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Bunt & Run or Run & Bunt

by Dave
Thursday, April 22, 2010

I've been away from the blog for a while.   I know it has been too long but I am in observation mode.   There are a ton of games around now as age group travel ball gets into full gear and the school ball season rolls along towards championship season.   In all levels of play, I am aware that "baserunning" often decides games.   But "baserunning" is an overly broad topic.   It really encompasses almost everything on the offensive side of the game including and especially the short game.   While the high school games I have observed are beginning to demonstrate a decreased value to the short game due to the increased pitching distance, it is still an important tool.   While it used to determine the outcome of most competitive games, it still can determine such.   In age group play at 14U and lower ages, the short game is still absolutely key.   And within this aspect of the game, I have often seen what I think is a critical fundamental mistake.

When a team finds itself in a sacrifice situation, usually it looks something like this:   The game is close, say 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-1.   One run will put one team up, tie the game or maybe expand the lead to 3 so as to force the opponent into different choices when it is on offense.   A batter walks or gets a hit with one or no outs.   The next batter comes up and is signaled to bunt.   Sometimes she gets it down, sometimes she does not.

We have discussed the subject of bunting at length.   Every single player ought to be able to put down a bunt when needed.   It doesn't matter if you are hitting .500 with mostly extra-base hits or loads of home runs.   At some point, your team is going to face a tight situation and need you to get one down.   But we've been over and over that and it is not the fundamental issue of the day.

Many girls will be told to sacrifice and come out with a drag bunt.   Generally, when male coaches see that, they go nuts.   Often they are right to complain at the batter that "you were supposed to sacrifice, not bunt for a hit."   I, too, see that as a fundamental mistake but I have to admit that not everyone would agree.   Jessica Mendoza, for one, notes that she always felt more comfortable dragging.   She was not good at bunting in the conventional sacrifice manner.   She was a very good drag bunter and very often had successful sacrifices on drag bunts.   So I suppose there is some room for disagreement on this fundamental issue.   And, again, this is not the fundamental of the day.

The fundamental of the day involves the actions of the baserunner who is being moved.   Most often, I see a girl, say at first, get off the bag like she would on any other play, freeze, and then watch to see what happens on the bunt.   If the ball is popped into the air, she may even take a step back towards the bag before waiting to see what actually happens to the ball.   If the bunt is done "angle down," obviously going to hit the dirt, she may turn tail and run all out.   She watches the fielder covering the bag to see if there is an incoming throw and slides if she thinks there is.   The real fun occurs when the ball is struck fairly solid and, for a tenth of a second, the baserunner is not sure whether it will go up or down.   She holds for that one tenth and then acts in accordance with what the ball does.

This sort of baserunning play is really what should be called "bunt and run" because it involves no particular unusual act on the part of the baserunner until the bunt takes place, until ball and bat collide.   99 times out of 100 pure sacrifices, this is what happens, at least in the games I have watched.   They are "bunt and run" plays, bunt first, run second.

If a squeeze is the play of the moment, it seems like about 50/50 between the bunt and run, and the run and bunt.   A squeeze with bunt and run is a "safety squeeze."   A squeeze with run and bunt is a "suicide squeeze."   A third kind of play happens when a team does what I'll call a "double safety squeeze" which involves the runner getting off third, waiting for the bunt, and then waiting for the fielder to attempt to throw out the bunter at first.   This is really not a squeeze at all and is a somewhat unaggresive play.   It often works in 12U travel ball, sometimes backfires in 14U, works only against poorly prepared 16U or 18U teams, and shouldn't happen much beyond that, although, quite often, a weak throwing, poorly drilled first or second baseman is incapable of making the play to home as it should be executed.

What troubles me at the moment is the tendency of most teams to use run and bunt only on suicide squeezes.   The team that aggressively squeezes whenever the opportunity presents, many times does not play so aggressively on sacrifice situations when the run first, bunt second approach is highly advisable and successful every time your bunters have been well prepared.   This seems insane to me.   You've just got to run before the bunt against some teams despite the risks.

It occurs to me that nobody wants to be doubled up at any time.   But this is almost unavoidable.   I can't count the number of times when some baserunner got off the bag, then took off on a very hard hit, stopped as everybody in the place yelled because the SS made a diving catch and now has an opportunity for the DP, and then looked as if she would like to die as the throw was made, doubling her off.   Then her parents (maybe a few others!) started screaming at her from the sidelines.

This dynamic occurs very often in my world, whether it is my team getting doubled up, my team making the DP, or some game I am watching for the heck of it.   I just don't understand why people get so upset when some kid makes a great play which allows her to double the runner.   It just happens and it is nobody's fault, not the base coach, not the runner, nobody.   But every time it happens, it produces an even greater aversion to being doubled off for that k9id, her coach, for everyone.   The coaches, all of the kids in the dugout of the team at bat, and everybody else in the place watching or participating in the game thinks, "I'm glad that wasn't me."   The kid who gets doubled up vows that this will never happen again, assuming I live through the day.

This avoidance of being doubled off at all costs seems to make sense, doesn't it?   It is a rally killer.   It seems like it can make you lose.   We're at 0-0 in the 4th and finally get a runner on base.   Somebody finally hits a good shot but it gets caught.   The runner at first is doubled off.   Those are our last baserunners in that game and we go on to lose 1 zip.   That play lost us the game, right?   No it didn't.   Lots of other plays and at bats lost us the game.   That was just an unfortunate accident.

Worse still is when a sacrifice is called and the baserunner misjudges the ball off the bat.   She gets off, waits for contact, sees it and runs.   The only problem is the balled was popped right at the 3B!   Double play, get off the bases, you!

I get weirded out when I see people getting upset on plays like this.   Oh, my first reaction is something like "how did you get doubled off?   Weren't you paying attention?"   But then my better nature kicks in as I remember all the people I have seen doubled off.   I also recognize that if the SS or 3B hadn't made a good play and instead merely knocked the ball down and then got the runner moving from first to second because she got a late jump, I would be just as upset and so would everyone else.

What bearing does this have on bunt and run, run and bunt?   Is that not obvious?

Any very good team, one you are hopefully going to see as you make your way through better tournaments, is going to have practiced getting the lead runner on sacrifices.   If they have significant talent on defense, they are going to kill some of the lead runners you tried to move and make your team's sacrifice attempt into an out you handed them on a platter.   You'll be left thinking, "gee whiz, we haven't had many baserunners and even when we do, we can't move them!"   You'll be mentally defeated.

Some teams will attempt to play things in a manner they see as aggressive.   The coach at third will signal the baserunner to steal and the batter to sacrifice.   The thought is, this is basically the same thing as a run and bunt.   But you have still left your baserunner with her natural aversion to being doubled off.   She is only going to have .5 of a second to get off the base and then she'll see or hear the contact.   That makes her just over 10 feet from the bag as your bunter taps the ball.   If she is one of those good kids, she is going to put her head down and steal like you envisioned.   But as soon as she hears or sees the ball hit bat, she is going to freeze in near panic.   What if the bunt goes into the air and is caught?   I am going to get doubled off.   I don't want that to happen!   And that is exactly what you do not want her to be thinking.

