Elite Level Base Running with Leah Murray

Increase your Run Production with Elite Level Base Running

Base running is an often overlooked aspect of the game. Typically, the only concern coaches and athletes have when it comes to offensive production is how hard or how far they can hit the ball. However, it is important to capitalize on every opportunity presented in the game in order to increase your overall scoring production.

Two main components contribute to making an athlete a good base runner: running mechanics and game awareness. As a former student-athlete, a current certified strength and conditioning specialist, and aspiring physical therapist, I find it important to understand running mechanics in order to minimize injuries and improve overall running efficiency. However, having good mechanics alone won’t make you a great baserunner. You have to have good knowledge and awareness of the game in order to make smart yet aggressive decisions on the base paths. 

What is Speed?

According to the NSCA, sprint speed is codependence of stride frequency and stride length. Essentially by learning to improve both of those aspects, we should be able to enhance an athlete’s speed efficiency. Speed efficiency is the ability to use proper mechanics in order to get the maximum amount of benefits per sprint. Additionally, the energy needed to propel you forward at a quick rate is a direct result of how much force you can direct into the ground. This is referred to as ground reaction force and basically means in order to achieve higher outputs (speed), we have to increase the input (force in the ground).

Maximize Speed from Home to First

In the game of softball, a player never reaches her maximum speed due to the length of the base paths. With that being said, learning to maximize running mechanics will help to improve base running performance. Having a good first step out of the box, with good arm movements is important for gaining the initial acceleration needed to reach first base. As I help coach teams on base running, the first thing I notice is most athletes tend to take a ‘false step’ or initiate a backward movement with their front foot. Taking unnecessary or false steps will slow a player down by increasing their home to first time, which ultimately decreases their probability of reaching the base safely. Focusing on improving sprinting mechanics will help you maximize your overall baserunning production. Take a look at the videos below to see the difference between good and bad movements out of the box.

Good Form
Good Baserunning Form OOB GIF
Poor Form
Bad Baserunning Form OOB GIF

Base Starts

Baserunning is mostly linear speed. Therefore, you should incorporate aspects of a track sprinters start into your lead-off form. From many years of watching and experiencing baserunning myself, I have found the “track start” to be the most successful. Essentially, you are taking the initial starting position of a track athlete and using it on the base baths. Take a look at the picture below to see the specifics of what it should look like. The key takeaways from this position are the shin angle, arm position, and head position. 

Efficient Starting Position
Baserunning lead - good
Inefficient Starting Position
Baserunning lead - bad

Shin Angle

As seen in the picture with proper positioning, the shin is angled forward in comparison to the ground. This will help you to direct your momentum forward rather than straight up. As the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and you begin to come off the base, your first couple of steps should be low. Similar to the speed information described previously, the amount of force you put into the ground, you will get back in return. Therefore, if the shin angle is exerting force at an angle less than 90 degrees then the force will be used to drive you towards the next base rather than straight upwards if the angle is greater than 90 degrees. 

Arm Positioning

When sprinting, arm action is just as important as leg drive. Your arms are responsible for the counter-movement of your legs in order to keep your body balanced. With that being said, if the leg drive off the bag is needed to be strong, then our arms are responsible for that same energy potential. In the “track start” position our back hand (same side as the lead leg) should be extended behind us while the other is placed on the ground slightly in front of our front foot. We want to make sure our arm action matches our leg drive. You want to use everything you can to gain speed with your arms. Think about ‘ripping the ground away’ or swiping the dirt behind you. This shows you are being powerful with your upper body and this drive helps create a change in your acceleration off the bag. 

Head Positioning

Finally, your head position in this stance is critical as you have to keep your eyes on the ball. Often times, kids trying to learn the track start and they have their heads practically upside down. You cannot expect to be early or on time with the ball if your view of the pitcher is disorientated. To stay effective as a baserunner, make sure to keep a balanced head position.  

Base Leads

As far as base running, you want to put yourselves in the best possible position to maximize your sprint speed between base A and base B. When you take a lead off any base, your first three steps should be hard and fast.

You want to make the opposing team believe that you are stealing on every pitch. By making them buy into your hard leads, you might just catch them off guard when you actually do get the sign to steal. When you take your lead, you want to take three hard steps followed by a stop with our toes still pointing towards the next base. Check out the examples below to see the differences between efficient leads and inefficient leads.

Efficient Lead
Efficient Baserunning Lead
Inefficient Lead
Inefficient Lead

You should never square your feet up to the field. Your feet should be going in the desired direction until something tells you otherwise. It could be a put in play, a passed ball that gets behind the catcher, or other play inducing action that forces you to move forward. With your feet in the correct position, your toes and body pointed forward, it is easier to keep moving. However, if your feet are turned squared up to the plate, like most of us are taught at a young age, then you have to waste time to change direction. Again, you are trying to maximize every possible angle, turn, and sprint that you can in order to increase our chances of success on the base path.

