We live in the era of the baseball guru. Thanks to the explosion of summer showcases and specialization, it’s much easier for players to get individual instruction these days.
For pitchers, there are long-toss gurus, Mike Marshall disciples and proponents of athletic deliveries; there are coaches who will work to increase your velocity, sharpen your control or develop a new pitch.
When it comes to hitters, there’s a similar laundry list of experts who can help a slugger reach his potential. Go to any reasonably sized city and you’ll find one or more indoor training facilities where someone can help you with your approach and your swing.
| Tips And Tricks
|In addition to his big picture ideas, Roberts’ new book gets into a level of detail that is rarely seen about the craft of running the bases. Here’s a sampling of some of the more interesting points:
• HE CAN’T SEE YOU
Roberts credits his son, former Orioles and now Yankees second baseman Brian Roberts, for discovering that when a righthander is on the mound and a baserunner is taking his lead off first, once the runner gets beyond about an eight-foot lead, the pitcher can’t recognize any movement the runner makes.
The elder Roberts got confirmation on this while coaching his Cape Cod League team. One time Riley Cooper, now a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, did a jump lead, then another, then another, which brought him to 20-22 feet off the bag. If the pitcher had seen his lead, it would have been easy to pick him off, but because he was in the pitcher’s blind spot, it ended up being the easiest steal of Cooper’s baseball career.
• HEAD FIRST
A lot of coaches emphasize sliding feet first because they believe it lessens the risk of injury. Roberts believes that basestealers need to master both head-first and feet-first slides, but that in stealing bases, a head-first slide is vital. As Roberts explains, not only is a head-first slide faster to get to the bag, but it also gives the runner more options when reaching the base. For instance, at second base, most infielders are taught to position themselves to catch the ball and sweep across the front side of the bag. A head-first slide makes it possible to aim more easily for the outfield side of the bag, possibly avoiding that tag entirely. A head-first slide also makes it possible to deke an infielder, by putting one arm out, then pulling it back end to tag the bag with the other hand, again possibly dodging a tag.
Whenever you’re watching a premier basestealer in action, television commentators will often comment about how the basestealer was off with a pitcher’s first movement. Roberts argues that if that’s true, the runner was moving too late.
“If you want to be a basestealer, you have to be ahead of the pitcher. People are scared to teach that,” Roberts said.
Ideally, if you’re going to steal, Roberts says you should be moving before the pitcher ever starts his move to the plate. The key to this is to take a controlled lead, starting close to the bag, then adding to it as you read the pitcher. By taking a shuffle step or jump lead, the runner can add to that primary lead, but with his feet positioned where he can still plant to get back to the bag if the pitcher tries to throw over. But if the pitcher goes home, you’re already on your way to steal, able to ramp up to full speed more quickly.
• WATCH THE CUTOUTS
The semicircle dirt cutout on the infield grass at first base usually extends to 12 feet, but it’s not uniform. A baserunner needs to figure out how far it is at the ballpark he’s playing at that day. Equally importantly, a pitcher, catcher and first baseman should also do this detail work during pre-game infield or batting practice. Knowing the distance of the cutout gives a lot of information on a runner’s lead at a very quick glance.
• STEAL THIRD
Roberts is convinced that in pro baseball, it’s often easier to steal third base than second. While the catcher has a shorter throw, the baserunner gets a bigger lead (since no one is standing on the base to hold him), and pitchers become even more predictable and slower to the plate with a runner on second than they do when they see someone on first.
“I can’t believe hitters don’t steal third all the time. Pitchers are 1.5 (seconds) to the plate and they don’t care about the runner,” Roberts said.
Roberts has been working on baserunning largely around the periphery of the pro game for years. He’s seen his son Brian use and add to his theories of baserunning to top 20 steals seven times in his 13-year career. Roberts has worked with a few big leaguers and he’s coached his Cape Cod League team every summer.
But for the most part, big league teams have had little interest in his ideas. That appears to be changing. He’s talked with a couple of major league organizations this winter.
Roberts doesn’t mind if some think he goes too far when it comes to preaching the power of baserunning. He’d rather see that than people ignore the subject entirely.
But there are not many people whose life’s work revolves around what happens after the hitter leaves the batter’s box.
Mike Roberts, former North Carolina coach, current coach of the Cotuit Kettleers and father of Yankees second baseman Brian Roberts, is a prophet in a lonely field. If the game has taken big steps in how it coaches and develops pitchers and hitters the past decade, as Roberts sees it, baserunning has largely been left behind.
Roberts is speaking out for change. Not all of his viewpoints are conventional, and he has rubbed some the wrong way with his unconventional methods. But there is a logic to his theories, one he spells out in his new book “Baserunning” (Human Kinetics, $19.95).
As Roberts points out, while pitchers are working on their craft throughout the season with side sessions and hitters take batting practice and infield almost every day, baserunning is shuffled to the side once the season begins. He wants to see baserunning get the attention that is given to the other aspects of the game.
“In a week (during the season) you may practice baserunning and base stealing once, maybe. And it’s the basics,” Roberts said.
Roberts hopes that he and others can change that approach. As he sees it, teams are leaving runs on the field because they haven’t taught their players how to best run the bases, and the proper strategies for picking up extra bags.
When he’s watching a game, he’s convinced that there are opportunities missed.
“Outfield arms are so poor today. What I’m trying to teach, if the ball has an angle to it—it’s not hit at an outfielder—a lot of hitters can run into a double. Outfielders aren’t used to having to come up and throw to the bag. With one or two out, it should be almost the norm that players are going halfway to second base and seeing if an outfielder can throw. If the ball comes out like a water pistol, then you keep going. If it’s a line drive, you decelerate and go back,” Roberts said.
Roberts has been pushing at the margins of baserunning for years. It goes back to his time as a player.
“The Kansas City Baseball Academy was what helped me,” Roberts said. “It was research and development. Ewing Kauffman was R&D’ing baseball like he did pharmaceuticals. He was pushing it to the opposite end of the spectrum. Go too far, then back off.”
The Royals would have baserunners work on 15-foot leads from first base so that they would feel extremely comfortable when they backed off to a 12-foot lead. They’d experiment with being too aggressive on the bases to find out what was just aggressive enough.
With that in his background, Roberts proposes that a team tell everyone on the minor league roster to try to steal a base everytime he reaches for a week of spring training games. Since the games don’t count, it won’t cost anything as far as wins and losses, and Roberts believes that the average baserunner would become more comfortable on the bases while a team would likely discover a player or two with a knack for stealing bases that wasn’t apparent before.