Saturday, May 31, 2008

Encouraging youth baserunning aggressiveness

I agree with this article about runner reluctance: runners try to take extra bases far less often than they should. When a runner is thrown out, either the runner or the coach who sent him typically receive far more criticism than they deserve.

In youth league coaching, as I moved to new age groups, I intentionally spent the first couple of games testing out when the particular age group was likely and unlikely to throw out runners. At each level, I was shocked at how difficult it was to consistently throw out runners. I was sending runners, and was sorta kinda trying to get them thrown out (just so I could discover the limits of the age group I was coaching in), and my doomed runners were coming in safe time after time. This opened my eyes.

As a consequence: we ran and ran. Running bases was the best thing we did. By my second year of coaching the 11-12 age group, playing on 70 foot bases: we averaged 19 stolen bases and/or extra bases taken (aka aggressively risky bases taken against outfielders and basemen) per game.

Who cares about modesty: we were awesome! We took by far the largest leadoffs in the league. On leadoffs from first, our front feet were a minimum 13 feet off the base (we marked 13' during practice, and demanded it). We were out there probably 4-6 feet further than other teams' baserunners, and still I'm not sure we ever got picked off that season. I tried - purely out of curiosity about what would happen - to get our best baserunners to venture further off of first base. They were already so far out there, and it was already so easy for them to steal second: they just weren't interested in getting further off the base.

And yet: on the occasions we got a runner thrown out while stretching for an extra base, our team's fathers would gather on the cyclone fence and talk bad about me for sending the runner.

The fathers failed to realize the opportunity cost of not being aggressive would've been definite and noticeable. Our team spirit and verve would have lessened. We would've lost some edge. We intimidated opponents with our baserunning, and that would've been lost.

When a kid got thrown out, those fathers would say: "Why couldn't Greg SEE that kid would get thrown out? ANYONE could've seen it!"

What they said was true - insofar as anyone could've seen our runner would get thrown out with a perfect throw and a perfect tag. Our team fathers didn't take time to realize those conditions also existed during a significant proportion of our successful running attempts - it's just that the perfect throw and the perfect tag failed to materialize in those successful instances. Look at the baseman in the photo above: he's likely 13 or 14 years old, yet he's making a suboptimal tag attempt. 11 and 12 year olds usually do no better.*

If a coach is going to send a bunch of runners: he will benefit from understanding he is playing odds, and he will sometimes get burned. Good. It is proper to get burned once in a while. A base coach is not trying to be perfect. Instead: he is trying to play smart odds. This understanding will help a coach stand up under the scorn of the cyclone fence fathers. If a coach never gets anyone thrown out, he is costing his team runs via being too timid. If an 11-12 age group coach goes a couple of weeks without getting a runner thrown out: he needs to consciously coach more aggressively.

Players, at all levels, rarely understand the strategy of playing smart odds, and rarely stand up well to scorn. This is why players, especially, are reluctant to be as aggressive as they ought to be. To encourage aggressiveness, we did these things:

1. All runners had green light at all times. I did not give signals to runners. Get the players' brains thinking about when they can make it and when they cannot. They'll figure it out - and probably better than you would.

2. During every practice, we had players take one rep of leading off against a pitcher who might try to pick them off. We used kids as the pitchers and the basemen. Adults would've given the runners a false read vis a vis kid effectiveness. The runners would continue the exercise until the pitcher made a move towards the plate; then the runners would take their first four or five steps as if stealing the next base.

3. We used a formula (and zero coach input) to determine batting order. The more effective a players' OBP + baserunning (stealing, plus taking extra bases, minus a strong penalty for being thrown out)**: the higher that player got to hit in the batting order. This encouraged players to be focused both on batting success and on baserunning aggressiveness. If a player was not taking extra bases, his formula score and then his batting spot would go lower. I made the call as to when players were credited with aggressively taking extra bases.***

4. If all else fails - for instance: if your runner on second is too scared to try for third ... then: stand in the coaching box, blatantly point at third base, and demand - for God and the pitcher and the catcher and the opposite dugout and all parents to hear: "Steal this base. On the next pitch."

For your runner, this maximizes the pressure and wonderfully focuses the mind. It is the equivalent of Cortez burning his ships upon reaching the new world. It is the equivalent of Jimmy Johnson's "Put it in 3 inch headlines: WE WILL WIN." It eliminates all excuses. EVERYONE heard your demand. Your runner is mortified. Everyone knows! He must steal. He must make it. His adrenaline skyrockets. I love it.

The first time you do this, your own players will believe you are a psycho. I love that, also. You won't need to do this more than 2 or 3 times a season. The players will get the idea.

Players - and human beings in general - can always accomplish more than we believe we can. It's a coach's job to open players' eyes about what they can actually accomplish.

I recommend this overall system. Maybe you shouldn't publicly demand your players steal a base unless you share my particular (peculiar?) personality traits. However, I recommend the rest of it. The cost is the extra effort needed for record keeping. The reward is players who are more focused at bat, and more aggressive on the bases. It eliminates all but the most creative parent anger about batting order. If you hand out player stat sheets in the dugout just before a game: that concentrates players' focus more effectively than anything else you could say or do.


*Teach your basemen:
1) tag at ground level (the glove literally brushing the dirt)
2) let your tag softly give with the runner's momentum.

Unless instructed, kids will
a) tag midair
b) try to fight the runner's momentum with the brute force of their fielder's glove.

**We also accounted for extra base hits in our formula. If I coach again, in order to simplify the record keeping: I will count a double as a hit + an extra base taken. A triple = a hit + 2 extra bases taken, etc.

***If your team is truly aggressive at baserunning, situations arise where the runner on second or third doesn't have time to look for the basecoach:

  • bobbles by catcher or infielder or outfielder: should the runner try for the extra base? (Also, pitcher bobbles of the catcher's return throw.)
  • grounder to pitcher or other infielder: should the runner advance on the batted ball? Should the runner advance on the throw to 1B?

If it's a close decision, there is no time to look to the basecoach. Therefore, the runner needs to make all these decisions - whether close or not. It's part of playing the game; it's part of growing up. Runners should be rewarded for making aggressive and correct decisions. They should be punished for being either passive or over-aggressive.

My pleasant experience is that the runners do far better at decision making than I expected. But, it's my personality to be willing to live with some kid mistakes. You have to be, or doing this will drive you crazy.

If a kid makes a mistake:

1. Neither chastise nor allow disappointment or scorn to creep into your tone. It helps if you actually are not disappointed or scornful in your own mind. There's no reason to be. You knew this would happen when you decided to let kids make their own decisions.

2. Sit with the kid, and allow him to explain how he could've better handled the decision. When he finishes, pat him on the shoulder: "Timmy, you are a smart player. I have confidence in you."

Remember: sometimes a kid will make a proper decision and still get thrown out by a perfect throw and tag. In this instance, be sure the kid understands he made the proper decision, and you stand behind him 100%, and you want him making the same decision again, if it arises.

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