Yesterday, in Part 1, I spoke about the value of letting runners decide for themselves when to steal a base. Today, it gets more specific on what runners should look for and provides some tips for coaches who might be interested in giving it a shot.
What are some things a runner should look for?
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)The catcher’s signs. This is probably the most effective one. As I mentioned in Part 1, a runner usually can see the signs the catcher gives to the pitcher when he takes his lead off first base. Obviously, off-speed pitches would be better pitches to steal on. Note: Many catcher's will use a fist as the sign for the pitchout. If you see it, don't go. What runners will do is point their face in the direction of the pitcher but look out of the corner of their eye at the catcher’s signs. This makes it appear to everyone that the runner is looking at the pitcher when, in fact, he is looking at the signs. The obvious risk here is that the runner has to be careful to not get picked off while looking at the catcher. Sometimes on TV, the camera will focus up close on the base runner as he gets his lead off first base. Many times you’ll see his eyes dart back and forth between the pitcher and the direction of the catcher. That is a runner trying to see the pitch signs.
Pitch sequence. If a runner is unable or uncomfortable looking at the signs, he can make some accurate predictions on what the pitcher is going to throw just by paying attention. Some pitchers fall into patterns with their pitches. Some always throw a first pitch fast ball. Some always throw a 1-2 breaking pitch in the dirt. Paying attention to what the other pitcher does in certain situations can give a runner some clues as to when to steal and when not to.
The pitcher’s delivery. Sometimes pitchers will fall into patterns with their delivery as well. A pitcher might always come set with his glove a certain way on a breaking pitch. Some may always slide step with a runner on first but never with a runner on second. Some may never change the number of times they look at the runner before throwing the pitch. Of course, many good pitchers will vary all of these things to make it tough for the runner to know when to go. However, anytime the runner sees something that may hurt his chances, he just waits for a different pitch.
The situation. There are some game situations that are ideal for stealing and some that are not. The score, outs, inning, the batter, and the count are just some of the factors. Coaches must communicate with runners that are on their own to let them know of the situations that are good and those that are not. Listing all the situations, both good and bad, would be a book in and of itself!
Tips for coaches.
See who can run. Early in the season during intersquad games and scrimmages, don't give any signs and just tell all the players they are on their own when they get on base. This will quickly show you which runners are aggressive and which ones are not. It also will show which players have good instincts when choosing times to go. You'll also see which runners want nothing to do with stealing at all.
Praise aggressive base running. There are times when a runner will choose a bad time to steal and get thrown out. Instead of yelling, use it as a teachable moment for the whole team and praise the kid for being aggressive. The learning process can be long but it's worth it. You don't want to put that kid's fire out along with those who are watching.
Have a "don't steal" sign. Some coaches tell runners that they are on their own until they get the "don't steal" sign. This allows runners to be aggressive but also allows a coach to have some control in certain situations.
Post base running goals. Let your team know before the game that you want to see X number of attempted steals today. This forces runners to look for chances to go on their own. It also helps more tentative runners since you said "attempted steals" instead of just "steals." This can make the tentative player less fearful since the emphasis is on the "attempt." When done this way, sometimes a timid player will realize that they actually can steal and their tentativeness starts to go away.
The fact is, much of this thinking is high level. Too high of a level for many young runners. The majority just don’t have the on-the-field experience and/or awareness to piece together information quickly enough in order to make a good judgment on when to go. However, starting kids early is very important. They are going to make a lot of mistakes but you may be surprised at how many of your runners take to it if they know what to look for and when.