Aggressive Mentality

Having talked about the mechanical side of running that contributes to one's baserunning abilities, it's particularly important to stress the benefit of having an aggressive mentality. Too many times when I am watching softball, even at the collegiate level, athletes are satisfied by moving station to station and do not seem to care if they are able to take an extra base. Once you make contact with the ball, you are no longer a hitter, but now a baserunner whose only goal is to score for the team. Nothing is a given in softball, so anytime you can take an extra base, you are putting yourself in a better position to score. Below I've provided a few simple ways to work on your aggressive baserunning:

Baserunning Tips

  • Always keep your head up and watch the defense, even when the ball is not in play.
    • Capitalize on little tendencies, such as a pitcher's feet being out of the circle or a defender with their head down.
  • Think about trying to get two bases ahead of where you are when the ball is hit.
    • If you are standing on first base and a ball is hit to the outfield on the ground, depending on the strength of the outfielders' arms, push the defense to try to throw you out at third base. Often, they will expect you to stop on second and won’t have time to recover to throw the ball to third in time.
  • Don’t rely on your coach to make all of the decisions for you.
    • You have two eyes and the ability to read the defense for yourself, so take advantage of everything, including the things they may not see themselves.
  • Know the field conditions you are playing on.
    • If it had just rained and the field is still muddy, know that the ball might be wet when the defender picks it up. This might alter their throw and increase your chances of advancing to the next base.

Be a Game Changer

There are certain things you can do to help improve your speed, but it's important to understand that you do not have to be the fastest athlete to be a successful baserunner. However, you do have to be smart and aggressive on the bases. Ultimately, if you remember anything, just know it takes a perfect throw, a perfect catch, and a perfect tag to make a complete play. As a base runner, take chances and see what kind of chaos you can make in the process.

Four Slapping Drills to Improve your Technique:

Last week, in part one of my slapping series, I highlighted four different slaps and how they can create versatility in your game. As a slapper, it's on you to create havoc for opposing defenses. If you're already learning how to drag bunt, soft slap, hard slap and power slap, these next four drills will help you refine your skills.

Drag Bunting: Taped Bat Drill

  • Wrap a piece of white athletic or box tape around the end of an old bat, approximately 3 inches from the end of the bat towards the center.
  • Use the tape as a visual of where the ball should make contact with the bat when squaring around to bunt.
  • To make the drill more challenging, try setting up cones about 3-5 ft. from home plate and keep the ball within the marked range.

Key Takeaways:

  • You should focus on making contact at the end of the bat because it is the least reactive zone. As a result, the ball will slow down quicker.
  • As slappers, it is important to make sure the ball doesn’t roll too quickly to a defender. 
  • By doing this drill, you will have a target on your bat to train your eyes and hands to focus on the specific spot utilized to deaden the ball near home plate.

Hard Slap: Contact Point to Extension

  • Alternate hitting the ball and stopping at the contact point and extension. The contact point is at the exact moment the ball hits the bat.
  • You shouldn’t slow down your swing in order to achieve this position.
  • Following the contact point repetition, hit the next ball and finish your swing through extension.
  • When swinging to extension, you should stop with the end of the bat pointed at the pitcher.
Contact Point
Contact Point - Slapping
Extension
Slapping - Extension

Key Takeaways:

  • Switching between these two positions will teach you the hand path needed to punch the ball through the infield.
  • Work on hitting specific holes on the field (5/6 hole, up the middle, etc.) to better your chances of reaching base. 

Power Slap: Heavy Balls to the Back of the Cage

  • This drill can be completed with weighted balls purchased specifically for hitting or any basketballs, soccer balls, or volleyballs that you may have around the house.
  • You can complete this drill off of a tee or off of front toss.
  • Use a front toss screen or an object of similar height to serve as a target for the slapper to aim for, and place the screen at the back of the cage.
  • Focus on hitting the ball at the height of your target by extending your hands through the ball to power it above the infield.  

Key Takeaways:

  • The weighted balls train the slapper’s hands to stay through the ball at contact.
  • If the ball is elevated too high above the target, then you have exceeded the flight at which the ball should travel, which may result in a pop-up. 
  • This drill will help you build core, leg, forearm, and shoulder strength, which are essential to becoming a powerful slapper.
  • You will also learn the muscle memory it takes to elevate the ball to the desired height for a power slap.

Chop Slap: "Chuck it" Drill

  • Use a “ChuckIt” dog toy and tennis balls instead of your normal equipment for this drill.
  • Hold the dog fetcher like you would a bat and use it to bounce the tennis ball on a plastic dot or a piece of tape.
  • You should bounce the ball out in front of home plate during your crossover step.
  • The closer you can make the ball bounce to home plate, the longer it will hang in the air.

