Was The Runner Out or Safe?
..…but what about the other runners?
Your shortstop makes a slick play, straightens up, makes a strong, accurate throw to first; it’s a close play. The first baseman immediately turns and looks at the umpire wondering ‘was the runner out or safe?’ But that is not all, the runner is the first baseman’s classmate at school and they strike up a conversation…
…all the while the runner at third base races home to score another run for the opposing team.
Seen this before? This is a common occurrence in youth baseball and youth softball games in the US, Canada and across the globe. Why does it happen? How many bases and runs does a youth baseball or softball team surrender each year because of this common mistake made by young ball players?
<watch the first baseman's eyes @ 0:39 of the video>
What is a Young Person’s Thought Process?
We need to get into a kid’s brain to find out. This is difficult since our brains are grown up and have much more life experience than our players. We also struggle to address this mistake effectively, and many others, because our approach to instruction and prioritization of practice content from an adult perspective and not that of the young minds of our players.
Kids see the world much differently than adults. First, the world still pretty much centers around them as individuals and their personal experiences. Next, there is a passionate interest in the current moment, the ‘now’. While they are aware that the game extends beyond their position on the field, and the play that just happened, they usually are not thinking beyond their small space of experience and the current moment in time.
This brings to the common scenario mentioned above. Finding out if that base runner was safe or not, is really important to that child. Building and maintaining social relationships are important and stimulating to a child. Our first baseman knows the base runner from school and knows them in that environment. Meeting them in the context of a real game is an exciting experience. Meeting this classmate where they are both wearing ball uniforms and participating in a structured environment, different than the one they are accustomed to at school, is unique and there is a natural urge to want to ‘document’ the moment in a social exchange.
Of course when everyone starts yelling, “The runner is going home! Throw the ball home!” our young baseball or softball player is reminded there are more things to be concerned about than the umpire’s call and socializing with their classmate.
They snap out of their moment, turn to home plate but it is too late…or there is just enough time to make a reckless throw that the catcher misses, resulting in their classmate advancing to second base.
So What Can We Do?
We add the action and concept of, and the teaching phrase, “Look for Other Runners” into our drills. At the conclusion of any drill that involves make a tag on a runner or a force we Add, to the drill, the action of Immediately coming off the base, shuffling a couple steps towards the middle of the infield, in a Power Position (throwing position with the elbow raised to shoulder level) anticipating the possibility of making another throw.
We must stay firm in our policing of this action after it is added to our drills. We judge the action by the level of aggressiveness the player moves away from the play that was just made and if they are fully ‘cocked and loaded’ and ready to throw, “Looking for Other Runners”. Initially, it will be difficult to get the players to fully complete this additional action because they know, in the drill environment, that they will not have to make a throw….it’s just an added action.
Remaining consistent and firm in our expectation of this added component of the drill is the key to establishing this important habit that will pay dividends repeatedly over the course of a season. It will be necessary, from time to time, to take a moment to demonstrate the action, so the players understand clearly what it means to put the play that just concluded behind them and prepare their mind and body to respond to other possible plays on the diamond.
It is important to acknowledge that, Yes, most of the time there will not be another play. We want to teach the importance of establishing the Habit of being Prepared to make another throw, because at some point, if not multiple times, in each game there will be a need to make another throw. Another result will be a runner thinking about advancing to the next base, but seeing your player immediately prepared to make a play on them, that runner makes the decision to stay put.
When we see this happen in a game, it is important to point this out to our players; possibly right then, or at the end of the inning when everyone is back in the dugout. A big part of cementing a new teaching point is showing the players where it made a positive impact in a game.
Drills to Train the Habit of ‘Looking for Other Runners’
- Receiving Throws: Tag Play (at Third Base) - ‘Skill Building Warm-up’ page
- Catch, Tag, Power Position: Playing Catch Practice’ page
- Catch, Tag & Throw, Mini Diamond: Skill Building Warm-up page
- Catch, Tag & Throw, Full Field: Team Drills page
After our players have been exposed to this concept in drills where this action is a primary objective of the drill, we apply the action of ‘Looking for Other Runners’ to every instance where a base-runner is tagged or there is a force out at a base. This applies to our scrimmages in practices.
When incorporating this added action to other drills, f time and bodies are available, we can put am extra player at another base on the diamond. At the conclusion of each drill repetition, this additional player calls for the ball and the player who concluded the original drill, doesn’t just go through the action of “Looking for Other Runners”, they get to make a throw to the other base. The added player receives the throw, makes a tag on an imaginary runner ….and then they come off the base “Looking for other Runners”.
Ultimately these habits carry over to our games ….these good habits will make a difference in our team’s ability to control runners and will shave a run or two off the final score of our opponents in many of our games.
Pick-off Throw To First Base
…oooops, the throw is headed down the right field line
One aspect of Pitchers having trouble throwing to first base is Mindset. Think of what we call the move to first: “Pickoff Move”. The long used phrase ‘pick off’ by coaches (and players saying it/thinking it themselves) has morphed into the mindset that the purpose of this play is to generate an out – pick the base runner off first. Too often the result is pitchers trying too hard to ‘pick the guy off’ and firing the ball past the first baseman.
The pitchers’ actions become too quick, undisciplined and to some extent, out of control which leads to poor throws. Also, pitchers often try to throw the ball too close to the ground (where the first baseman would be in a better position to apply a tag). “Hey, I gotta throw the ball down by the bag, so we have a better chance to pick that guy off.”