As a coach, you really need to explain the difference between a bunt and run, and a run and bunt.   You need to explain that the run and bunt is a deliberate strategy which is being practiced because there are going to be times when we cannot bunt and run, when we cannot count on being able to steal a base, when the likelihood of a passed ball or wild pitch is about as likely as the snack bar serving sushi.   Sometimes, we are going to get into a tight game and we will need the runner at first or second to run and not worry about the bunt being a bad one, popped into the air.   When this happens and the runner is doubled off, it is the fault of the play call, not of the baserunner.

Does this make sense to you?   If not, I'm not explaining it correctly.   There are going to be times when, maybe you are playing a top 10 or 50 (on a national basis) team and they are able to almost completely shut down bunt and run because they are that good.   They have great pitchers.   But so do you.   You get only a handful of baserunners in the game but your kids are playing this thing to a stalemate.   If you can get a runner to second or third, the next kid just might get that critical base hit and provide you the 1-0 lead you may be able to hold onto.   But if you try to bunt and run, all you will end up with is another out and a runner at the same base.

Sometimes, when you are playing very good teams, they do not even look to make sure they can get the lead runner.   Instead, they are so confident of their ability that they simply always try to get her.   Sometimes such a team has a play which requires the fielders to go after the lead runner on sacrifices.   If a coach gets overly confident in his or her team's ability to nail the lead runner, he or she may be in a bad habit of automatically calling that play.   It has worked the last 20 times, why not now?

There is a very good possible outcome when you go with run and bunt against such teams.   It is entirely possible that your runner will beat the throw because she has that slight edge of not waiting to see ball hit ground.   If you are in a sacrifice situation, you run and bunt, the play is made on the lead runner, and she is safe, you may just demoralize your opponent.   Like I said, maybe they have gotten the lead out the last 20 times, maybe every time they have tried it this year.   Your team beats them at their own game.   Now they might just think, "oh no!   We have finally met a team which is better than us!!"

Of course, let's not forget that by using run and bunt, we are taking a risk.   I hope that your bunters can get one down.   If they tend to pop it into the air, well, your risk goes up.   But that is neither the fault of the runner nor the fault of the play.   That is the fault of your bunting instruction and preparation.

It is important to note that, just like the suicide squeeze, assuming your opponent has a very good catcher on whom you cannot steal, the batter must get the bat on the ball when you run and bunt.   She can foul it off.   She cannot pop it up to the catcher or another fielder.   She must make every attempt to protect the runner.

Your batters should be taught that if your team does a run and bunt, and the hitter absolutely cannot so much as tap the ball, she still needs to make that bunt attempt with the bat and make sure that the bat crosses within the receiving view of the catcher.   You are not looking for out and out interference but rather a healthy amount of distraction.   If the pitch is eye high and the hitter cannot possibly get it down, remember, the catcher is going to catch that ball in just about the perfect position to throw out our runner.   We have to foul it off and, if we cannot, we have to at least have our bat cross the catcher's field of view.   This may be enough to cause her to miss the ball, however slightly, or perhaps make a poor throw.   But we cannot allow the catcher to merely experience an iteration of throw-out the runner practice.

Batters cannot feel as if they are able to return to the dugout innocent of any charges because "there was no way I could bunt that pitch."   If they do not even put their bats in front of the catcher and get a strike on them because they went, they have failed.   It wasn't the baserunner's fault that she got thrown out on a failed steal attempt.   It was the batter's fault for not protecting the runner.

Well, that's pretty much it.   This is an easy fundamental concept.   But unfortunately, I seldom see run and bunt utilized.   Everybody seems to use it only in suicide situations.   When they do use it for sacrifices, they typically do so by invoking a steal and bunt simultaneously without ever cluing in their players.   That is not the best of all possible situations because your baserunners still have the natural aversion to being doubled off which may cause the momentary hesitation that gets her thrown out.   Instead, explain to your team what the difference between bunt and run, and run and bunt is.   Then you'll be able to execute it when necessary.   It may win you a critical game.   You may also want to explain this to the parents so they don't yell at their kids should they be the ones who get doubled up every once in a while!

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Suicide Sqeeze Is Painful

by Dave
Monday, October 05, 2009

The second most painful event in fastpitch softball happerns when you give up the go-ahead run on a suicide squeeze executed flawlessly by your opponent.

Your going along in a tied game, perhaps nothin-nothin, and the other team gets a girl on second.   Maybe you are in ITB.   There are no outs.   You have two strikes on the hitter and you get your pitcher to waste something which might fool the batter into striking out, putting you in a great position to get through the inning without giving up a run.   Let's see - a dropball short of the plate!   That should do it!   But the ball bounds away from the catcher and the runner at second moves to third uncontested.

Now you have no outs a 1-2 count and a runner on third.   Your pitcher strikes out the batter, making you feel just a little bit better.   You just need to get one more quick out, preferably with an infield fly or a hard grounder to your now pulled-in infield.   Then you are confident that your team will get the final out and you'll be the one threatening to score.

It wouldn't be fair for your team to lose this game.   This is the first runner they have had at third.   You've had girls there all day.   But you have failed to put across a run.   It just wouldn't be fair for you to lose.

Everything is moving in slow motion now.   Just as your pitcher comes around with her arm to the release point, the batter squares and lays down an average to poor bunt.   You're sure your kids can hold the runner and make that play without giving up a run.   For a millisecond, you are happy.   But then you realize that the runner from third broke with the release and is coming full guns.   Your pulled in third baseman snags the ball quickly and seems to know instintively that she must come home with it.   She makes a decent throw.   Your catcher makes a clean play and tags quickly.   But the runner is already underneath her and you fix your gaze on the plate ump.   It looks for a moment as if he is going to make the out call but he doesn't.   Instead, he moves both arms and hands and does the unthinkable.   SAFE!!

Like I said, that is the second most painful event in fastpitch softball.   The single most painful event happens when it is your runner on third in the bottom of the last and you fail to pull off the squeeze.

You've got a runner on third for the first time this game.   You got her there by giving up the first out of the inning on a sacrifice bunt.   It just so happens that the baserunner is the quickest, fastest kid on the team who also is to be a terrific baserunner.   She gets off the bag well, runs like a cheetah in pursuit and has slid under too many tags to count.

Their pitcher is GOOD!   Only two kids have gotten hits this game, those came several innings apart, and not very many of your kids have so much as put the ball into play.   You can't count on the fates to allow the current hitter to break out and get a hit or drive one deep enough to get the runner in.   She hasn't hit well all day and looked very bad in her previous at-bat when she struck out swinging at a ball two feet outside the zone.   This pitcher seems to have the girl's number.

So you think perhaps you might be able to call a squeeze except that this hitter is not that great of a bunter.   Actually, she doesn't care very much for bunting.   Neither do her parents who have watched way too much high school, college and professional baseball.   They think bunting is for kids who can't hit.   Their kid can hit!   If you so much as ask this kid to bunt EVER, you are setting yourself up for an hours long discussion with the mother since the father will not deign to even speak to you for weeks after you ask his kid to bunt.   But you'd really, really like to call a squeeze play right now.

You give the sign and the girl scrunches up her nose, calls time-out and jogs towards you.   Oh great!   Nobody can figure out what you are up to!   You've got the element of surprise going for you ... NOT!

You ask her, what she wants.   She whispers, "you want me to bunt?   Now?"   You say, "yes.   You gotta get this one down.   Do it and we win the game."   She trots back to the box as the opposing coach instructs, "watch the bunt.   Hold her at third but get the out at first.   You have plenty of time."   (This batter is not a fast runner.)