Key Takeaways:

  • When chop slapping, make sure your top hand (left hand) is strong while punching the ball into the ground.
  • This motion helps create topspin without completely changing the angle of your bat.
  • When using the dog fetcher you will have to use your wrists to “snap” the ball to release it from its original position; as a result, you will develop bat control and ball placement.

Putting Practice into Play

These are just a couple of my favorite drills for developing different slapping techniques. Don’t be afraid to play around with each different type of slap while you are learning, and get creative with what tools you can find to help you. Figure out which slap or slaps work best for you and run with it. When practicing, challenge yourself to improve your weaknesses while also striving to maintain your strengths.

The Make-up of a Slapper

Within the game of softball, slap hitters are constantly labeled by pre-existing stigmas and stereotypes before they even set foot on the field. If you're a slapper, you may have heard: “You are small, so you must be fast." “You must not have a lot of power." “Slappers only bunt to get on base.” There are far too many mislead comments to keep up with. 

Despite these preconceived notions of what it takes to be a successful slapper,  I have seen exceptions to all of these. As a former collegiate slapper, I loved proving people wrong by consistently showing how many ways a slap hitter can put pressure on the defense. The best part of being a slapper is utilizing various weapons. We have the innate ability to increase our chances of getting on base regardless of the game situation. Slappers are a big part of what makes our sport different from baseball because of the number of ways we can impact the game.

Impacting the Game

As our game continues to grow, slappers must continue developing their skill sets. At the collegiate level, slappers are no longer only considered “small ball” hitters. In fact, there are times when slappers are considered the most impactful player in the lineup. If you want to have a substantial impact on your games as a slapper, learning the different slapping techniques is crucial.

Triple-Threat Slapping Techniques

Imagine trying to play defense against a slapper who can bunt, soft slap, chop, hard slap, and power slap. These slappers cause problems for the defense because they are unpredictable. Where would you play them without getting your head knocked off by something hard? Where would you play them to defend the short game?  Having all these tools in your toolbox makes you nearly unstoppable. 

The Drag Bunt
DRAG 1
Drag Bunt 2

A slap bunt or frequently called a “drag bunt” is the traditional and most commonly used technique. Drag bunting involves separating the hands and bringing the top hand (left) to the beginning of the barrel on the bat. Using this split hand placement is beneficial when attempting to drop a bunt in a specific spot.

Often times, slappers will try to “drag bunt” or pull the ball with them down the first baseline. This placement eliminates the third baseman’s coverage and forces the pitcher or the first baseman to field the ball. If done correctly, the defensive player will have to turn all the way around to make a play. Due to the speed of a slapper, the time it takes the defender to turn allows the slap hitter to reach first safely.

The Hard Slap
Hard Slap 2
Hard Slap RBI

When talking about slap hitting, a distinction needs to be made between hard and power slaps. Although similar in sound, hard slaps consist of driving the ball on the ground through the infield while power slaps are hit in the air. Two of the most common placements for hard slaps are the 5/6 hole, which lies between the third baseman and shortstop. Another desired placement is back up the middle. I have found that if you can learn how to control your bat to position the ball between one of these two holes on the field, then the shortstop will be forced to maintain their true position. This prevents them from cheating one way or another. 

The Power Slap
Power Slap Side
Power Slap Front

Power slaps typically involve at little more force generated from the legs. With this slap, the power is still generated from the ground up, despite making contact with the ball in your crossover step. Just like a normal hitter, it is important to make sure the hand path stays at a consistent level through extension in order to elevate the ball enough to reach the outfield. Typically with the speed of a slapper, hitting the gap with a power slap will usually result in at least a double, possibly a triple.

The Chop Slap
Chop Slap
Chop Slap 2

Chop slaps are specifically unique to slap hitters. With the chop slap, the goal is to bounce as high as possible or as many times as possible before it reaches a defender. The more the slapper can get their barrel on top of the ball, the more elevated the bounce will be. The height and number of bounces extend the time it takes the defensive player to get the ball to first base.  As a result, the slapper has time to reach first safely. 

Becoming a Triple Threat

By learning how to make yourself more versatile, you increase your chances of succeeding at higher levels and ultimately becoming less predictable.  The key to utilizing these slapping techniques is learning the right time to use each one. Slapping is all about reading the defense and seeing how you can get on base to help your team. 

Although learning each slapping technique may be overwhelming, it is important to remember to take it one step at a time. Remember, becoming a great slapper is not going to happen overnight. It takes a lot of time and effort to perfect a new skill. Check back next week for my favorite slapping drills for each slapping technique.