Baserunning is underrated because it is one of the necessary evils of baseball. Unless you’re a blur around the base paths, it isn’t necessarily fun and it rarely makes the ESPN highlight reel. However, it makes or breaks ballgames. A missed opportunity to gain a bag on a base hit or steal when the moment strikes could mean you’re standing on 2nd on a fly ball, tagging up to get to 3rd when you could have been tagging up to score.
Being effective on the base paths does not require you to be the fastest—or even the 5th fastest—player on the team. A player who is capable of getting a great jump on every pitch is just as dangerous as the track star you convinced to play baseball for a season.
Below, we’ll walk you through how to get a good jump on the base paths when you get the sign to steal 2nd base.
Naturally, it all starts with a solid lead off. Your lead should be aggressive, yet easily manageable. While the pitcher is circling the mound, be sure to stay on the bag. At this point, he has free reign to do what he wishes with the ball.
Stay put even as the pitcher straddles the rubber. Rules vary slightly depending on your league, but in most cases, he is still free to throw to first with any movement he wishes until his back foot is against the rubber.
We’ll start with right-handed pitchers. Many pitchers will lean forward in the stretch position, keeping an eye on you while they may seem like they are taking signs, but still have their back foot behind the rubber. Once they place it in front, you may take your lead.
Step towards 2nd with your left foot and, using it as a pivot foot, swing your right foot around. Now, increase your lead with short shuffles. Do not hop and do not cross your feet. A good pitcher will notice these habits and throw to 1st while you’re in an awkward position. Keep your eyes on the pitcher and do not take a lead that requires more than a short step and a dive to get back to the bag.
Your lead should have been swift while the pitcher was leaning in for signs. In order to throw over to 1st (again, in most leagues), a right-handed pitcher must step off the back of the rubber with his back foot before throwing.
With this in mind, keep your eyes on his feet. I used to use the bill of my helmet to block the pitcher’s top half to avoid distraction. For a right-handed pitcher, the mindset is simple: If his front foot moves, go. If his back foot moves, get back. Green light, red light. If you stay focused, you can get an excellent jump by watching the movements in his feet. Umps are watching too, so any attempt by the pitcher to make a movement with the front leg and still try to come to first should be called as a balk.
Lefties are more tricky. Let’s face it, that’s the beauty of being a left-handed pitcher. Once they pick up their lead foot, they can go to 1st or home plate; and a good lefty will make it look like he could do either every time he lifts his lead foot. Some lefties will even pause with their right leg in the air, knee pointed towards 1st while looking at the runner before committing to home.
Be very careful in these situations. Great pitchers can have you absolutely convinced they are throwing to the batter before shifting their weight and firing the ball to the first baseman. Make sure you are clear on your league’s rules regarding the point at which a left-handed pitcher must throw home and when they can still throw to 1st.
Once the pitcher is committed to home plate, you need to convert that potential energy into kinetic energy. For those of you who fell asleep during science class: You need to get movin’!
Just prior to taking off, you should already be in an athletic position: Low to the ground, knees bent and feet wider than shoulder length apart. Your hands should be out front; not at your sides.
The moment your brain gives you the green light, pull your right arm behind you—almost light a celebratory fist pump (Bonus: My personal favorite fist pump). For those of you pitchers, you’ve probably been taught to do the same thing with your glove hand when driving off of the mound.
As you turn and your weight falls toward 2nd base, your right foot should dig into the ground. Use this as your push off foot. It is important to remember to stay low throughout the lead-off, the jump and your first several steps. Picture a sprinter coming out of the blocks. How long is it before they are standing tall? They come out low and slowly work their way taller because standing up straight immediately slows you down.
Staying low throughout most of the steal, keep your head fixed on your target. Your league and the situation should dictate a heads-first or feet-first slide, although sliding to the right of the bag is generally a good idea, forcing the infielder to make a longer tag.
There’s much to be said for players who are effective on the base paths, and it is something coaches, scouts and recruiters are always on the lookout for. Working on your speed is a must, of course, but by honing in on your mental “red light, green light” and improving your lead-off, reaction time, jump and take-off, you can massively improve your stolen base percentage and more importantly, win some games for your team.
David Veldt is the founder of Strike. As a former baseball trainer and a true lover of the game of baseball, he created Strike to give young players access to free tips and advice from seasoned instructors, rather than the common $1/minute model of most facilities. You can follow him on Twitter, or feel free to drop him a message on his Strike profile.