The pitcher goes into her windmill and your batter breaks her hands squares about a half second too early and then bunts at the pitch as your baserunner commits suicide and blazes towards home.   The batter whiffs by a good six inches and the catcher tags your runner out.   Two down, 0-1 count, nobody on.   The batter takes strike two, swings and misses at another riseball two feet over her hands, and you go on to lose the game.   The batter and her parents are actually a little PO'd at you for putting her in an 0-1 hole from which she was pretty much forced to strike out wqhen they thought maybe she would go yard and win the game.

That's pretty darn painful!!!!

Sqeezes often end like this.   That's why a lot of teams don't attempt them.   But if you want to win ITB games against really tough pitchers, that's often your best option.

Everybody ought to work on squeezes.   Every player who steps onto a softball field ought to be able to bunt.   But the reality is many girls cannot put one down into play at will.

We work on bunting all the time.   Very often I hear one, two or more girls complain under their breath that "I hate bunting."   I have coached teams where more than one girl has, I believe, been told by her parents or taken the position on her own behalf that if I am called on to bunt, I will simply miss the bunt and then get a chance to hit away with just one strike.

As a coach, it is very frustrating to encounter girls with this attitude.   We tell them that if you cannot bunt, you do not belong playing softball.   If you want to play money baseball, that is played on another field and you are welcome to go there.

Still, even with extensive bunt practice, with everyone fully understanding that an at-bat in which you are asked to bunt and don't pull it off is a failed at-bat, girls still often fail top put one down in play.   There are a few kids who always get it down.   But those girls never seem to be up with a fast runner on third in the tight games.   It's always the "big hitters" in the midst of a slump.

If it isn't the big hitters, it is the girls who can bunt but only in drag situations for basehits.   The trouble with those girls is they struggle to make plain vanilla sacrifice bunts.   They get bunts down and get on base about 25% of the time but the usual sequence involves missing the ball completely the other times.   You can't count on them to get a sac down.   You can't count on them in a squeeze situation.

I think I have set the stage properly to discuss an alternative strategy to the suicide squeeze, conventional sac "bunt" which requires that the batter A) absolutely make contact with the ball, B) absolutely not pop it up into the air, and C) hopefully get it down in fair territory.   What I'm talking about involves not splitting the hands in a conventional bunting manner.   What's important is contact with the ball.   What's important is not popping it up.   The rest depends more on the baserunner than on the quality of the "bunt."

I have observed many teams which utilize what I refer to as the "two-strike swing" approach in which the girls do not pull back to a full load and, thereafter, do not take a full swing at the ball.   Instead, they place the bat into the zone and pull back about three quarters to full, take a quick chop at the ball, and generally make contact.   This is utilized anytime the batter is down to her final strike but becomes very important when there is a runner on base and a grounder is needed to move her over.   I've watched many girls at high levels use this to great advantage.   But that is not exactly the technique I want to use in my squeeze scenario.

What I want you to teach your batters to use when they are called upon to execute squeezes is a "pepper" swing in which they merely put out a check swing and tap the ball into play the way they would when playing "pepper."   You have your team play pepper, don't you?   You should!

If you don't know what pepper is, listen up.   You place three or more girls about 20 feet from a batter, give 'em a ball and say, "play pepper for a few minutes!"   basically, the three fielders toss the ball underhand to the batter and she taps it back to them.   The player who picks up the ball tosses it again and the batter taps it to hopefully another fielder.   It is a great exercise to awaken fielders' reflexes.   It is a great exercise to have batters practice their hand-eye coordination, not to mention bat control skills.   It is a great exercise to have fielders work on their underhand tosses.   And now, you know, it is great to work on suicide squeeze "bunting."

Basically, when playing pepper, the batter keeps the bat near the strike zone and then reaches to tap the ball into play towards the fielders.   It is a lot like bunting exceopt for the technique with the bat.   It is not a conventional bunt.   It is a check swing.   And most girls given very little practice can make contact with nearly every "pitch" tossed to them.

Playing pepper is not enough of an experience to teach girls to get suicide squeeze bunts down.   You n eed high speed, live action "batting" practice for that.   Turn the pitching machine up as high as it can go and have girls repeatedly tap balls into play.   While you are doing that, have your pitchers warm up.   Then have them throw live-pitched tapping practice.

Tell your pitcher to deliberately make it hard for the batters to make contact with the ball.   If you get to game situations with runners on third and the other teams suspects you may try a squeeze, you can bet the oppposing pitcher will waste one high or outside on the first pitch.   You want your pitchers throwing this practice to do the same.   They can mix in some strikes, throw their movement pitches, etc.   But they must sometimes waste some pitches since that provuides the most effective suicide squeeze "bunt" tapping practice.

I was watching a game on TV when i first saw this technique employed.   I cannot remember which game it was or which teams were involved.   All I can tell you is that the game was at a reasonably high level - that should be obvious since it was televised.   The batter easily tapped the ball into play.   It was not really a "good bunt."   The ball was hit a little too hard to call it that.   But, do you know what?   It was a very effective technique.   The batter had absolutely no trouble making contact against an otherwise tough pitcher.   The baserunner from third had no trouble making it home in a not very close play at the plate despite the infielder making a clean play and good throw.   I believe that, if you practice this technique, your percentage of successful suicide plays will increase dramatically.   I hope none of our competitors are reading this!

Suicide squeezes are always painful.   That is never a question.   They are always painful for one of the parties involved.   Which one do you want to be, the inflictor or sufferor?

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2 Strikes, Time To Bunt!

by Dave
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How many times have you seen this: a girl tries to bunt but fails twice.   Now she's down 0-2, 1-2 or something like that and she swings away.   Why?   Why not try to get one down with 2 strikes?

There is an obvious answer to my question.   It is the one which always comes immediately to mind.   The reason many coaches and players do not bunt with two strikes is, if the ball is hit foul, that results in a strikeout.   We want to avoid the K, so we stop trying to bunt.   Makes sense, no?   No, not necessarily.

Before we move on and address my strategic suggestion, let's define a few terms and discuss the rules a bit.   The term "bunt" is not necessarily a very well understood one.   The 2009 NCAA rulebook defines the term as "a legally batted ball not swung at but intentionally tapped with the bat."   That is an inadequate definition since "slapping" pretty much fits within this definition unless a relatively full swing is taken.   In another definition, the term "bunt attempt" contains a further elaboration which reads, "holding the bat in the strike zone is considered a bunt attempt.   In order to take a pitch, the bat must be withdrawn — pulled backward and away from the ball."

So a bunt attempt really consists of holding the bat in the strike zone as the ball enters the hitting area.   This definition distinguishes between a true slap in which the bat should at least theoretically be run through the strike zone, not merely held like a swing and placed into the zone to tap the ball.   In other words, the archetypical beginner youth or high school slapper who merely puts the bat into the zone, though not in the classic bunting mode, is actually bunting rather than slapping.

One's hand placement on the bat does not determine whether a bunt attept has been made.   We know that there is a style of hitting which involves splitting the hands rather than having them in contact with one another.   We also know that there are bunting styles which do not require the hands to be split.   The determining factor over whether a "swing" is a bunt attempt or not is whether the bat is held in the strike zone or not.   And this becomes rather important with two strikes when a foul ball is hit.

