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Intermediate Bunt Defense

by Dave
Tuesday, October 09, 2007

There is no doubt that offense and pitching are some of the keys to success in fastpitch softball.   Yet all the hitting in the world will not matter if a team does not have a good ace and/or cannot field balls hit into play.   In a game in which typical scores at the highest levels struggle to get above one to nothing, it doesn't take a genius to tell you that D is the key to distinguishing your team from the rest of the pack.   Within the context of overall defensive play, there are any number of skills, drills, and situations a team needs to contemplate in order to improve its game.   Because fastpitch games are usually such close affairs, I'd like to address the area which I believe is the single most important aspect of the game, particularly for young players.   That is bunt defense.

There are a host of possible in-game bunt situations and ways to deal with them.   Some of these are standard plays, some more aggressive, and some conservative.   In order to do justice to the topic, I'll present the on-base situations separately and then discuss some ways to deal with them.   I'll start with the most basic situations and plays, then hopefully progress to some more advanced topics.   So let's get started.

Runner on first / first and second

The simplest type of bunt defense occurs with a base runner on first.   On the surface there would not seem to be a whole lot to discuss with this situation.   Yet time and time again, I see teams handle it badly because players were not instructed on proper positioning nor drilled in handling the standard bunt.   Let's begin with field positioning and then progress to the play.

When a defensive team expects a bunt from the offense with a runner on first, the third and first basemen must position themselves to handle the play.   As a general matter, I like my corner infielders to be located anywhere from even with the bag to 15 feet in front of it, depending on the situation.   When we are pretty certain the offense will bunt, these two should move in closer and be prepared to rush the bunter.   They can set up at 15 - 20 feet in front of the bags and then start coming as soon as the batter breaks her hands.   We instruct corner infielders to always "watch hands" regardless of the situation since bunting is so prevalent in fastpitch.   As soon as the corners observe the batter breaking her hands, they come charging.

When the corners charge, that leaves two infielders to cover the three bases.   The second baseman is the only one left who can cover first and that is her primary responsibility.   She has to at least be aware of the possibility that the hitter will draw back and slap but I'm getting ahead of myself.   We'll talk about the slap in a few minutes.   So, the second baseman is covering first and obviously rightfield is backing her up in case a poor throw is made.

The shortstop's positioning is a little more complicated than the other three infielders'.   If a team wants to give second base to the runner from first but prevent her from advancing to third uncontested, usually they'll have the shortstop cover third immediately at the bunt.   She too needs to be aware of the possibility of a slap but we'll get to that.

As an alternative to this standard play, a team can try to get the lead runner by having the SS cover second.   Most teams go with the more conservative move of having her cover third but I don't think that is necessary because, of the three infielders (pitcher, first and third) charging to field the bunt, only one will actually make the play.   That leaves two potential players to run and cover third.   If, for example, the bunt is at the third baseman, the pitcher can easily cover third and prevent the runner at second from taking a free base because she is positioned just 40-50 feet from the bag and the runner has not yet even reached second.   So, as a general matter, I want my shortstop to cover second on a standard sacrifice bunt with runner on first.   That's true whether we are trying to get the lead runner or not.

The reason I mention this coverage of third base is often teams in the younger age categories (10U and 12U) use the bunt not to advance a runner from first to second but to advance her all the way to third.   They begin games expecting the defense to flub third base coverage on bunts.   They often have a standard play where the runner from first breaks for second, never bothers to look to see where the fielders go with the ball and continues on to third without hesitation.   A defensive team should expect to see this, prepare for it, and take the free out which often results early in the game.   Doing that can often psychologically take the other team right out of the game.

Even it your oppoentn doesn;t run this set play, when you make the play to first on a bunt, often the runner from first will round the bag at second.   If you want to play aggressively because the skill level of your team allows for that, you can run a play where the second baseman immediately throws the ball behind the runner to the shortstop covering in order to try to nail the runner if she is not awake.

The way to work bunt defense is to set up your infield, put a runner on first and someone running out the bunt, and then to bunt with live pitched balls.   Hopefully you have a coach or player who can execute the bunt correctly most of the time.   Then you have the pitcher throw pitches and the players execute the play in accordance with signals given by someone not involved in the play - a third base coach.   After a few walk-throughs of the basic play and some practice executing it when everyone knows a bunt is coming, you want to create a more realistic situation in which the batter does not always bunt.   That's why you put a coach or player out there to give signs to the batter and runners.

