When I was a young boy, our families would congregate at our grandmother’s house on a weekly basis for Sunday dinner. Like clockwork, all of my cousins and I would play “Pickle” in the backyard, taking turns to see who could escape and who would be tagged out. What I remember most about it was that the person trapped in the “pickle” seemed to escape safety almost every time! Invariably, the two defenders––whomever they happened to be––could never seem to coordinate well enough to get on the same page and convert the out. These thoughts always resonated with me when I began my coaching career. Teaching the proper fundamentals regarding rundown execution has truly been near and dear to my heart.
There are three primary goals of every rundown. The first two have to do with forcing the runner into a situation they don’t want to be in by reducing both their time availability and the space with which they have to navigate within the basepath. The third goal is simple: secure the out as quickly and efficiently as possible.
In order to check all three of these boxes, there are some essential needs to executing each rundown. You need to have chemistry between the defenders on the field. Hopefully this has been established through time spent on the practice field and in the baseball ‘classroom.’ Without chemistry, any team exercise like this one becomes much more difficult. Another necessity in every rundown is proper communication between the defenders, which we’ll go into further detail on in this article. Without communication, the chemistry between your players may not matter.
The last two needs for every rundown are eye discipline––which can be trained through repetition––and quick reactions, which can be harder to train but is no less important in these scenarios.
There are some immediate questions that the player with the ball must compute at the beginning of every rundown. Is there a quick tag available? Can you take advantage of a runner who has given up on the play? In a perfect world this is the case, and the rundown can be completed without risking a throw. In reality, however, this is not the case, so if the runner is staying active, the player with the ball must establish a throwing lane, ideally towards his throwing arm side, immediately. At that time, it is the responsibility of the receiver to slide his feet into the clear lane. While it’s great if you can set this lane up in the throwing side as previously mentioned, the lane is often contingent on where the ball was at the beginning of the play. When in doubt, it’s my preference that an inside lane (closest to the pitcher’s mound) be established.
The ballcarrier must then attack the play at full speed, in hopes of getting the baserunner to commit to sprinting away from them. While doing this, the defender should get the ball up in a throwing position, ready to make and exchange. For my players, I have them pretend that baserunner stole their backpack––go get them! You can obviously use your own examples here. Either way, have some conviction!
If the runner can create more distance and is getting away from you, exchange the ball immediately using a dart throw with some touch and pace. These throws, while not utilizing a full arm path, can still be delivered on a line and accurately, with the help of practice reps.
Once your defender has unloaded the ball, they must get out of the way of the baserunning (avoiding an interference call, which happens with virtually any contact between the runner and a defender without the ball). I have my players follow their throws to whichever base their momentum was leading them to and prepare to fill in to keep the rundown going.
For us, the thrower does not need to hear a ‘ball’ call to initiate a throw. I do instruct our players that whenever they hear the ‘ball’ (or any variation of ‘ball,’ including ‘now’) call, make the exchange. One of the last things you want to do is fail to deliver the ball when your teammate asks for it, which heightens the risk of a collision with the baserunner and an interference call.
If you are a defender and the rundown is coming towards you, the first thing you must do is immediately slide your feet and occupy the throwing lane that your partner has established. Do not assume the throwing lane until your partner establishes it. I teach our players to position themselves 8-10 feet in front of whichever base they were closest to, thus shortening the distance for the runner to inhabit.
Once you’re in the throwing lane, put yourself into a staggered position, with one foot in front of the other. This allows you to create momentum and explode to the ball. Keep your eyes up––it is your responsibility to be prepared for a throw any time. When you feel the runner is committed and unable to change direction quickly, make the ‘ball’ call.
Once you see the ball leave your partner’s hand, attack it at full speed. This timing is essential. Do not anticipate the throw––wait until the ball is in the air. This allows you to adjust and handle an errant throw. If you have executed this exchange effectively, you should be able to tag runner without another throw. Once again, if another throw is required, get out of the way, and follow your throw.
When a tag becomes an option, make sure you deliver it with, you guessed it, conviction! Use two hands whenever possible and get your eyes up to evaluate whether any other baserunners might be on the move.
SOME OTHER NOTES
- Be careful with arm fakes. This can really confuse and throw the timing of the rundown off. If you are going to use an arm fake, use it once, and only if the runner is looking at you––which requires them to slow down.
- Don’t give up on play if ball is dropped. The runner may not know that. Don’t panic…stay with the play.
- If two runners arrive at the same base––tag the legal runner (the one who started the play on said base) first, then the legal runner. Best case scenario––the legal runner thinks they’re out and begins to wander off the bag, and you have a double play once you tag them again.
- Have the catcher wear gear and make sure your runners wear helmets and are properly stretched out before you begin. Encourage them to be tough outs!
Some teams execute rundowns without communicating at all, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In these scenarios, they do not want to provide runners with any information regarding the ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ lane. In this setup the runner can’t use your ‘ball’ calls against you and may not know to change directions once the throw has been made.
Practice rundowns once a week at minimum. They are inevitable at every level of the game, and there’s no excuse for not being able to convert every rundown into an out!
Before retiring in 2012, Sam Piraro was the head coach at San Jose State University for 25 years. He won more than 800 games as the skipper of the Spartans, who finished with a record below .500 only five times in his tenure. SJSU won three WAC championships and made a pair of NCAA Tournament berths, advancing to their first-ever College World Series in 2000. Piraro is currently an assistant coach for his brother, Stuart, at Lincoln High School in San Jose, and serves as Director of Coach and Player Development at Sirious Baseball, Inc.