Another NCAA rule notes, "A strike is charged to the batter ... when the batter bunts foul after the second strike."   In other words, if you have two strikes and bunt the ball foul, you're out on a strike out.

I have seen a number of instances in which a self-described "slapper" has been called out for a fouled third strike.   This almost always precipitates a discussion between coach and umpire as well as catcalls from the batter's father and mother claiming the umpire doesn't know the rules.   Generally, the umpire has ruled the "swing" a bunt attempt and, therefore, the foul is a third strike.   The ump is right.   The coach and parents are wrong.

OK, so a bunted foul with two strikes is an out.   Sometimes, that thing some people call a slap is actually a bunt, not a true slap.   A slap really involves more movement of the bat than a bunt.   The NCAA rulebook says a slap is a "short, chopping motion rather than with a full swing."   If you leave the bat in the strike zone as the ball travels through it, I think what you have is a bunt.   If you swing the bat through the zone in a short, chopping motion, what you have is a slap.   And, importantly, "A ball that is slapped foul is treated like any other foul ball and shall not result in an out unless caught in flight."

But enough of the rules, I think you get it.   Let's get back to the strategy.

I do not believe I know of more than a handful of people - players, coaches, and parents - who think bunting with two strikes is a viable strategy.   It is almost never called for by the typical coach.   I do know some high school coaches and a few in travel who will do it as a strategy.   I also know of some including me who would call for it as a sort of punishment for girls who deliberately bunt the ball foul, sometimes because their fathers who don't understand softball have suggested it as a strategy to get a "real" at-bat.   But, for the most part, bunting with two strikes is avoided like the plague.

Without looking at any cold and hard facts, let's instead talk about this anecdotally.   How many times have you seen this: bunter fouls off a couple and has two strikes after which the defensive coach instructs the corner infielders to move back because there are two strikes.   That is common, probably to a 95% rate.   And it is a safe approach since 95% of all coaches won't call for a bunt in this situation.   But the good and aggressive ones will!

OK, so how about this, how many times have you seen a former bunter, now with two strikes, finish herself off with a third strike.   Let's face it, softball is filled with strikeouts.   Now that is a legitimate plague in our sport.   If the pitcher is a contact pitcher, then you don't see so many Ks but, ordinarily, there are a ton of them in the typical, well-pitched game.   And if the former bunter has put herself into an 0-2 hole, the strikeout is an all too common event.   The high percentage event on an 0-2 pitch, or at least shortly thereafter, is a K.   And yet, we do not even attempt a bunt because we are trying to avoid a strikeout!   It makes sense to at least consider bunting a kid with two strikes since what we are trying to avoid when we don't is probably going to happen anyways.

Therre are advantages to bunting with two strikes, if you can get it down.   The field situation for an 0-2 bunt is often a lot better than it was prior to this point.   The corners are back.   Just about everyone on the field will be surprised if the batter bunts.   If she can get one down in fair ground, it is almost always successful.   So in a tight game, why not give it a try?

As a corollary to the two strike bunt, I have another suggestion which is probably only applicable to youth games, though sometimes presents itself in higher levels.   At the youth level, it is fairly common to encounter a "slapper" who is just learning.   She steps over to the left side for the first couple of pitches but if she fails to execute a slap into fair ground, she moves back over to the right side for the next couple of pitches.   This is fairly common in youth play but I have seen it as late as high school, where often a coach identifies a fast kid and tries to teach her to slap for the first time.

(I want to add one rule element here because I have seen it called.   When the batter steps across the plate while the pitcher is holding the ball inside the circle, perhaps while in contact with the rubber, some umps will call her out.   Before a batter crosses the plate, she should call time out to avoid this.   You are allowed to cross the plate when time is out.   You're not supposed to do this while the pitcher is on the rubber.)

I understand that a girl may want to try out the new skill she is working on but, after failing a few times, wants to go back over and take some real swings.   I'm not going to criticize this approach.   It's a learning tool.   But what I want to suggest is a strategy which may catch the defense off guard.

When a kid who throws righty steps to the left handed batter's box, not very many people are fooled into believing she is a natural left-handed batter.   The defense expects a slap or a drag bunt.   Either the corners move in or the defense takes up one of the defensive positionings we refer to as slapper-D.   After those first couple of pitches, after which the batter decides to go back over to the right-handed box, they move back into standard positioning.   This is the perfect time for a right handed drag bunt!

As a final strategic point, I want to bring up the situation in which it is far more prefereable to tap a grounder to one of the middle infielders than it is to take a full cut and strike out or otherwise accomplish an unproductive out.   We've been over the offensive perspective when you have a runner on third with one or no outs.   In that circumstance, we want our girls to be conditioned to run home if the ball comes off the bat angle down and not directly back to the pitcher.   This is more true when we have runners on second and third but anytime there is a runner on third, we want the batter to hit the ball into play rather than try to drive in the run with a hit.

There is a technique I have seen many well-experienced batters use.   I refer to it as a "two strike swing."   the batter starts out looking as if she might be thinking of bunting, with the bat out in front of her in the strike zone.   Then, as the pitcher begins her motion, the batter draws the bat back but not to a full cocked, loaded position.   Basically, she pulls back to perhaps the halfway point, possibly as far back as three quarters.   Then she attempts to hit the ball into play with less force than she might have during other pitches.   What she is trying to do is reduce the liklihood of a K and increase the probability of hitting the ball into play, preferably on the ground.   The reduced swing provides the batter better bat control.   This is an effective technique which when well practiced very often produces the desired result.

My strategic suggestion for this technique is, why wait for two strikes?   Anytime you have a runner on third, I think the situation dictates a "two strike swing."

I think we often get caught up in the illusion that baseball and softball are essentially the same game.   We do many of the same things in one that we learned in the other despite the fact that there are pronounced differences between the games.   Not bunting with two strikes is something which I learned in baseball - though even there, it can be effective.   In softball, with its relatively lower scoring, bunting is a more important tool.   And in softball, with its higher rate of strikeouts, I think attempting a bunt with two strikes makes more sense than it does in baseball.

In softball, the difference between the winner and loser, especially in championship games, often involves the winner catching the loser off guard.   Aside from two strike bunting, moving from the left to the right and yet still attempting a drag bunt can be an effective strategy.   Aside from these, practicing so-called "two strike hitting" can be an effedctive way to push a run across.   And it works even when the batter does not have two strikes.

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Permanent Link:  2 Strikes, Time To Bunt!

Bunt D, Geometry, Time and Distance

by Dave
Monday, May 25, 2009

I know I've written about this in the past but I find I must write about it again because I saw this issue change the outcome of games this past weekend.   Also, I saw some mistaken comments on a forum which demonstrate a little bit of confusion.   So I must address it in a manner which explains the whys and why nots.   The issue is bunt defense.

The classic baseball bunt defense with a runner on first involves the third baseman crashing in to cover anything to the right of the pitcher, the pitcher covering the first base side of the field, the catcher covering anything he can get to, particularly out to be about 15 feet, sometimes more, and the first baseman staying at his base to take the throw.   Teams can have 2B cover the second base bag and the SS cover third in case the runner from first decides to try to take another 90 feet.   Or the player (pitcher, 3B or C) that does not field the bunt can cover third.

This generally does not work in softball.   Why?   Mathematics.   Don 't believe it?   Examine the geometry, time and distances involved.