I should mention that it is certainly possible to get the lead runner at second on sacrifice bunt situations.   But I hesitate to go over this because the throw to try to force out a runner at second is a pretty difficult one and not that many teams are able to execute the play well.   What you don't want is to end up with runners on first and second with no out obtained on the play.   Worse than that is a play on which runners are sprinting around the bases as you are reminded of your centerfielder's number while she runs for the fence to retrieve a ball thrown away.   Attempts to nail the runner at second should be limited to circumstances in which the defense is sure about the capabilities of its fielders, they have been drilled on the play, and they are reasonably certain there is not a speed demon at first.

When getting the runner at second, the centerfielder must position herself to back up the throw.   My opinion is that positioning should be about 25 to 40 feet behind the shortstop at the bag.   You don't want her to be too close because errant throws to second often are to either side of the bag.   And if she's too close, she won't be able to adjust in time.   If she's too far back, she'll be able to handle the errant throw but it won't matter because she'll get to the ball just as the runner moving from second to third is into her slide.   You be the judge of where you want your centerfielder to play and you'll see this better when you try to execute it in practice.   But make sure she understands the thinking on it and has the clear objective in mind of preventing the runner from advancing an additional base should the play break down.

If you are running the conservative play of getting the runner at first but also trying the more aggressive move of throwing behind her at second, you do not want your centerfielder in the dark, blindly backing up a potential throw from the fielder picking up the bunt to second.   She needs to be closer to left center so she can get the ball if the second baseman overthrows the SS at second.

You may have noticed that I really have not yet addressed runners on first and second.   I see this as almost identical to having only a runner on first from an execution point of view.   The one glaring difference is the throw to get the lead runner is far easier to make because it is shorter.   If you are playing to get the batter at first, there is nothing to add to the previous discussion except to note that if you want to throw behind the runner, that runner should be the one who has just made third.   Your SS will be covering third and nobody is needed to cover second since you should be unconcerned about this runner.   I am more likely to play for the lead runner on bunts with runners on first and second because, as I said, the throw is easier, and because I want to try to stay out of second and third situations with less than two outs if I can.

Going back to practice drills for bunt defense, I like a coach to be the one who stands at bat when these drills are performed.   Hopefully that coach can execute a bunt, slap or hit away with reasonable consistency.   In this way, you can spend your time well while teaching the team to effectively deal with all possible situations.   Lest I forget to mention it, it is advisable to have the coach who is signaling runners and batter what to do, to sometimes signal the runners to aggressively continue directly to the next base in order to work those plays you are likely to encounter at some point in games.

The final consideration on a standard bunt defense with a runner on first occurs when you are playing against well coached, advanced teams in which batters are taught to execute a slap in certain bunting situations.   My guess is you'll usually see this early in games.   But it can happen late.   The way it works is the batter shows bunt and then as the pitcher is in the downward arc of her windmill, the batter pulls the bat partly back and then slaps the ball where she wants it to go.

My first reaction to this play involves the safety of your first and third basemen, particularly at young ages.   I want them out of the way of the slapbunt because it often can be almost as hard hit as a normal swing.   I instruct young corner infielders to peel away, past the foul line when hitters do this because I want to protect their safety.   I place their safety well ahead of winning games.

Whether you have young, inexperienced corners or extremely gifted ones, a key element should be to instruct them to hold their gloves in front of their faces.   You don't want them obscuring their vision but the glove should be just out of their direct sightline to the batter - say at the chin.   If you have gifted corners, what I suggest you do is drill them on dealing with the slap by attempting a quick swipe at the ball.   That's kind of complicated and something best practiced before attempted (perhaps using softees or tennis balls), but it is something you can try.

Another important element of the situation is the play of your corner outfielders.   There are very few plays in fastpitch when any fielder has "nothing to do" and this certainly is not one of them.   The outfielders are already mindful of their base-back-up responsibilities on bunts.   They should also be mindful of watching for the slap.   The left fielder should be charging on a slap because it is very possible the batter will choose to slap the ball past the third baseman who likely is bailing out when the batter pulls the bat back.   Similarly, the rightfielder is looking to back up the throw to first but if the batter pulls back, she needs to be aware that she may be the one fielding the ball should the batter slap it past the charging first baseman.

