Placing an emphasis on baserunning abilities
Baserunning isn’t what it used to be, and that’s something Mike Roberts recognizes every time he watches the game.
Up until the 1990s players were ferocious on the base paths, but today too many players take baserunning for granted. Given the enormous impact it has on the game, Roberts is surprised more coaches don’t make it a priority.“I think players are running the bases not athletically and there’s not a lot of self motivation,” said Roberts, former head baseball coach at the University of North Carolina and author of two baserunning books. “I think the younger levels are watching MLB players jog down the line, and they’re watching the ball too much.
“We’re in an era that it’s not very important, but it wins and loses games.”
Roberts, who now consults with the Chicago Cubs organization, offered these tips to coaches to help make baserunning and priority in their programs.
Leaving the box
It all starts in the batter’s box, and when the hitter makes initial contact Roberts said they must become a sprinter. That’s something players don’t practice enough.
Encourage athletes to work on their sprinting skills first, and that helps them become better baserunners. That doesn’t necessarily make players faster, but they will learn to run in straight lines with improved rhythm.
“It’s a combination of some baseball instincts and turning yourself into a track athlete and having rhythm and balance as you run the bases,” Roberts said. “You have to practice that, and we don’t practice our sprinting skills enough under the right tutelage.”
Roberts added that young baseball players today typically average around .250, and part of the reason is players are opening up their front foot a lot more than they did 40 years ago. They focus on power instead of contact.
That means batters don’t have balance after they swing, and consequently they don’t get out of the box as fast. Roberts said St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter is a good example of how players should keep their lead foot closed to make contact and get a great jump toward first.
“You see guys that totally open their front foot with toes facing the pitcher or the second baseman, and when you fall over the plate more with your backside you don’t get out of the box as well,” he said. “A lot of the reason why guys are slow getting out of the box is because of the swing they’re taking.”
Advancing the bases
Understanding the situation — outs, score, number of runners on base — is paramount, but Roberts also wants players to anticipate contact on the pitch. They tend to look in the area of home plate without watching the swing and the ball coming off of the bat.
“Getting them to anticipate what’s going to happen as the ball is coming through the strike zone, that’s what I’m trying to teach players today,” Roberts said. “It’s what I call getting runners to be there every pitch.”
Anticipation is rare in today’s game, and that leaves runners a half step behind where they could be. Roberts wants players to develop “nervous activation with their bottom halves,” always making sure their legs are ready if the ball is put into play. One of the major problems with players is they wander off the bases without anticipating the moment they need to turn into sprinters.
But that’s just half the battle. In many situations, players need to know how to properly slide safely into the bases, and while that’s something coaches can emphasize during practice, Roberts believes a lot of players these days are afraid to get dirty.
“We go out and practice, but we never hit the grass or dirt and that’s kind of amazing,” he said. “We rarely practice aggressively yet we want our players to play aggressively.”
Like advancing the bases on a ground ball, baserunners must understand the situation and read the ball off of the bat. It’s important that players quickly determine what part of the field the ball is hit and how deep it’s going to go.
Roberts points out that players on second and third base don’t have as much difficulty in tagging up, since much of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the third-base coach. However, quickly getting an accurate read on the ball by anticipating contact gives players an idea of how they need to react.
Many of these skills are dependent upon reinforcement, and Roberts believes teams don’t spend enough time practicing baserunning with their players. For teams that have 90-minute practices, he recommends spending at least 10 to 12 minutes working on baserunning and reinforcing those instincts within players.
“In old school baseball we’d learn to run the bases and have instincts because we played whiffle ball and pickle, but now without that very few players today love baserunning,” Roberts said. “It’s across the board when you watch athletes today and talking to coaches because the lack of practice, lack of repetition and lack of backyard skills. You don’t learn instincts very well in organized practices.”
Baserunning can still be improved in practice, and Roberts said batting practice is one of the best opportunities to do it. Position your coaches around the infield, set players up and first and teach them the proper techniques for running the bases.
“As every pitch is delivered … you’re working on anticipation and activating the legs and putting it all into motion on contact,” he said. “By using it in batting practice, you’re always getting multiple repetitions.”
For more tips or to check out Mike Roberts’ books on running the bases, visit his site at www.coachmikeroberts.com.