to be quotable.

In any case, whether we like it or not time limits have become the norm at nearly every summer tournament. The desire to get as many teams to play as many games as possible on a finite number of fields drives that. Maybe it’s greed, maybe it’s the “bigger is better” syndrome, but whatever it is as long as that’s the prevailing sentiment among those who are running tournaments you’re going to see time limits.

With that comes a new set of challenges for coaches. For example, if you’re dedicated to all of your players playing at least half the game, that’s fairly easy to accomplish when you know you have seven innings. Not so much when you have 1:15 no new inning with 1:30 drop dead. You have to keep an eye not only on the innings but on the clock, and may have to make substitutions at times you don’t want to.

The drop dead time limit can also change the strategy as far as whether you want to be the home or visiting team. If your team starts off hot at the plate but tends to fade in the field later in the game, you may want to take visitor if given the choice. You get to start out hitting, and if your team is booting the ball around in the bottom of the last inning it may not make a difference. In fact, if you’ve blow a lead you may even want to have them not get outs so the inning isn’t completed and the game defaults back to the previous inning when you were ahead.

And that brings us to today’s sermon topic, which is the games some coaches play when facing a time limit. The above being just one of the more egregious examples.

Some might call it being strategic. Others might call it short-sighted, since it’s kind of legalized cheating – you’re playing within the rules of the game, but not the spirit.

Not that I was always a saint about it, but after experiencing time limits a few times I quickly came to the philosophy that if you’re not good enough to win the game outright, you’re not good enough to win it.

As my buddy and assistant coach Rich Youngman once pointed out to me, what does it tell your team if you have to play these games? That you don’t have confidence in them to be the better team and win it outright, so you’re resorting to tricks?

Here are some examples. Your team is on defense, clinging to a one-run lead. You don’t want to go into a new inning because you know the heart of your opponent’s order is coming up, along with the bottom of yours. So you call a timeout to talk to the pitcher and gather the rest of your team in for your talk, which apparently becomes a manifesto. Tick tick tick.

Or you’re the home team on offense and don’t want a new inning to start. So you tell your team to walk slowly to batter’s box, and be sure to take a few practice swings between each pitch. If time is still moving too slowly you call a batter over for a conference. I even heard an instance of a coach telling a player to tie her shoe when it was already tied.

There are all kinds of ways to run a couple of extra minutes off the clock. Even an argument with an umpire can take up some precious time. A fake injury that doesn’t take too long to deal with can run some time off without stopping the clock too. Fielders taking a little extra time to throw the ball around after a strikeout, and maybe even throw it away on purpose or let a ball go by so they have to chase it down qualify as well.

This is not to say every strategy for killing time is bad. If you want to tell your players to take pitches until they get a strike on them, I’d consider that smart. Maybe you get a walk, but maybe you put your hitter in a hole that speeds up the at bat. That’s legit.

More borderline ethical is telling a hitter to strike out on purpose to kill an inning. I wouldn’t do it, but if it results in an extra inning being played you’re potentially not affecting the outcome of the game as much – both teams still have an equal chance to do something in that inning.

It’s the ones where you’re preventing the game from being played that get to me. If you’re there to play fastpitch softball, then play fastpitch softball. Man up, or woman up, and have confidence that the best team will win. Without the need for gimmicks. The lesson that will teach will mean a whole lot more to your kids than a $10 plastic trophy or medal.

Great softball defensive game/challenge

First of all let me state that this training game for fastpitch softball wasn’t my idea. I got it at a clinic a few years ago.

The game is called 21 outs. It’s pretty simple. You put your team on the field, at least one person per position. Then you start hitting the ball to different locations. The object is to get 21 outs in a row. If someone makes an error, either fielding or throwing, the count gets re-set to zero and you start over.

You can do it with or without runners, depending on how many players you have. Because I have my kids play at least two positions, I will have them switch positions after seven outs. (You can also do that to give your subs an opportunity to participate.)

The other rule I put in is when the ball comes back to the plate for the next play, even though the play is dead, it has to be a good throw. Otherwise we go back to zero again.

One of the fun aspects of this game is that the coach “mis-hit” makes it more realistic. Say you’re trying to hit a fly ball and you just dink a spinner off the end of the bat. They still have to read, react and get the out.

The final rule is that the ball has to be “getable.” If I hit a clean shot in the gap that could never have been fielded, it’s a neutral. On the other hand, if it’s a clean single to the outfield and the ball gets behind the outfielder, it’s an error and we start over.

As a coach you can make the game as challenging as you want. You can vary the types of hits, how hard they’re hit, etc. You can also say things such as “only two more to go” to add a little extra pressure.

Just make sure you allow enough time. You may think it would be easy, but it can be tough to get 21 outs in a row.

Softball practice game

Tonight for our last practice before our next fastpitch softball tournament we decided to do something a little different. After warmups and throwing we played a game that worked on both defense and hand-eye coordination for hitters. It also exposed the girls to a skill most of them rarely practice.

We divided the team up into four groups of three players each. Nine went onto the field, and the other three were up to bat. But instead of live pitching — which pitchers often have trouble doing with their own team — we had the girls fungo the ball instead. (For those who don’t know the term, fungoing is throwing the ball up and hitting it yourself.)

The overall objective was to introduce some unpredictability into the game for the defense. Although the girls struggled with fungoing at first, as they got the hang of it they started looking for holes and placing the ball. That made it tougher on the defense, challenging them, because unlike coaches hitting balls they really didn’t know where it was going to go.

If the hitters got on base they continued as baserunners. That automatically set up situations for the defense to handle, and put pressure on them to perform. About the only thing we couldn’t work on were steals since the hitter controlled the ball. We kept score, and three outs brought in the next team of three.

