Imagine you have two evenly matched teams. Who wins and who loses will come down to two primary things:
- Effort and Execution
- Baseball Gods (hops and luck)
We don’t want to leave it to the baseball gods. So, how can we influence the opposition’s effort and, more notably, execution?
There are various plays that happen throughout a game that often go unnoticed. But these plays, when performed well, are meant to deceive. The end goal of this deception is to create uncertainty and confusion.
When you create uncertainty and confusion, the opposition becomes a step slower. They aren’t sure what to do. They make more mistakes which leads to more outs.
This isn’t about full-on trickery. I’m not talking about acting like you threw the ball into the outfield to catch a runner off base. I’m not talking about the hidden ball trick. Sure, you could lump those here if you want, but I won’t because they aren’t things that I’d do.
You won’t be accused of being bush league for doing any of these things. When executed, they will lead to more wins.
1. Variety of Pickoff Moves
One of the keys to slowing the running game is a pitcher’s pickoff move. But, this is one of the most under-appreciated elements of the game. Not enough time is spent on it.
Far too often, we look at a pickoff move as an attempt by the pitcher to get the runner out. While that’s a great outcome, that’s not really what’s happening. At least, that’s not the priority when you have a smart baserunner on first.
It’s not necessary that a pitcher has a move that can pick a runner off consistently. It’s not necessary that they ever pick a runner off at all.
The entire goal of the pickoff move is to create uncertainty and confusion. Is the pitcher picking off? Obviously, I don’t want to get out.
If a runner knows that the pitcher isn’t going to pick off, he might even take off early for the next base.
But he might also find a pattern in a pitcher’s pickoff move. It always looks the same. The pitcher always holds the ball for the same amount of time. The runner can simply pick up on these patterns, time it, and take off.
But, what if a pitcher uses different moves? Sometimes, as a right-handed pitcher, he steps off the rubber. Sometimes, he spins. Sometimes, he simply steps off and looks over. He holds the ball for a second. Next time, five seconds. Next time, seemingly forever.
The same goes for a lefty pitcher. He mixes in his “good” move that is meant to deceive the runner into thinking he’s delivering to the plate. He’ll also step off and flip to first.
And of course, you have your various moves to second base. The inside move, step back, spin. Mixing in a check of the runner once, twice, or not at all.
The whole point is to keep the runner guessing. To slow him down. To create confusion. And, if you have a good catcher, to give that catcher a chance to throw the runner out.
2. Variety of Moves to the Plate
If you are at a level where the runner doesn’t always go on the first pitch, here’s something to try…
On the first pitch, have your pitcher use a big, slow leg kick. Often, the third base coach is waiting to give a steal sign until he sees the pitcher’s move to the plate. Then, use that quick slide step.
Even if you go beyond that first pitch trickery, feel free to mix in a variety of moves to the plate. Sometimes a big leg kick, sometimes medium, sometimes, the ultra-quick slide step.
This can be especially effective for left-handed pitchers. Make the runner and coach at first think that they picked up a difference between your delivery and move to first. Then switch it up.
Keep the runner and coaches guessing. The better you are at this, the more you’re able to slow down the runner a step or two and make it more likely that 1) they will be thrown out trying to advance or 2) they won’t attempt to advance at all. If they don’t attempt to advance at all, it keeps double plays and force outs in order while keeping the runner out of scoring position, which is a very big advantage.
3. Pitch Selection
This is a very basic form of deception meant to keep the batter guessing. We want the batter to be off-balance. We don’t want them to time up the pitcher. If they are early or late or in between, they are much less likely to hit the ball hard.
This isn’t simply a matter of throwing an offspeed pitch during expected times (typically with two strikes). Smart, advanced hitters will be waiting for that.
Instead, it’s a matter of doing things unconventionally. Particularly if you have an aggressive hitter, throw that offspeed on the first pitch. If you do that, and you get him out front, he’s going to be guessing the rest of the at bat.
One reason we have our catchers call a game is that we find that they often approach pitch selection in an untraditional manner. This tends to be a good thing. It makes it more difficult for a batter to guess what’s coming.
4. First and Third Situations
Managing first and third situations is all about deception, uncertainty, and confusion. I’ve written an entire blog post on this (I plan to write a second), so we won’t get bogged down in all of the details here.
At the youngest of ages and the lowest of levels, it might not even be worth bothering to defend first and third situations. But the moment you have a chance to throw out the runner at second, there are good reasons to mix in some plays.
If the other team thinks you will never throw down to second base in this situation, they will steal freely. They won’t care who is running, even if it’s their slowest runner.
If the other team thinks you will throw down to second every time, they’ll send their runner from third home without hesitation and take the run.
So, the key here is to keep the other team guessing. Create uncertainty and confusion. If you give them reason to believe you may throw the ball down to second, they’re less likely to steal if there’s a possibility of getting out. If you give them reason to believe you’ll cut the ball off, they’re less likely to send the runner home even when you throw down to second.
It’s important to disguise your plays. Regardless of whether we are throwing down to second or cutting off, everyone goes to the same place on the field.
When you win the game of deception, uncertainty, and confusion, the opposition is paralyzed. At minimum, they don’t try to score. But, they may not attempt to steal second at all. Or, the second-guessing and uncertainty gives you a chance to throw out a runner who takes off late.
5. Fake Bunts
It’s not a well-guarded secret that the Spiders aren’t a big bunting team. There are reasons for it, but we won’t go into them here. It doesn’t mean we’ll never bunt, but it’s a rare occurrence.
That doesn’t mean that we won’t use the potential confusion of a fake bunt to our advantage, however. Particularly since there are still plenty of teams out there who aren’t aware of our tendencies.
When a batter squares to bunt, it creates some initial chaos and panic. “BUNT!” the coaches yell. The infielders will then react. It could mean the third and/or first basemen charge. Maybe the second baseman runs to cover first. The pitcher, too, may be distracted.
We might use a fake bunt when a batter is already taking a pitch. That could be in certain 3-0 counts. Here, of course, the focus isn’t on the infield, but on distracting the pitcher.
But another time a batter may be taking a pitch is when a runner is attempting to steal second base. If it sends the infield into panic, it may result in fielders missing their responsibilities — or being late to cover the bag.
A final time we may use fake bunts is to test how well the third baseman and even shortstop are coached. With a runner on second, we may show a bunt to see what the infield does. A well-coached team will either have the third baseman stay home or have the shortstop cover third as the third baseman charges.
Oftentimes, the third baseman will charge, leaving third base wide open. This is a read play for the runner on second. When he sees this, he simply takes the empty base.
6. Cutoffs and Relays
A team that knows their cutoff and relay responsibilities and executes cleanly is a team that will get more outs on the bases. But this is more than simply having players in the right place to throw runners out.
The classic scenario: With a runner on second base, there’s a base hit to left field. The throw goes home. The third baseman is in position to cut, but it goes well over his head. The batter then advances to second base on the throw.
What if, instead, that throw was lower? What if it gives the third baseman an opportunity to cut or let it go?
When this happens, it creates uncertainty and confusion for the base coaches and runners. They aren’t sure if the third baseman is going to cut the ball. As a result, the batter reaching first has to wait. That hesitation could mean either staying on first or getting thrown out at second.
And, of course, the low cutoff throw gives the cutoff man some options. If the runner immediately goes to second base, he may be giving you an out at second.
The key with each of the items on this list is to slow the opposition down with deception. You aren’t sure what they are going to do. That moment of uncertainty and confusion can be critical in a game where one or two outs, bases, or runs will be the difference.
Any other examples you can think of that can be added to this list?
Let me know in the comments below!