“Get ‘em on, Get ‘em over, Get ‘em in.” This is the motto of many coaches who believe in generating runs though small ball. As we discussed in Part I, there are some days where your team just will not hit. On those days, hopefully you get good pitching and you are able to get a few runners on base (see Part I). When you do get runners on, the coach has to make a difficult decision. Do you try to make something happen by putting runners in motion or bunting, or do you let your hitters try to break through and come up with a few big hits.To many coaches, the answer is clear, you try to force the issue and try to make something happen. Even though this may seem obvious, I caution you not to just automatically put on a sacrifice bunt, straight steal or hit and run in an attempt to break through. I encourage you to consider the situation carefully to determine which of those methods will work best in any given situation.
Know your personnel:
It sounds very simple, but many coaches do not truly know who on their team can bunt, bunt for a hit, run, get good jumps, or put the ball in play consistently. In order to obtain this knowledge, you should take time out of practice to watch baserunners stealing live against pitchers and catcher, watch hitters sacrifice and bunt for hits against live pitching. You should also take time out of practice to time players in the 60 yard dash, home to first, first to third, and from their leadoff to second base. All of this information will play a role in your decision to bunt, hit and run, straight steal, or let your hitters try to move the runners on their own.
If you read the introduction to my blog, you know I am a bit of a numbers guy and you can probably guess that I am not a huge fan of the sacrifice bunt. This doesn’t mean that I don’t see value in bunting, I just don’t believe that trading an out for 90 feet is a good idea in most situations.
On a day when you are not hitting, or you are facing a pitcher who doesn’t give up too many hits, I see very little value in bunting a runner from first to second. However, it may be beneficial to try to create some havoc with bunting. So instead of bunting with giving up an out in mind, but with the idea of creating havoc and putting pressure on the defense.
I do believe that moving a runner from second to third, or from first and second to second and third is a much better move, especially in a close and late situation. Getting a runner to third with less than two outs in a low scoring game is a big deal. There are several ways you can score from third with less than two outs (see Part III) and in a game where you may not score many runs, every run is precious.
How do you know when you should sacrifice bunt a runner from second to third? If the middle of our order is up, or one of your better hitters is up, I would recommend letting them swing away. Even though you aren’t hitting much on that day, I still believe it is a bad idea to take the bat out of your best hitters hands to move a runner 90 feet. I would also advise against bunting a runner to third if you have a very fast, good baserunner on second. If you have one of your best baserunners on second, it may be a good idea to let your hitter swing away with no outs, then try to steal third with one out if he doesn’t move the runner or come up with a big hit.
Moving a runner to third by a sacrifice bunt is a good idea when you need only one run late in the game, or if have weak hitters who put the ball in play coming up. They may not be likely to get a hit, but they may be able to hit a ground ball or sacrifice fly to score the runner. Likewise, it is a bad idea to bunt a runner to third in front of someone who strikes out on a regular basis.
A lesson that I learned early in my coaching career is to be careful bunting runners over to put your best hitter at the plate. During one of my first years of coaching, we had runners on first and second late in the game with our number two hitter up. Our third hitter was by far our best hitter, so I bunted the runners to second and third hoping he could come up with a hit to give us the lead (we were down one run). As you might expect, the opposing coach intentionally walked our best hitter to set up a double play, which our number four hitter inevitably grounded into. Lesson learned.
Bunt for a hit
If you feel as I do that giving up an out to move a runner 90 feet is not a good trade in many situations, bunt for a hit is a much better alternative to sacrifice bunt. Bunting for a hit (as a method to move runners) is best used when there are no strikes, nobody out and runners on first, second or first and second.
When bunting for a hit, your hitters show a little later (around the pitchers foot strike), and try to put the ball on the third base line. When we are bunting for a hit we are trying to put pressure on the defense. The best possible outcome is that we will cause the infielders to rush their throws and we will be able to advance multiple bases on an error. The next best outcome is that we will beat the throw to first. A neutral outcome would be if we make an out but advance the runner. Anything other than that would be considered a negative outcome.
Be sure that you practice bunting for a hit as much, or more than you practice sacrifice bunting since it is a more difficult skill to master (different bunting techniques will likely be a future blog topic). Next time you feel compelled to sacrifice bunt, give bunt for a hit a try. If your hitter goes to one strike, then you can use another method of trying to move the runner.
Hit and Run
Hit and run is a good tactic to use when you have a good runner on (not a great runner), when you have someone at the plate who handles the bat well and is able to put the ball in play. I will generally try a hit and run in a fastball count (1-0, 2-1) or after a pitcher throws a ball with a curveball with less than two strikes (very rarely will a pitcher throw a curveball for a ball then come back with another).
If you are unable to move the runner with no outs, you should consider using a hit and run with one out. A hit and run opens up the infield, it puts pressure on the opposing defense, and creates an opportunity for a big inning. If your hit and run is successful, you will have moved the runner to 3rd (not just to 2nd) with one out.
Obviously a straight steal has a high “risk/reward” play. To minimize the risk and maximize the reward, choosing the appropriate time to run is key. Trying to move a runner into scoring position with two outs, or trying to move a runner to third with one out are examples of times when the reward of a successful steal attempt may outweigh the risk of being thrown out.
I personally believe that a straight steal can be a good strategy when used in the correct situation. One of the biggest keys is to know the numbers. Make sure that you time the pitchers delivery to home, and the catchers “pop” time (the time from his glove to the glove at the base). You should also know your players leadoff to second base times in a game situation (you can get these times during practice by setting up realistic stealing situations). If the pitchers delivery time plus the catcher’s pop time is less than your runner’s leadoff to second time, stealing may be difficult. If the pop time plus pitcher’s deliver time is more than your runner’s time, you should have success stealing.
That is a very simplistic view of stealing a base, and we all know there are many more variables that go into it. Another key to stealing a base is choosing a curveball count. Curveball counts are any count where the pitcher is ahead (0-1, 1-2, 0-2) or any even count where the pitcher threw a fastball strike on the previous pitch. Additionally, knowing how a pitcher has attacked different hitters in your lineup may help you pick a curveball to run on. A full count is also a good time to run when you have a hitter who puts the ball in play.
Another strategy you can use to help your runners in this case is to have your hitter “protect” the runner with less than two strikes. If you put the straight steam on with less than two strikes, your hitter should swing through any pitch they don’t want to hit in order to give protection to your runner. Make sure they swing slightly after the ball has crossed the hitting zone and that they do not interfere with the catcher.
While those are not the only means to move a runner 90 feet, they should give you a good idea of when and how you can move the runners. Ultimately, coaches should choose which strategy matches the individual situation and their team’s personnel. Remember, the goal in this scenario is to move runners when you are not hitting. Each of these strategies comes with its own risks and rewards. As you can see, your decision of how to move the runner is not as easy as it seems from the outside, there is a lot that goes into deciding when to bunt, when to steal, or when to hit and run. All you can do is prepare yourself with enough knowledge to make the best decision for your situation.
In Part 3, we will explore the ways to get runners in from third when you are not hitting.
NOTE: I will discuss more of the technical aspects of the sacrifice bunt, bunt for hit, hit and run and straight steal in future posts.