Why not go with live pitching? We’ve done that before. But it takes longer and less action occurs. In addition, it’s tougher to move the ball around the field. Fungoing keeps the game moving, creating more situations for the defense to handle and more opportunities for the offense.

If you’re looking for a way to spice up practice, get some quality work in, and introduce some competition give the fungo game a try.

Now it’s your turn. How do you get some competition going in practice?

First base a one-handed position

In the past I’ve written about catching as being a one-handed position. That idea also extends to playing first base.

The reason is the same. There’s a lot of reaching at first base. And it’s easier to reach farther when you’re only using one hand.

Sure, if the ball is coming right to your chest a two-handed catch is fine. But for nearly anything else — especially balls in the dirt — going with one hand makes far more sense. That’s the reason for the design of first basemans’ mitts. The ball is supposed to nestle itself in the pocket without the benefit of a second hand helping out.

If you’re a first baseman, or working with a first baseman, have her practice catching with one hand. And if you’re a coach of a team, for goodness’ sakes quit yelling at your first baseman to use two hands. She’ll snag a lot more balls with one, and you’ll win a lot more games.

Use an air horn to add a little pressure

One of the continuing challenges in a fastpitch softball practice is simulating game pressure. You can tell your players about the need to execute quickly, and yell at them to speed up. You can even try using some of your players as baserunners to put it into context. But unless they have blazing speed, they may not create the type of gamelike pressure you need to make the point.

We often have players execute against a stopwatch, telling them the goal is to execute in three seconds or less from the time the ball hits the bat until the time it hits the fielder’s glove and calling out their actual times. Today we decided to up the ante.

We added an air horn to the mix. The stopwatch starts when the bat hits the ball. When you get to three seconds (or whatever target you’re going for) you sound the air horn. Players get immediate audible feedback that’s pretty annoying, pressuring them to field the ball and make the throw before the horn sounds.

We used a small horn today. One of the advantages is that it sets a limit on the drill. When you run out of juice to power the horn, the drill is done.

It’s pretty effective, and fun — especially for the person with the horn. Give it a try!

The intentional walk

Sorry for not posting in a little while, but I was busy at the NSA 16U B World Series. It was a great and well-run tournament, and thankfully only affected by rain once. We did pretty well, ninth out of 34 teams, and with a couple more hits would’ve done even better. Oh well.

One thing that came up in the course of the week was the value of the intentional walk. I think the parents on our team were surprised when we pulled it out, because we hadn’t done it all year. But the circumstances were right, and I’m proud to say it did its job every time we used it.

A lot of coaches are either reluctant to issue the intentional walk or just don’t think about it. Maybe it’s a macho thing — we’re gonna gut it out and pitch to that hitter. Whatever the reason, you just don’t seem to see it a lot.

There were a couple of circumstances where we used it. One was with less than two outs and runners on second and third in a close game. We knew we had to cut off the run at home to keep the game close. We elected to put the next hitter on to load the bases. Throe hitter after that grounded to third and we got the force at home, giving us two outs and a little breathing room. The inning ended without a run scoring. That’s probably the classic scenario.

Another circumstance had a runner on third. The other team’s best hitter (at least against us) was coming up. We gave both her and the next hitter a free pass, again loading the bases, again with the desired result.

There are all kinds of circumstances where an intentional walk makes sense. And a few where they don’t. If the bottom of the order is up and your pitcher has been dominating them, you probably don’t want to bypass those hitters and get back to the top. If you’re in a position to trade a run for an out, you don’t want more runners on base. And so forth.

But if you really need to cut off the run, and you’re confident your infield can make the play, loading up the bases to get a force rather than a tag play makes sense. And bypassing a hitter who’s killing your pitcher in favor of one who’s not does as well. Even if the bases aren’t loaded. Heck, you might be better off walking her with bases loaded and giving up one run than letting her hit a double, triple, or home run and give up four.

As some of you head to Nationals, where presumably there will be a lot of parity in teams, keep the intentional walk in mind. It’s a gutsy call, but it just might save your season.

Face masks for pitchers and players

Reader Rick put up a question on a previous post asking what I thought of the face masks now being worn by pitchers and other players. He thought it might make a good new topic and I have to say I agree. So here we go.

For me there isn’t a simple answer. To be honest, I’m kind of old school about masks myself. I personally find them rather odd. I thought face masks for hitters was a good idea, especially with all the bunting that goes on in fastpitch. In fact, I think they’d be a good idea for boys baseball too.

But when it comes to fielders I’m having trouble getting behind them. I’m not sure why. I guess it seems like overkill to me. I kind of understand pitchers wearing them. They stand awfully close after release, and the act of pitching consumes the bulk of their attention. With all the high tech bats out there they don’t have a lot of reaction time, and in the one in a million chance one of those pitches comes rocketing back at their faces they have some level of protection.

My own daughter has had a couple of line drives whiz past her ear recently. When I asked her if she wanted a mask she just gave me a funny look and said “no.” But for other pitchers it’s the right thing to do.

It seems less critical for outfielders or other infielders, with the possible exception of third base. Out in the field you should have plenty of time to read and react to a batted ball. A charging third baseman who gets suckered on a fake bunt and slap might be vulnerable, but other than that it just doesn’t seem necessary to me.

Keep in mind I grew up in an era when you didn’t wear a helmet to ride a bicycle, and baserunners in youth baseball would use a device rather like earmuffs instead of a full helmet. We survived. I think players are better trained and more athletic than in my playing days, so there’s even less risk.

That being said, ultimately it’s a personal preference. It doesn’t really hurt anything to wear a mask. If a field player on my team chose to wear one I might secretly roll my eyes but I wouldn’t stop her. If you’re more comfortable playing with one knock yourself out. But I sure hope the day never comes when it’s a requirement. It just seems like overkill to me.

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