You don’t have to wait until a runner is on first base to plan a steal. In fact, great base stealers begin thinking about it before they even come to the plate, according to Ryan Donahue, coach and owner of Lead Off Academy, a fully equipped indoor and outdoor baseball training facility near Nashville.
The key is watching both the pitcher and catcher's movements and mannerisms. Look at them while you’re in the dugout or the on deck circle. Observe how quickly the pitcher gets to the mound, his warm-up patterns, his leg kick, the quickness of his release, etc. Watch how the catcher throws to second base between innings, his pop, and accuracy.
“It’s most important especially at the youth level, because it gets kids in the habit of not goofing off in the dugout and really watching the game,” Donahue explained.
Runners need to take care not to tip off to a pitcher or catcher when they intend to steal, such as opening up in their stance or leaning slightly in one direction or another. Good pitchers and catchers study runners, trying to get a similar edge and pick them off or throw them out stealing.
The best way for a runner to determine when to take off is by watching a pitcher’s heel. For example, if a right-hander’s heel lifts up, he’s most likely making a move toward home plate.
“If you’re going to go, make that movement the second you see that heel lift,” Donahue said.
A pitcher may also bring his elbow out or kick his leg back when coming to the plate. The quicker a runner’s first two steps are, the better his chances of getting a good jump. Base runners should also watch a catcher’s signs. You can often learn whether a pitcher is throwing to the plate or to first simply by knowing what type of pitch he’s about to deliver.
Opinions vary on how big a lead should be taken off first.
“A good rule of thumb is two steps off the bag and then two shuffles toward second base,” Donahue said.
Staying low, rather than standing straight up, is crucial to getting a good jump. The natural tendency for most kids is to be upright, but this can cause precious seconds to be lost.
Leads off second base need to be larger, but players can learn to develop a distance they’re comfortable with, Donahue said. Runners should also watch the third-base coach to pick up on whether he’s being held on by an infielder and if he should get closer or further away from the bag. Leads from third need to be shorter, with the runner leading off in foul territory to minimize the risk of being called out if hit by the ball.
Studying opposing pitchers and catchers has another advantage; it teaches players to be more independent in making decisions, particularly when it comes to stealing bases. While many coaches would rather control when a runner takes off, Donahue encourages his players to develop their own instincts.
“If they make a mistake, we talk about what happened,” he said. “I think giving a kid the go-ahead to make their own decisions increases their overall knowledge of the game.”
From GameChanger and Stephen Kerr.