My next consideration when dealing with the fake bunt - slap play is the movements of my middle infielders.   If all I do is instruct them to cover bases, this opens up the field too much and leaves the possibility of the offense starting a big inning.   What I want them to do is not blindly run to cover bases.   Rather, they must watch the play develop and decide when the time is right to cover the bags.   They need to be aware of the slap and they must field the ball if, for example, the batter slaps it into the position they would otherwise vacate.

The most effective variation on the slapbunt play is when the offense slaps to the second baseman's position.   That works best when center is backing up or covering second, the rightfielder is moving across the baseline to backup the throw to first, and the second baseman breaks too soon to cover first.   Sometimes teams will fake a bunt on the first opportunity with a runner at first in order to gauge the way the defense moves and determine if they move too soon.   I have seen a lot of this.   If the defense moves too fast, the next thing I see is a slap right at the spot the second baseman has vacated which results in runners on first and third with no outs.   So within the context of a good bunt defense, we really need to make sure our middle infielders are aware of the possibility of a slap.

Runner on second

I spent a good deal of time discussing the runner on first because that basic play can be molded to deal with runners on second as well.   From a defensive standpoint, there isn't all that much different with a runner on second except, the SS must cover third.   Also, your secondary consideration is to prevent the bunter from taking second uncontested after successfully reaching first.   Usually that can be prevented merely by having your centerfielder cover the bag.   But if you never discuss this nor practice it, don't expect it to happen in games.

Aside from these differences, the most important aspect to training players to deal with a bunt and runner on second is a decision before the play as to where the ball is going.   That is usually dictated by the game situation.   If you're up 8-0 in any inning, chances are pretty good that you'll go for the out at first.   You'll execute a standard, conservative bunt defense play wherein the fielder simply throws the ball to the second baseman covering first.   But with a runner moving to third, you want to make sure the second baseman is aware of two things.   First off, she has to understand that the runner from third may break for home.   More important than that possibility is when a defense makes the conservative play to first, often base coaches will encourage their runner to round the bag just in case the ball gets away.   Sometimes both coach and runner will go to sleep and a wonderful opportunity to nail that runner presents itself.   For this reason, I like to run a play in practice in which the second baseman gets the out at first and then immediately throws the ball across the diamond in an attemnpt to catch the runner napping.   In order to execute this while reducing risk, the leftfielder needs to be in on the gag.   She must position herself to back up the throw to third from first.

That's a standard conservative bunt defense with a runner on second with a little twist but the fact is many of the times when you'll be dealing with a bunt and runner on second, the game will be on the line.   This happens late in close ballgames and in extra innings when the international tie breaker is used.   In these situations, you can really expect the offense to go immediately to a bunt.   That's because, unlike in baseball, an outfield single does not routinely bring home the run from second.   If you are in the bottom half of the inning in ITB and the score is tied, the only runner you are concerned with is the one on second.   You'd like to get an out, say at first, but that has to play second fiddle to preventing the runner from moving up to third.   You don't really care what happens to the batter.   So your shortstop must get to third in time, she must be in proper position, and your fielder needs to make a good throw.   So, practice, practice, practice this play.

Sometimes even in ITB, the runner at second will not get a great lead and perhaps wait for a throw to first before going.   In that case, I say get the out at first and then try to nail the runner at third.   She shouldn't have done that but you might just as well take advantage and get an out.   The key to executing this is recognition that the runner at second has frozen.   In this case, presumably, you have looked her back and then thrown to first.   The second baseman must know that she should immediately throw to third, not try to get the girl going back to second, if that's what she does.   You don't want to get her into a pickle.   You want to prevent her from advancing to third.   That's primary and secondary.

In the situation in which one run wins the game, you've got a runner at second with no outs, I suggest that you can be almost 100% certain that the offense will bunt.   Your fielders must think that way while being aware of other possibilities.   They must be ready to move into position quickly.   Of paramount importance is a very quick leftfielder who backs up the play aggressively in case the ball gets loose.   I hope it goes without saying but if you play "A" level ball and find your team in a lot of one run games, you simply must practice this situation tirelessly and at every opportunity.   More than anything else, this will be a determining factor in your team's success or failure.

