This article appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of HardBall Magazine
by David Krival (Editor, HardBall Magazine) and Dave Cripe (3b, Kansas City and Houston minor league organizations: 1972-1980; 3b, Kansas City, AL, 1978; minor league coach and manager: 1980-1985).
Photos and Diagrams by Anthony F. Frascello, all rights reserved.
Helping a group of recreational adult ballplayers become a real team presents many challenges. Adult ballplayers arrive at Spring practice, or join tournament teams, with widely varying levels of skill and experience—from Little League to ex-pro. Most are highly motivated, but may have little understanding of the basic concepts of team play.
Even experienced players may struggle on a new team. Since tournament rosters draw from many teams, players from Team A may be accustomed to doing things a little differently from Team B or Team C.
Putting The Team Together
Preparing for a new season or a national tournament, a manager must help his players find a common purpose. He must identify his players’ strengths and weaknesses, then assign them roles that advance team goals and objectives. He must establish a way of doing things—both on the field and in the dugout—that will become identified as the "team way” in the minds of the players.
As a first step, the manager needs to assess his players’ skills and knowledge. An hour of infield-outfield practice should tell him all he needs to know [for tips on how to conduct this practice, see our coaching article in the Summer, 1999 issue].
Ask the players to take their normal positions. Watch everyone closely. A player who may have been a shortstop on some other team (or twenty years ago), may not have the arm or the range of one of your other infielders.
Don’t play favorites. Don’t delude yourself. To earn respect at this critical stage of team development, the manager must make decisions that are clearly best for the team. Most recreational players just want some playing time somewhere to get their money’s worth. As players demonstrate or improve their skills during the season, they may earn new positions or more defensive innings.
The Team Meeting
After the first practice, hold a meeting. Stress team goals and define individual roles. Without embarrassing anyone, find out how much your players know about the game and how they’re accustomed to playing it. Look for the lowest common denominator.
From this point forward, use situation drills to bring the less knowledgeable players closer to the level of the more experienced ones. By teaching and practicing a consistent mental approach to the game, you increase the likelihood that your players will think and execute as a team during game situations.
Basic Bunt Coverage
Many adult teams won’t sacrifice an out with [only] a runner on first. Hit-and-run plays or straight steals are more common. In basic bunt coverage with a runner on first, the pitcher, first baseman and third baseman charge straight toward the plate when the batter squares [Figure A]. The shortstop covers second; the second baseman covers first, providing an opportunity for an out at either base. Figure A below:
With runners on first and second (and the runner on second is not the winning run), professional teams run a play designed to cover every base and get an out somewhere [Figure B]. The first baseman plays up and charges as the pitch is released. The pitcher goes to the third base line. Figure B below:
The third baseman plays even with the bag; he does not charge unless he sees that the ball will get by the pitcher. If the third baseman must field the ball, his play will be at first base. The shortstop covers second; the second baseman covers first. Best case scenario: the pitcher or first baseman fields the bunt and forces the runner at third, but the team will take an out at any base on this play.
The wheel play is a high-stakes gamble [Figure C]. Professionals use this defense when the baserunner on second represents the winning run. As the pitcher comes set, the shortstop comes up behind the runner. If the runner freezes or edges back toward second, the shortstop takes off for third as the pitcher begins his delivery. The pitcher must be sure that the shortstop has a clean break for third, well ahead of the runner. Figure C below:
The first baseman, pitcher and third baseman all charge straight in. The third baseman waits until after the pitch is released, however, to freeze the runner at second as long as possible. The second baseman covers first, leaving second base open. If the batter doesn’t square up, the fielders stop, assume a fielding position and hope for the best.
Ideally, one of the charging infielders will grab the bunt and throw to the shortstop covering third. Next option: take the out at first, then walk the next batter to re-establish the force out at any base.