First of all, as we talked about, it takes a baseball runner at least 4 seconds to reach first.   Good softball runners get there in under 3.   That's a heck of a big difference.   To explain this a bit more, in MLB, the average time to first is about 4.   In softball 3 is the minimum standard for a relatively slow runner in D1.   I have seen sub-3s at 12U travel, though they are somewhat rare except when a team is designed for speed.   At 14U travel, 3s are far more common.   At 16U, you see a fair number of them because less athletic girls have dropped out of the mix.

Secondly, the typical first baseman in baseball stands behind the bag on most plays, though he may come in, even with the bag, perhaps in the cutout, toes touching the lawn, when a bunt is expected.   In baseball, 1Ds often play almost as far back as the outfield grass.   In softball, it is relatively infrequent to find the 1B an ywhere behind the bag.   With a big hitter who has the tendency to hit the ball to the right side, sometimes the 1B stands behind the bag but this is somewhat unusual except at very high levels.   Most of the time, at most levels, she's about even or up 5 - 15 feet from even.

When a softball 1B expects the batter to bunt, it is not unusual for her to position herself about 40 feet from home while charging on the pitch.   The same is true for the 3B, although some girls seem to get close enough to smell what the batter had for breakfast.   If you saw the Olympic team play any games in which Bustos was at third, you know what I mean.   The batter's were actually complaining about her breath.   (Yes, I'm kidding but I've never seen anyone play closer than Bustos.)

With the 1B charging, she can easily be closer to the batter than the pitcher is after delivery.   You figure that the pitcher is somewhere around 35 feet from home when the ball arrives to the batter.   The two corners should be closer to 30, maybe as close as 20 feet away, when a bunter makes contact.   For this reason, the P's responsibility is generally for a straight bunt, right back to her, which gets by the other fielders.   She is almost a backup to 1B and 3B.

It is certainly possible that the corners are crashing too hard.   Very good teams will see this and then have their batters fake bunt while pulling back and taking an almost full cut.   This can be referred to as a slap bunt, depending on how you define "slap bunt."   And while many tournaments prohibit this at 10U, most above that do not.   Offensively, this is a decent strategy to get the defensive corners to stay off the bunt for at least a half second since even these players mostly value their lives.   When I talk about right handed slaps, this is specifically what I'm talking about.

After the bunt is down, usually you will see the P take coverage of third, assuming she doesn't field a hard bunt.   There is certainly some room for debate over who does precisely what.   I have seen college catchers take the 3B coverage but I don't really like this as much as having one of the bunt fielders, the one who doesn't retrieve the ball, 1B or 3B, take third.   I feel that way because I know what it is like to run with shin guards.   I'd prefer my hard working catcher not have to do that.

Lest I forget to mention, expecting your catcher to field a bunt beyond an arc about 5 feet from the plate is also wrong.   Why, the 3B and 1B are already there.   On anything beyond five feet, they have to be able to beat the catcher there.   And they don't have all the extra backage of shin guards, helmet, etc. which makes an errant throw possible.   That is not in any way to suggest that your catcher is less than a great athlete.   Rather, I'm merely suggesting that if your 3B and 1B can't beat the catcher to a bunt 6 feet in front of home, they aren't being nearly aggressive enough.   If you get caught off guard on a surprise bunt - not a plain vanilla sacrifice - certainly you want anyone who can get there, pitcher, catcher, whomever, to make the play and get the out.   But I'm thinking that you won't be surprised very often.

What I feel is non-negotiable is the 1B's role.   I don't see any way around it.   She has to cover the bunt because if she doesn't, a smart bunter is going to bunt the ball down the first base line and there's no way the pitcher is routinely going to be able to make this play.

In rare circumstances, perhaps you do not have a 1B who is athletic enough to play bunt defense.   I've seen this before.   But if thet is your situation, you have to devise something different.   You cannot merely tell the pitcher to cover bunts.   The best alternative is to essentially switch your 2B and 1B.   You pull your 2B in parallel to the pitcher like perhaps you do on slap D.   Your 1B plays back behind the base line and over to her right so that if the batter pulls back and hits one in the empty hole, she can maybe field it.   Otherwise, your 1B has to field bunts.

You can disagree with me if you like but I am going to respond by asking, "have you ever coached baseball," "do you think the games are pretty much the same," "what is the relative time to first in the two sports," or something else along these lines.   I do not believe I have seen the coach yet who tries the classic baseball bunt defense and who can answer the appropriate questions the right way.   Most of those who try this have also coached baseball.   Most of those who try this will not guess correctly what the times are to first in the two sports.   Most of those who try this do not have a lot of tournament experience.   Most of those who try this would never just go watch a fastpitch softball game which did not involve their kid.   They haven't observed enough to realize that not that many softball teams have the 1B hang back to cover the bag.   They haven't had the time and experience to realize that if I'm the only one keeping my 1B back, maybe I'm wrong.   if the teams still playing in the semi-finals of any tournament crash both their 1Bs and 3Bs, I suppose that does it for me.

I watched a couple teams play some games over this past weekend while using baseball bunt coverage.   I saw several bunts placed down the 1B baseline.   This happened because the opposition observed their coverage and immediately noticed that the 1B did not charge the bunt.   I saw coaches talking among themselves while pointing to the opposition's 1B.   Then they talked to their girls while again pointing in the direction of 1B.   Sometimes their girls did not get the bunt down, sometimes they didn't get it towards first, but when they did, they were successful 100% of the time.   About 75% of these attempts resulted not only in advancing the runner but also the bunter reaching firsty safely.

To be quite honest, when I walk out to coach 3B, the first thing I do is watch the 3B's arm.   I want to know whether she is going to be able to throw out batters if we bunt.   The next thing I look at is the arms of the infielders and outfielders.   3B coaches who don't come out early and watch the infielders warm-up are missing an opportunity to learn the defensive capabilities of their opponent.   I watch as the 1B rolls grounders but I also want to see her make a real throw across the diamond, if that's possible.   If the opposition is on the third base side, I hope for her to have to throw the ball to the 3B when the ump calls "balls in." The 1B's arm is as important to the defense as the 3B's.

After I have observed the infielders throw, I usually try to take a look at the outfielders.   I want to see if they are athletic, can catch, use two hands when they catch, and have decent arms.   I also want to see the catcher.   I don't so much want to see the throw down since this is not game situation.   I'm more interested in watching how she catches and blocks - I want to see what her habits are.   But I will watch the throw down because I want to see what her accuracy is when she is relaxed.   If she's inaccurate in warm-ups, she may be inaccurate during the game.

After all this, when the game is going to be played, I would like our first batter to pretend to bunt on the first pitch.   Obviously, there's nobody on base and it is possible I won't get a look at their actual bunt defense but I want to see what everyone's, especially the 1B's, tendencies are.   Later, when hopefully we have a runner on first, I can see what the real bunt defense looks like and see whether this is a baseball team or a softball one.   If the 1B does not charge the bunt, well, there's my first opportunity to exploit the defense.

After the first pitch, what I want to see is where the 1B and 3B position themselves on the next pitch.   If 1B is even with the bag or back a bit, I know I am playing against a team on which the coaches or the 1B's father have coached baseball.   They haven't watched bona fide fastpitch softball.   If the 3B is still even with the bag, well, ballgame over.   Sorry girls, we aren't going to be swinging at pitches this game.   We are going to bunt, bunt, bunt.