Runner on third or second and third

I struggled with whether to address runner on third and runners on second and third separately or part of the same section.   There are some similarities.   I decided to deal with them partially separately amd partially combined because they are as similar as they are unique.   First let me explain and address the differences I percieve.

In my opinion, second and third is a far superior offensive situation to just third, not only because the offense has an additional runner in scoring position, but also because of the different dynamic set up by the situation.   As I've mentioned before, with runners at second and third and a ground ball, my runners are always going.   That's because the worst situation which can result is my runner from third gets thrown out at home and now I have runners at the corners.   With one out, I should be able to get runners back at 2nd and 3rd or trade an out at second for a precious run.

With only a single runner on third, the offensive situation is different.   I'm going to treat that runner like gold.   I won't risk losing her unless something else about the situation dictates a more aggressive approach.   I'm waiting for a base hit, flyball, or errant throw to get her in.   I may bunt but I'll probably do that because I want to get the batter on base and set up 2nd and 3rd rather than as a means to get the run home - again unless the situation dictates I play aggressively.   I'm going to assume the third baseman - who I want to field the bunt - will not make the throw to first to get the batter out.   She may very well do that but I believe I'll get a run out of that approach unless I'm playing against a very good team.

Also, from a defensive point of view, second and third is a different situation because, depending on circumstances, I'm probably going to walk the next batter intentionally in order to set up the force at home.   With just a runner on third, I am reluctant to walk two batters.

So now we turn to the defensive perspective.   I don't want to repeat myself but I want to state what I have eluded to.   From a defensive perspective, I expect a bunt more with just a runner on third than I do with runners on 2nd and 3rd.   Besides, with runners on 2nd and 3rd, I'm probably going to walk the batter unless I have a big lead late in the game.   With a runner on third, I'm going to expect a bunt to get the runner aboard and I'm going to guard against the squeeze play.

The squeeze play needs to be defined a bit before we proceed.   Most people I encounter think of the baseball squeeze which consists of two varieties, the safety squeeze and the suicide squeeze.   I think fastpitch is a bit different when it comes to squeezes.

In baseball, for one thing, you've got leading throughout the play, before the pitcher throws.   You've also got the pitcher's wind-up or stretch to consider.   In fastpitch, we have no leading before ball release and a single motion type to consider.   Our bases are much closer.   The ball is bigger and presumably a little easier to bunt yet harder to throw.   Additionally, defensive fastpitch players are much closer to the bunted ball.

Generally, the baseball suicide squeeze involves a runner breaking all out for the plate as soon as he can.   He runs similarly to a runner trying to steal second or third bases.   He takes his lead, watches the pitcher and runs for home at the earliest opportunity.   If the batter misses the pitch, chances are pretty good he'll be out - thus the term suicide.   In fastpitch, the runner at third does basically the same thing as she breaks for home at the earliest possible moment.   That moment, however, is when the ball is released and about a half second before it hits the catcher's mitt, if the bunt is missed.   In softball, the runner from third is probably still alive if the bunt is missed.   She's going to be a smaller percentage of the way home than her baseball brethren.   She may actually be able to make it back to third base in this case or at the very least end up in a pickle.   It isn't a true suicide.

Baseball safety squeezes involve a runner who gets a big lead but isn't apparently going anywhere unless and until the batter actually bunts the ball.   The object of the baseball safety squeeze is to catch the defense completely off guard, playing too deep.   The runner will make it home safely after the bunt is hit into play because the defenders can't get there to make a play in time.   In fastpitch, I submit that it is virtually impossible, or at least extremely difficult for a runner at third to get a normal or slightly aggressive lead, wait for the ball to be bunted, then and only then to break for home, and make it safely.   A more common approach is to get an aggressive lead at third, bunt, wait for the fielder to commit to throwing to first, and then to try to make it home before the return throw.   You cannot do that in baseball because the distance between bases is too great and the smaller ball is thrown at a much higher velocity.   It doesn't take a particularly good first baseman to get the out at home on such a play in baseball - it is an automatic.   In fastpitch, the odds of a runner making it from third after a fielder grabs a bunt and throws to first are much higher.   It is extremely risky but the odds are higher.

