Getting the Lead Runner Perils

Getting the Lead Runner in Fastpitch Softball is always a HOT issue

Getting the Lead Runner in Fastpitch Softball is always a HOT issue.  I don't believe you will find actual stats either way because if you try to get the lead runner but she is safe it just gets recorded as a Hit and not as a boneheaded coaching error.

Let's take a pragmatic look at it.  At the moment the pitch is hit by the batter where are all of the Offensive players?  The batter is standing still and 60' away from the base.  Any baserunners are 3 to 9 feet off the base and moving towards the next base.  So it's obvious where the EASIEST out is, first base.

How much does your team (or any team) practice throwing the ball to 1st base?  Probably close to 50% of your infield practice is to get the out at one, right?  Why, because that play has to be AUTOMATIC.  You probably even have infield practice where the coach hits the grounder and a runner runs to 1st.  This is important because your 1st baseman is getting accustomed to having runners run at them while they are receiving a throw.  It becomes a non-issue for your 1st baseman.  Compare that to how many times ANY other fielder practices moving to their base, getting set, and receiving a throw while a runner is running towards them.  So the amount of practice and preparedness of other infielders is nowhere close to that of your 1st baseman.

I bring the last issue up because SO MANY times I've seen what looks like a relatively easy force out 2nd or 3rd only to have those girls bobble or completely miss a decent throw and it can only be attributed to them being concerned about the runner coming towards them and as a result losing focus on the ball for a split second.  The closer the runner is to the base will directly correspond with more errors.

Softball is a momentum game.  I watched a 5A High school varsity game last night.  Team A was ahead 4-1, Team B has 1 out and a runner on 3rd.  The batter bunts, the catcher fields the ball, double pumps the runner back to third, throws to 1st but too late the batter is safe.  (With a 4-1 lead it should have been automatic to get the out at 1st...auto-FREAKING-matic!) The next pitch the runner on 1st steals second, later in the count the batter gets a single to score two.  The pitcher gets rattled and walks a couple for bases loaded, then a pop fly for out #2, another hit, a couple of walks, the inning ends with the score 4-7, the final score was 5-7 Team A LOSES.  You won't see it in the score book, but had they automatically thrown to 1st on the bunt that would have been out #2, then the single, a couple of walks, and the pop fly.  The inning would have ended giving up just one run for a score of 4-2, and the final score would have been 5-2 with Team A winning.

That was one play, one coaching blunder on what looks like an inconsequential play, that lost the game.  The coach will probably look at that game and think it was a pitching problem, walked too many, gave too many hits, etc.  But it was the coach that caused the pitcher's confidence to be shaken and it was the coach that gave the opponent a 4th Out.

I will certainly agree that getting the lead runner is situational.  Read back through my article for more details.  Also, this is where I expect you, the coach, to do your job and coach.  When the situations arise where you might want to get the lead runner, call it out to your players, don't leave it to their judgment.  For example, runners on 1st & 2nd you might tell your P, SS and 3rd to get the out at 3 on a hard hit ball, on a slow hit go to one, 1st and 2nd are going to 1 no matter what.  You don't want your players to field the ball and "look to decide", you want them to make their decision as soon as they can read the hit.  That one second where they "look to decide" may well  cost you getting the out at 1st.  DON'T let player indecision cost you an out and the game.  Player indecision is a Coaching ERROR.  If you ever see one of your players hesitate with the ball, it's on YOU, not the player.  You are the coach, why doesn't she know where the play is?

Notice that I've only spoken about getting the lead runner in a Force Out situation.  In a Tag Out situation the answer is virtually NEVER.  The game needs to be on the line and LATE in the game.

On defense your goal is to kill or contain the other teams momentum and keep the game close.  My team plays at a very high level (2nd Place in Western Nationals last year). 

Almost every inning that we give up a run is the result of giving our opponent a 4th OUT via a coaching blunder or a fielding error.  We can NOT control fielding errors during a game (yes, more fielding practice and repetition, but nothing we can fix during the actual game). However, we can minimize (hopefully eliminate) coaching blunders.