I remember watching a 13 year old team play against a young inexperienced 12U team in fall ball.   The girls on the older team were big.   Everyone of them looked like a hitter.   I saw them in warmups and they all could swing the stick.   Then, the game began and every single batter bunted their first time up.   Their opposition had played their corners back and not a single girl was thrown out at first until several runs were across.   They bunted because they didn't need to do more.   Later, when the run rule loomed, the coach let these girls swing away and that they did.   They could all hit the ball.   They just didn't need to in order to easily win that game.   So, why bother!

On our first sacrifice opportunity, the second thing I want to see is who covers third.   If on a bunt, the SS takes third, then I know we are going to be able to advance runners to second all day without stealing.   The bunts don't even have to be good.   Every sacrifice will be successful, if we get the bunt down.

If the defense is proper, I hope my girls have observed this and know to advance a base hard, slide and hold the bag.   It would be nice to advance them to third, if the ball gets away but there are risks unless the bunt defense contains another xcommon mistake.

My bunt defense, after observing everything from 10U to D1 college is to go for the out at first with the 2B covering that bag.   Yes, if there is an opportunity to nail the runner at second, I wouldn't mind.   But you can only do this if: 1) the girl fielding the ball has a great arm; 2) your CF is backing up perfectly which is difficult because I have another positioning for her; 3) the ball gets to the fielder in a real hurry, and 4) this is a called play.

Getting the out at second (or at third but we're getting ahead of ourselves) takes a significant amount of experience.   The defensive players all have to move immediately.   The girl playing the ball has to have a great inner clock.   I don't want a throw to second on the bunt if getting that out is less than 90%.   And such a play has to be situationally dictated - I want to call it.

I believe getting an out at first on a bunt has to be routine.   Sure, there will be times when the girl fielding the bunt won't get a grip on the ball and make a bad throw.   But hopefully, our RF will be backing up and it won't cost us too badly.   What I don't want is for our team to fail to get an out because they didn't field the bunt timely or because they tried and failed to get the lead runner who gets to second in 2.7.

I can live with runner on second and one out.   I believe our pitchers are, uh, paid, to deal with that.   Not getting an out here can open up a big inning.   A big inning in softball is 2 or more runs.   Not getting an out here opens up first and second with still no outs and another bunt attempt coming.   If they succeeed in moving both runners up while there is just one out, they're pretty much guaranteed of getting a run across unless we get a K or infield pop-up for the second out.

So, the idea has to be to get the runner at first unless the situation dictates going for the lead runner.   Our 2B is covering first.   Our SS is covering 2.   And the charging infielder who didn't make the play is covering 3.   The 2B takes the throw at first, gets the out, and immediately throws behind the runner at second.

Throwing the ball to second is not some sort of an option.   It involves no judgement.   Our 2B does not throw to the SS because she thinks she can get the out.   She just does it.   That's the successful end of the play.   That's an automatic.   Even if, for some reason, you don't get the out at first, the throw still goes immediately to second.

I believe I need to explain why this is an automatic so I will.

It shouldn't have surprised me but it did.   When I went to watch the D3 WCWS, there came a bunt situation in a tight game.   Runner on first, no outs.   The batter successfully executed a sacrifice bunt.   The runner from first got a good jump and made second easily.   The infielders charged, fielded the bunt and correctly went to first, nailing the batter-baserunner.   The 2B covering first, immediately went to second with the ball.   The runner from first had rounded and they nailed her.   That was clearly a back breaker.

Offensively, I would prefer if our runner slid hard into the bag in the pop-up slide manner, got herself up and then looked at first.   If the ball got away for some reason, I expect she can still easily make third.   But if they successfully defended the bunt, I want her to hold the bag.

Defensively, I know that a girl who is moving to second from first on a sacrifice bunt has something completely different on her mind.   She comes into the bag at second watching the girl covering.   As soon as that girl sees the covering fielder relax and move out of position to take a throw, she begins to think of the possibility of going to third.   She wants to get a head start.   She can taste third.   She is going to round the bag because inside her memory is that game from her 10U or 12U days when she did this, got to third and caused an overthrow there, allowing her to score the game winning run.

It shouldn't have surprised me that this kind of thing can happen in a D3 WCWS game but it still did.   So, I know this works there.   It really doesn't surprise me when I see this kind of thing work at 12U, 14U, whatever.   What surprises me is more teams leave the play to the discretion of their fielders or practice something entirely different.

I have seen teams even at 14U make the bunt defense play I described but completely give up any hope of getting an out at second.   They have their SS cover third and then they "encourage" their CF to come and cover second.   The CF never gets to that bag soon enough for any kind of play.   And when teams see this, they tell their players to round second on sacrifices because they know nobody is going to be there.   So when the ball is in the dirt or there is any sort of collision at first, they automatically get third on a simple sacrifice.   That's kind of tragic.

What some teams do is condition their players to get the out at first and then throw immediately to third to head off the runner presuambly rounding second.   When they do this successfully, they believe they have handled the play very well.   But think the whole field through for a minute.   If the baserunner from first rounds the bag, which she will do if your CF is covering second, and if the girl who takes the throw at third feels particularly aggressive, she is going to throw to the CF at second to get the runner.   Your RF is in foul ground behind first to back up the primary throw, and there is nobody close enough to even touch the ball on an errant throw to second before that baserunner touches the plate.   It is a badly designed play.

In my variant where we go to first and then the 2B, covering first, throws to the SS covering second, my CF is backing up that throw.   So, if our over-aggression results in a bad throw that gets past the SS, well, the CF is going to have that ball with about 2 seconds to spare to make the throw to third and nail the runner there.   I've seen this happen on almost every bunt defense like this where the 2B made a bad throw to the SS.   The only time the runner was not thrown out was when she looked up soon enough to realize the CF had the ball and she dove back just in time to be safe at second.   Then she stood up, put her hand to her heart and took a deep breath!   In short, a proper bunt defense with a throw behind the runner is a high percentage play.

OK, so I think I have said enough but I just want to summarize the whole defense one more time and then talk a bit about sacrifices with runners on first and second, then briefly go over second and third.

C catches and gets balls out to 5 feet from the plate, assuming Bustos didn't beat her there and call her off.   P pitches and backs up her corners in case the bunter hits one harder than they expect.   1B charges the bunt.   2B covers first.   SS covers second.   3B charges and probably fields the bunt.   P, 1B or 3B covers third.   RF backs the throw to first.   CF backs the throw from first to second.   LF backs a potential tyhrow from second to third.

If you want to go for the lead runner at second because obviously the girl at first is very slow, because you know your corners and they are outstanding, because you have a ten run lead, because you just want your girls to have fun, well your defense looks basically the same but your CF is in a different position to back the throw down to second.

When runners are on first and second, obviously the situation is slightly different.   Notably, your 2B, covering first, is not going to throw to the SS covering second.   Your SS won't be there if she does.   She should be covering third.   But, no, you still don't want your CF covering second.   You simply forget about the trailing baserunner.   Your focus must be on getting the out at first and then paying close attention to the runner at third.   The 2B must come immediately off the bag at first and charge for the pitcher's circle, ball in hand.   The pitcher must be clear of the p[athway between your 2B and third.   Your LF must be in a good backup position and, I believe, one of you other players should be in foul ground behind third, tending towards the infield.   That can be your 3B unless she fielded the bunt and then it should probably be your 1B.