So when we speak of bunts when there is a runner at third, we can call for suicide or safety queezes but I think they are decidedly different animals from the baseball varieties.   Regardless of what the offense does, before the play begins, I want to decide what I'm going to do.   That is A) absolutely hold the runner at third, B) try to get the runner from third by confusing her, or C) absolutely get the runner at first.

I need to decide this before the play and I need to communicate it to the players.   We can have a conference at the mound or I can signal from the bench.   If I've practiced my team properly, I should be able to signal this from the bench.   If we're in extra innings or ITB, I will probably go out and hold a conference.

Once we have decided what we're going to do in the event of a bunt, that must be adhered to.   If we're going to get the runner at first, I don't want the fielder to feel she's going to have to look the runner back.   If she does that, odds are about even whether she'll be able to get the batter at first unless she is extremely slow.   Besides, the runner at third is going to expect her to look her back.   That means actually looking her back is not going to change the play very much.   And make no mistake about it, we aren't going to just give up the run uncontested regardless of the situation.   I want my second baseman to come off the bag firing to home.   Many times I have seen this work where the runner at third waits for the fielder to look her back, then hesitates to run home quickly enough because she is confused when she doesn't, then the second baseman makes a quick, accurate throw and nails the runner coming late from third.

If we decide we want to hold the runner at third at all costs, there are some options available.   But basically, we're going to eat the ball.   That can be a simple eat or the third baseman can quickly turn around and see where the runner at third is.   The SS must be covering if we want to keep her close.   That means our centerfielder is going to have to cover second to prevent the runner at first from advancing uncontested.   if she tries to advance to second, we are probably still going to eat the ball, depending on the situation and the skill of our players.

A better to way to go than simply eating the ball is to try to trick the runner at third into going.   We run a play in which a throw is made to a fielder in order to confuse the runner at third.   If a ball is bunted very hard, that fielder could be the pitcher - this play also works on regular groundballs with a runner at third.

An alternative to throwing the ball to the pitcher is to throw it to the second baseman but in this case, she is not looking to cover first. She is ten, fifteen, or more feet off the bag on a direct line to third.   Her primary objective is to nail the runner.   Say your third baseman fields the bunt, she turns and fires to the second baseman about 40 feet away, the runner at third and the basecoach are focused on the hand of the third baseman, waiting for the ball to come out.   The runner sees her opportunity to go.   The third base coach begins yelling "go, go, go" and off she goes.   Nobody notices that the second baseman is not trying to get the out at first.   They realize she is just setting them up too late to stop.   The second baseman throws immediately to the catcher.   The runner stops in a skid about halfway home.   The defense deftly executes a pickle nailing the runner from third and the other runner stays at first.   That scenario can take an opponent right out of the game.

Well that sort of wraps up what I wanted to go over today for bunt defense.   As usual, I've gone on too long.   I believe what differentiates fastpitch from baseball includes in large measure the bunt.   In softball, we bunt quite a bit more than the baseball folks.   We also use more psychic and physical energy dealing with bunts.   I think defense is the key to distinguishing a team from its opposition.   And bunt defense is the most critical aspect of that.

I should mention that I recognize that in each of the pieces above, I did not describe the situation completely.   How a defensive team plays the bunt obviously depends on whether the score is 12-0 or 1-1 as well as whether there are no, 1 or 2 outs in the inning.   I set out to try to address every possible permutation logically but that turned out to just not be possible.   I could use runners on: 1) just 1st, 2) just 2nd, 3) just 3rd, 4) 1st and 2nd, 5) 1st and 3rd, 6) 2nd and 3rd, 7) bases loaded, and apply these to 1) no outs, 2) 1 out, 3) 2 outs, and then go through different approaches when the game is 12-0, 0-12, 3-2, 2-3, or in extra innings.   The number of potential permutations is unwieldy to say the least.   I think I have covered most of the important variations on the theme but I recognize that one of the things which makes this game so wonderful is you just cannot possibly anticipate everything that can happen.   I hope I have given you enough insight to use in order to forge a good bunt defense while I also recognize that I cannot possibly address every situation.

Take this discussion as an intermediate bunt defense discussion and mold it to you particular team's strengths and weaknesses.   Bunt defense is probably the single most important situational topic you can cover in practice.   Make time for it and do it often.   The payback will be there for you and the team.

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