Getting to first base after making contact with the ball seems like a simple concept: drop the bat and run as fast as you can.
Speed is certainly a key factor in successful base running. But many players and coaches forget the eyes are just as important in getting out of the batter’s box quickly.
“Eyes are the biggest asset, not just in base running, but in the whole game of baseball,” said Ryan Heller, director of baseball operations for Ripken Baseball in Baltimore. “Wherever I hit, that dictates my first step. If I hit a ground ball, I have to take a more direct route to first base. If I hit one in the gap, I want to get to second, so then I have to make my turn.”
Heller, an instructor with the academy since 2007, uses some simple drills to help kids get a quick start out of the box.
Each player comes to the plate, takes a swing, then runs to first. The drill is repeated as if he were hitting a double and heading to second. To improve a batter’s quickness in taking that first step, coaches can use shuffling exercises during practice. Start with a simple side-to-side shuffle, then gradually work up to sprinting as fast as possible.
Proper running form is just as important coming out of the box as going base to base.
A common mistake runners make is taking long strides, thinking this will get them down the line faster. A more correct approach is to pick your knees straight up above your belt, then put them straight down. It’s also crucial to run in an upright position, rather than hunched over. The ears, shoulders, and hips should all be in line, like a sprinter.
Heller offers some additional tips for reaching first base more quickly and effectively:
Take two steps out of the box before looking for the ball. Some coaches teach players to put their head down and run. Heller believes runners need to know their surroundings, so he recommends runners take a quick peek out in the field, then resume looking toward the base they’re running to. While some may argue this slows a runner down, seeing the field of play can often be an advantage in taking an extra base.
Hit the front part of the bag. This is the closest point to home plate, so runners should always use the front as their focus.
Run straight through the base. Peeling off to the left increases a runner’s chances of being tagged out; going to the right slows you down taking an extra base in the event of an overthrow.
Make a gradual turn around first base. Some coaches teach what Heller calls a “question mark turn,” in which runners are told to cut right, then left 10 to 15 feet from the bag. This technique actually slows a runner down; a quicker way is to hit the inside part of the bag in fair territory, and make sure both shoulders are aligned with second base.
Run out every ball. A routine grounder isn’t always an automatic out. If a fielder knows he has to act quickly in throwing out a runner who is busting it down the line, chances of making a mistake increase. “When (a runner) hustles, he puts pressure on the defense,” Heller explains. “It makes teams play faster than they want to. When you play faster, you start making errors. That’s what we as base runners want.”