If your 2B can see a certain amount of distance, she should throw to the SS.   The distance is equal to more than one step plus a dive.   If the runner has to take two or even one and a half steps before diving, your 2B has to make the throw.   It is an automatic.   You need to show her this in practice with a real baserunner.

Understand that if your 2B comes off the bag, she should most likely have shortened the distance to third from eighty some-odd feet down to around 60.   The throw has become a relatively easy one.   And if the runner at third is daring her to throw, she ought to throw.

The SS has a primary desire to catch the throw and make the tag but this is not like a steal because the runner is not necessarily sliding.   She may break for home.   So the SS has to recognize this, catch the ball at all costs, and if the runner is breaking, she must wheel and throw home.   At this point, if you end up with a pickle or develop what is a close play at third, I think your players should be conditioned to eat the ball.   You've already made a clean throw to first, then third, and presumably home.   Why tempt the fates unless you are that confident in your players.   You've already scared the heck out of the baserunner and the play is really over unless you make an overthrow into left where there is now nobody backing up.

One more time, the goal on a sacrifice with runners on first and third is to get the out at first unless the situation dictates something else, unless a coach calls a different defense, unless the bunt is fielded extremely quickly.   Remember, the runner at second is going to get an even better lead from her bag towards third.   She should get a five step running lead and the time it will take her to get to third is shorter than the time a runner takes getting to second from first.   The throw is shorter but I don't think you can get the out at third unless the runner from second is very slow.   I would save that kind of play for high levels, very high levels, or a very well practiced team.

To explain this further, I watched a great high school game go into ITB, 0-0.   Both teams were very good defensively.   Both pitchers were solid.   Neither team had more than a handful of runners on base at all, let alone beyond first.   In ITB, the visiting team came up and, of course, bunted.   A quick play was made on the ball and the fielder tried to nail the runner at third.   That would have been a great out, had they made it.   They didn't.   They were left with runners on first and third and I forget what exactly happened thereafter but the visiting team opened up a big inning and won easily.   The home team was defeated on that play when their girls tried to get the lead runner.   They went with the low percentage play, lost and got clobbered despite playing neck and neck with their opponent for 9 plus innings.

I like high percentage plays even when sometimes it seems like the wrong play, even when one's baseballl experience migh lead to another type of play.   I say get the runner at first and then do something else.   I say have your 1B conditioned to cover bunts.   I say save getting the lead runner for situations in which it can't backfire on you.   Whatever you choose for your bunt defense, make sure it is appropriate for the geometry, time and distances involved in softball, not baseball.

So that's it.   I apologize for the length of this piece.   It probably could have been a lot shorter.   But I have too much energy on the subject.   I've seen too many baseball defenses played in softball.   It doesn't work, at least not against decent teams.   Softball has its own bunt defense.   It does not use baseball's.

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Permanent Link:  Bunt D, Geometry, Time and Distance

Eat It

by Dave
Friday, May 15, 2009

Softball and baseball are percentage play games.   There are differences between the games caused by the different time frames in which plays are made but both sports involve percentage plays.   We don't execute certain plays because they always work, but rather because they work more often than not.   And we pick and choose plays given certain situations.   We don't always execute X or Y because they succeed more often than not.   Our decisions are dictated by the game and inning situation.   Within this realm, certain play choices are bad bets, sometimes made worse by the situation.   And because there are differences between baseball and softball, what works in one realm doesn't necessarily work well in the other.   We need to examine our play choices before and after game situations in order to educate ourselves and alter our in-game approach.

Offensively, my least favorite play is the bunt with runners on second and third.   I also don't care for the play-for-the-big-inning approach when a team knows it is facing a tough pitcher backed up by an experienced defense.   I guess another disliked offensive play is the safety squeeze except situationally dictated, used only when the abilities of the defense are well known, and with a very skilled and swift runner on third.

A frequent bad defensive bet is the go-for-the-lead-runner-at-all-costs approach.   Also, I dislike the infield-in approach except in certain limited game situations.   But I suppose my least favorite defensive play is the baserunner pickoff by catcher attempt.

Let's be clear that the age and quality of competition have as much to do with this analysis as anything else.   If you are playing a poor opponent or playing lower age group ball, you can have differences of opinion with what I have to say.   A given play can be a much higher percentage at 12U than it is at 14U.   Another works in 14U B but almost always fails at 14U A level.   It is difficult to analyze anything in fastpitch softball without laying out a specific age and skill level.

The problem I have writing this kind of thing is so often we teach something suitable for one level of ball and then when the player reaches a higher level, they are prone to making bush league / lower level mistakes.   For example, I know of one girl who was one of those aggressive base runners at 12U.   At the time, she was fairly fast for her age.   But as she grew older, to 13, 14 and 15, her speed became merely average.   Her baserunning instincts remained at this younger age where she stole the shorts off many teams.   She continued to try to employ old tricks that worked in 12U and was frequently thrown out as she moved up.   Eventually, she became a baserunning liability who gave her coaches heartburn.

Similarly, I have observed a number of players who pulled certain stunts in 14U ball get eaten alive by the same tactics in upper age groups.   For example, one catcher who picked a lot of runners off base when younger, found little success trying the same thing in high school ball, except against very weak oppponents.   She had a great arm as a 12U and even still as a 14U.   Her arm was fine at 16U and in high school but because the runners had learned to be more careful, her pick-off attempts became a lower and lower percentage play.

So when I discuss offensive and defensive tactics, I suppose where I am viewing the plays is at high school and higher levels since that seems to be most players' target while engaging in youth travel ball.   Where I aim my comments is at the ages of 14 or 15 and up.   But please understand that, aside from the goal of winning games at the age level you are actually playing, what I am after is preparing kids for the age/skill level they ultimately want to play.

Before I examine each of the plays I have decided to dislike, I want to say a word about baseball vs. softball.   As everyone knows, the bases in baseball are 90 feet apart while in softball they are 60.   baseball is often played on a grassy infield while softball should always be played on skin.   Little League still conducts its 12U championship on grass, possibly because it does make for a niver picture on TV but even LL plays its older games on skin and that is the way fastopitch softball is designed to be played.   In any event, very few would dispute that softball is a faster game than baseball.

It takes the typical runner 3 seconds or less to reach bases 60 feet apart.   Baseball's time frame is more like 4 seconds.   That is quite a large distinction, one third.   And it makes all the difference.   We seldom see archetypical 6-4-3 double plays made in softball.   We do not often see infielders bobble balls or double clutch and still get the runner at first.   These things are ordinary in baseball.

In baseball, a well hit ball which stays in the park is often caught because there is a longer flight time of the ball.   When it isn't, it is often an automatic double even for the slow-footed catcher.   Doubles are harder to come by in softball unless the runner can get to second in under 6 seconds.   This is partly because there is a lot less room in the outfield and partly because throws from outfielder to infielder are much easier to accomplish accurately.   Triples are a raity in softball and while not frequent in baseball, they do occur with more like the same regularity that doubles occur in softball.

There are probably more strike-outs per inning in softball.   There is definitely less offense than in baseball.   Baserunning is more critical in softball.   Small ball plays a bigger role in softball than it does in baseball.