The most common situation that I have to address.  The lead runner most coaches want to get out is when there is a runner on 1st everyone wants to get the force out at 2nd.  No, No, NO, maybe.  Let's go through the situations: 


If the ball is hit to the left side of the infield so that your 2nd baseman would be covering the base, the answer is ALWAYS NO at your age level.  It's a foot race between your 2nd baseman and the runner and it is a very difficult play to execute.  This eliminates your 3rd baseman throwing to 2nd.

-   Obviously a grounder up the middle fielded by your SS where she also steps on 2nd is a good play. 


-   A hard hit fielded by your pitcher on her glove hand side is acceptable because it will have her in a natural throwing position.  A backhand catch and she will have to turn and throw against her body which will result in more wild throws. 


-   A hit to 2nd, if the base runner is already passed her the answer is go to one.  If the runner has not passed her then she has a chance to make the play at 2nd. 


-   A hard hit to your Left-handed 1st baseman on her glove-hand side she can make the play at 2nd.  Anything else should be an out at 1st. 


-   A bunt to the catcher.  If my catcher throws to 2nd she will be running laps with her equipment on for the rest of her life. 


-   ANY slow to medium speed hits to ANY fielder, the play is to 1st.

When we started working on getting the lead runner, we practiced those situations for a couple of months before we put it into our game.  Then we only let them get the lead runner in scrimmage or Pool games for another month.  In those games we would specifically tell them to ALWAYS get the lead runner so they would get a feel for when it would work and when it wouldn't work.  We also told them we didn't care about the result of the game.  So it was after 3 months of practice and a month (probably 8 games) of scrimmage games, that we let them start expanding when they would go after the lead runner.

You will need to HONESTLY assess your player's abilities to make those plays. From what I have seen of most 12U League teams and Most 12U Tournament Teams, probably 90% or more of the plays should be made at 1st Base.

 

It is imperative that YOU UNDERSTAND the consequences of going for the lead runner, but failing to get the out.  You have given your opponent the dreaded 4th out.  You have allowed an extra runner to be on base.  You have put more pressure on your defense to make the next play.  You have shaken the confidence of your pitcher.  You have shaken the confidence of your team.  You have given momentum to your opponent.  You have given the opening for the dreaded BIG INNING.  You have put the game in jeopardy.

 

Let’s take a look at an alternating Out/Hit sequence for one inning:

First batter – Out #1

Second batter – Single

Third batter – Boneheaded coaching (should have been an out at one but you through to second and the runners were safe)

Fourth batter – Single (runner from 2nd scored)

Fifth batter – Out #2 (You could have been out of the inning with no runs scored had you made the easy play on the third batter)

Sixth batter – Single (runner from 2nd scored)

Seventh batter – Out

Result, 2 runs scored instead of 0.

 

Now let’s reverse the Hit/Out sequence:

First batter – Single

Second batter – (Boneheaded coaching error should be Out #1)

Third batter – Single (Runner scored from 2nd)

Fourth batter – Out #1(Unless of course now you are going for the lead runner every time because now they are in the middle of the BIG Inning – ugh, disaster is setting in)

Fifth batter – Single and another run scores

Sixth batter – Out #2 (If of course your team is not melting down under the pressure and your pitcher hasn’t fallen apart and started walking batters)

Seventh batter – Single (Dear God, will it ever end???  Why can’t we make any plays?  We need a better pitcher, she can’t get anyone out.)

Eighth batter – Out #3 (Okay, let’s get pumped up girls and score some runs…Yeah, right.  Like that’s about to happen after the pummeling they just took.)

Result, Minimum of 3 runs scored vs. what should have been 1 run. 

 

Are you still in the game, or is it realistically game over?  You think it’s a pitching problem because she gave up at least 3 runs, but WE KNOW it was a COACHING PROBLEM.  The Pitcher really just gave up 1 run, and ALL the other runs (at least 2) get charged to the Boneheaded Coach for his decision on the second batter of the inning.  By the way, how effective is your pitcher after facing EIGHT batters in one inning?  She’s probably getting tired and not making her best pitches.  She’s also probably trying to over-pitch and starting to get wild.  And she is SURELY getting FRUSTRATED and losing confidence because she can’t get out of the inning.  Nice job coach.

 

Play to WIN!!!

 

 

Return From Lead Runner to Softball Defense Home