Let’s ask ourselves the question, “what is the objective of throwing over to first base?” Are we really trying to generate an out? …or perhaps are we simply trying to ‘Hold the runner close’? …or disrupt their timing? …or to wear them down and slow their jump? …or create anxiety by sticking in their mind that, ‘Yes, the pitcher Will throw over’?
When I was a head coach in college we changed the phrase ‘Pick Move’ to ‘HOLD Move’. Our objective was to re-set our pitchers’ mindset when they threw to first base. We taught them that we are not trying to ‘Pick the Runner Off’, we are working to ‘Hold Them Close’.
Questions: 1. What percentage of throws to first base result in an out? I don’t have any stats, but I’ll suggest the number is less than 5%. 2. At the amateur/teen level of play, what is the percentage of balls thrown past the first baseman? …I don’t have a stat on that either, but I will suggest that the percentage of balls thrown past the first baseman is higher than the percentage of throws that result in an out.
We taught our college pitchers to throw to first base at the first baseman’s chest level, not low to the ground, near the bag. By practicing with this mindset our pitchers became very good at making catchable throws consistently.
Another question to ask (and this might be easier for those of us who were base-stealers in our playing days) is:
When a base-stealer is Picked Off, was it a result of the pitcher making a quick and awesome throw, or was it a result of the Runner ‘Getting Their Self Out’?
ie, they were ‘leaning’, or their first move was towards second base, when the pitcher threw over, and as a result they were late in getting back to the base?
We told out college pitchers, “Make consistently good, catchable throws to first base and give the base runner the opportunity to ‘get themselves out’”. Given this new mindset, our pitchers learned to coolly and confidently throw over to first more frequently. The more we threw to first, the greater the chances of the runner making a mistake and ‘getting their self out’. …no we didn’t throw over a zillion times each game ;) but we wouldn’t hesitate to make back to back throws to first in base stealing situations and counts.
We did not keep stats on this, so I can’t say it produced more outs, but I can confidently say that the occurrences of ‘throwing the ball away’ was very low.
Let’s teach our pitchers the mindset of ‘Holding the Runner Close’ on their throws to first rather than making a ‘Pick Off Move’ and we will reduce balls being thrown away and possibly, in the process, generate more outs by giving the base runners more chances of ‘getting themselves out’
Technique For (Right Handed) Pitchers Throws to First Base
Making consistent quality throws, for any position, and most throwing sports for that matter, is based on good Footwork. The process for teaching and training pitchers to throw consistently well to first base begins with Training proper footwork.
Step 1 – No Ball is Used
Pitcher comes to the set position, then makes a 90 degree turn (very low two footed hop) in the direction of their glove side. In the process they separate their hands and bring their elbows up to shoulder height to a throwing (power) position. At the end of the action, we want their feet to be wider than shoulder width and be able to draw a straight line from the tip of their right foot, through the tip of their left foot, to first base. The line from their back elbow, through their shoulders, to their left elbow also needs to be straight towards first base.
More than likely the pitcher’s feet and elbows/shoulders will not be lined up properly in their first try and likely not in many subsequent tries. The purpose of the drill is to train this action, so the pitcher is in a good throwing position and lined up properly to throw to first base, each time they execute the action…this is more than a one day process.
Note: this drill does not need to be done on the pitcher’s mound. It can be done along one of the foul lines in the outfield (leaving the infield area for position players to work).
This action is executed over and over with the pitchers and coach checking their body alignment after each repetition. – Do ten reps of the action.
Step 2 – Include the Ball
After doing this ten times without a ball, add the ball to the action, so the pitcher is finishing in a proper throwing position. – Ten reps using a ball.
Step 3 – Throw ‘to First Base’ From the Throwing (power) Position
Have your pitchers partner-up and stand the same distance apart as is the distance between the pitching rubber and first base. The pitchers throw to each other, from the throwing/power position, with the chest area of the ‘first baseman’ as the target (note: a first baseman is bent down some when taking a throw from the pitcher, lowering the target area slightly) – Ten reps
Step 4 – Execute the Entire ‘Hold’ Move
It is critical that we instruct our pitchers, in the early stages of training this skill, to practice the action at a Controlled pace….half to three quarters speed and with just a Firm toss to first base, not all out. – Ten reps
Progression of Skill Development
We put our pitchers through this routine for two workouts. It is critical that throughout the process we are constantly working on establishing the mindset that they are working on a ‘Hold Move’, not a ‘pickoff move’. We must monitor the pace of their actions. Kids naturally want to show how good they are at physical skills; they will try to go too fast, too soon. We Will have to remind them to work at a Controlled pace and explain to them that First they need to develop the muscle memory of the actions, Then, after they have demonstrated consistency in executing the actions, we will start to speed things up …on days 3, 4 and beyond.
Our objective is, by the end of the second workout, that the players develop some level of mastery of the actions and have been successful in making fairly accurate, catchable throws to ‘first base’.
On subsequent days of work, based on our observations, we direct the players to increase the speed of their actions bit by bit. It is likely that we will not reach full speed in the actions until Day 4 or 5. The progression of the group depends a lot on their age, how quickly they grasp the concept that they are not trying to pick the runner off and their level of focus and commitment to learning.