You can add a pick-off, or fake wheel play [Figure D]. As the shortstop distracts him before breaking for third, the runner may lose track of the second baseman, who sneaks in behind him and takes the throw from the pitcher. This can be a timing play, set up on a pre-arranged signal, or simply a matter of seizing an opportunity. In either case, the pitcher need not throw if he does not think he can pick the runner off. Figure D Below:
Situation: First And Third
In this situation, defensive strategy turns on whether the potential run on third is more important than the out at second. Many base coaches try to pressure the defense by sending the runner from first to second. If the catcher’s throw to second goes awry, the coach may send the third base runner home. He may send the runner anyway.
A confident team rarely concedes second base, unless there are two outs or the runner at third represents the winning run. If your catcher has a good arm, let him throw through. Take the out, if you can get it. If the shortstop sees a delayed double steal developing, he cuts the throw and relays back to the catcher.
With practice and game experience, your infielders can run fakes and decoys off this play. If a double steal is expected, the catcher may call for a pitchout, then throw to the shortstop, who has broken toward the plate as the pitch is released. Or, the catcher may fake toward second and throw to third.
A properly executed squeeze play is impossible to stop. The runner leaves third as the pitcher releases the ball. The batter squares as late as possible. Unless he bunts a rocket, the run will score. The best defense: get lucky and throw an unbuntable pitch; or guess right, or steal the sign, then throw a pitchout and catch the runner in a rundown.
Pick-offs and Rundowns
A well-executed pick-off is a great rally-killer. Practicing pick-offs helps your infielders learn your pitchers’ moves. It helps pitchers and infielders develop their timing on count plays at second base. It also leads directly into practicing rundowns. Each rundown is somewhat unique, but there are a few general principles worth noting.
How To Execute A Rundown
1) Run the runner hard, so it’s difficult for him to reverse; make him commit.
2) Run right at the runner, ball in hand, up in the air. Do not fake throws.
3) Both fielders must throw to the same side of the runner (inside or outside). Never throw across the runner (baseline).
4) If the runner is still alive after the first throw, run him back to the base he left.
5) Get it over with; no extra throws; every throw invites disaster.
Practice a pick-off at first base, leading to a rundown: pitcher-to-first-base- to-shortstop [Figures E1-E2]. If the runner is not tagged out by the shortstop, the pitcher is usually in the best position to take the return throw to first. After that, the infielders rotate in the direction of their momentum. Even outfielders have been known to get involved, but the goal is to keep it simple. Figures E1 and E2 below:
|Figures E1 and E2: pickoff at first, leading to a rundown between first and second.
With aluminum bats and short fences, hitters have the edge in amateur baseball. But undisciplined hitting often leads to squandered scoring opportunities and lost ballgames.
In meetings, stress team goals and objectives. If the team needs baserunners, everybody takes a strike. If the leadoff man reaches base, the #2 hitter takes a strike to give him a chance to steal. With the advent of metal bats, there is less need to bunt in adult baseball, but players should be encouraged to advance a runner from second to third (with no outs) by hitting to the right side, especially in a close game.
Keep It Lively
Besides helping the team, regular practice sessions are fun for most adult ballplayers. To enliven a practice session, pick-offs, rundowns, and first-and-third defense can be practiced individually or in conjunction with other defensive situations. By learning to think and execute as a team, adult ballplayers will play a better brand of baseball and enhance their understanding and enjoyment of the game they love. Besides helping the team, regular practice sessions are fun for most adult ballplayers. To enliven a practice session, pick-offs, rundowns, and first-and-third defense can be practiced individually or in conjunction with other defensive situations. By learning to think and execute as a team, adult ballplayers will play a better brand of baseball and enhance their understanding and enjoyment of the game they love.
ABOUT DAVE CRIPE
Dave Cripe’s career in professional baseball spanned fourteen seasons. As a third baseman, Dave labored mostly in the Kansas City minor league organization from 1972 to 1980, appearing briefly with the Big Club in 1978. From 1980 to 1985, Dave coached and managed in the minor leagues. After the 1985 season with Columbus, he retired. Dave is an active, enthusiastic member of the Carlsbad Bombers in the North County San Diego MSBL.