I suppose I could go on and on but I won't.   The point is, baseball and softball are different due to the speed, proximity, and relative offense issues.   And what works in one does not necesarily work in the other.   The reason I mention this is too many assume the games are essentially the same and then try to employ the same sort of strategies in one that worked in the other.   Now to the plays.

In some levels of 12U ball, maybe a well placed bunt with runners on second and third can work well.   The girls are not as experienced, more prone to panic decisions, and their arms are not nearly as good as they are at 14U and above.   But even there, I think it can be a mistake, especially when playing a game against a good team.

The trick is, with runners on second and third, all you really need is a grounder up the middle which gets past the pitcher in order to score a run.   The outcome of a bunt in this situation is either going to be a run scored as the defense gets the out at first, a runner mowed down at the plate while being overly aggressive, or base loaded as the defense freezes to prevent a run from scoring.   In bad 12U ball, there is a higher likelihood of someone making a bad throw and thereby allowing a big inning to get started.   That is why so many teams will attempt a bunt with runners on second and third.   But in better ball, it is common for the defense to get the batter-baserunner at first and then either hold or nail the runner from third.   The play works with a high percentage in 12U, though not against well schooled teams.   It seldom succeeds at any higher level.   So why teach it at all?

If the defense holds the ball, what you are left with is bases loaded.   Offensively, the best situation is runners on 2 and 3, not bases loaded.   Bases loaded sets up a force at home.   Runners on second and third creates a tag play at home.   While in baseball, a tag play at home is fairly easy to accomplish, in softball, since the time frames are shorter, tag plays put far more pressure on the defense.   It is far harder to catch a throw from an infielder, get the ball in the right position for the tag, and actually make the tag for a catcher.   Ideally, a catcher wants to catch the ball, put it in the throwing hand, and then sweep at the runner, making contact with the glove while holding the ball tightly in the throwing hand.   That's as true in baseball as it is in softball but a bit more critical in softball since the ball is bigger when compared to the mitt.   On a bang-bang play, that is difficult to accomplish.

In baseball, there is a frequent call to play-for-the-big-inning rather than being satisfied with a single run.   Baseball is a 9 inning game in which run production is higher than the 7 inning game of softball.   defense is a bigger part of the fastpitch softball game than it is of baseball.   Many more softball games are decided by a single run.   And because, while in baseball a runner scoring from second on an outfield hit is a virtual certainty, except in certain situation.   In softball, the runner scoring from second is a fairly high likelihood but nowhere near as high as it is in baseball, especially when playing against gifted, experienced outfielders.   In softball, it is most often preferential to go for a single run and avoid the baseball adage of playing for a big inning.

Early in a softball game in which your opposition is unknown, you can make value judgments about the ability of the pitcher and decide that you would rather allow your 2, 3, 4, or 5 hitter to cut loose and try to get a big hit.   This should be less so when you are generally impressed by the pitcher and certainly far less when you know your opponent is likely very talented.   I have seen more fastpitch softball games in which a first or second inning run is made to stand up than I can count.   That doesn't happen frequently in baseball unless there are absolute aces on the mound for both teams.   This reality has something to say about the way in which teams play defense early in a game but it probably says more about offensive approaches.   With a runner on first or second and nobody out, you've just got to move her over.   You cannot assume your that bunting will prevent a big inning since big innings are relatively infrequent.

As an aside, I have noticed a tendency in softball which I want to criticize, at least a little.   I'll call this tendency the "dragifice."   Very seldom in softball do we see true sacrifice bunts.   Most often batters will pull the bat into bunting position at the last possible second.   I do understand that the batter is trying to avoid laying down a bunt which allows the defense to nail the lead runner, followed by a second out being made at first because the runner didn't get out of the box quickly enough.   But I believe I see more bad bunt attempts in these "dragifices" than is necessary.   I see lots of such batters fail to get the bunt down and then place themselves in 0-2 holes from which they can't emerge.   A scarifice just had to be get the ball down and then run, not run and try to get the ball down.

Finally, while softball runners cannot start until the ball is released and, therefore, the baseball suicide squeeze doesn't really apply, I think I see too few suicides and too many safety squeezes.   This is partly a factor of the lack of sacrifice bunting skills since, on a suicide, the batter MUST get the bat on the ball.   It is also a factor of a runner on third being so much more valuable in softball than it is in baseball.   But my point is really that a true suicide squeeze, while being a presumably worse bet than a safety squeeze, it is under utilized, especially on a percentage basis.   The safety squeeze is a bad bet unless the situation dictates, the defense is weak or on their heels, you are partly playing for runners on second and third rather than merely third, the bunter is an above average dragger with great speed, and your runner at third has great instincts about when to go or not.

A safety squeeze, while very often successful at 12U and even at 14U, can merely get you two outs and nobody on, if done poorly.   Many first basemen in fastpitch softball have good throwing arms.   That assumes the first baseman takes the throw at first.   Most of the time, the 1B will be in close enough that the 2B is covering.   And she's likely got a strong and accurate arm.

In baseball, that's often not the case.   Usually on a surprise bunt, unless the batter forces the 1B to field it, he is often going to drop back to cover the bag.   And in baseball, the 1B is very often a hidden defensive player with a good bat, not always but often.   In softball where the first baseman is usually just as athletic as the SS and in which the 2B, another gifted athlete, often covers the bag, the safety squeeze often leaves the runner at third flat-footed and at a cold start as the out is made at first.   She's goin g to be dead at the plate, if she goes.   In fastpitch softball, the suicide squeeze is not a great bet but it is more effective than the safety.   Yet it is under-utilized.   That's a shame.

On defense, there are certain bad percentage plays I don't like.   The first one is the go-for-the-lead-runner-at-all-costs approach.  p I watched a great game a few weeks ago in which the thing went to extra-innings and then ITB.   The first batter up tried to bunt the runner from second to third, a good percentage play.   The girl who fielded the bunt tried to get the runner at third.   The runner from third was fast, skilled, and got a good jump - a running five step lead because she knew her batter was a skilled SACRIFICE bunter.   The runner knew her batter was going to get it down unless the pitcher threw an unbuntable pitch.   The play at third was somewhat close although not as close as the fielder might have expected.   Both the covering fielder and the baserunner ended up on the ground, one on top of the other.   But the runner was safe, leaving first and second and still nobody out.

What happened next is not important, except to the players in the game.   But this, in my opinion, misplay opened the door for a big inning, 0one the defense could not recover from.   The notion that we must go after the lead runner at all costs can, in fact, be rather costly.   This game situation dictated perhaps a v ery aggressive defensive play.   There are few situations which call for going for a lead runner more than that.   But it was still a bad percentage play.   Had the team merely toaken the out at first, they would have been under pressure from the runner at third, but the pitcher had a fair number of strike-outs in the game thus far.   One might have expected her to gewt another and leave the situation as runner on third with two outs.   The worst case scenario probably would have been run in, two outs.   That would have left a wholly manageable 1-0 score with the home team coming to bat and a runner on second.   The fact that they went for the runner at third was the lower percentage bet.

Whenever there is an important run on third, whether in baseball or softball, there is a natural tendency to pull the infield in.   I get it, especially in games where one run will end the contest.   The only thing that matters is the girl on third.   But those situations are somewhat rare and there is really no choice involved.   If you are forced to bring in the infield, you do it, no questions asked.   But where I don' like it is in the second inning or at other points in the game where you're up by a run or two, or down by a run or two.   The trouble is, having the infield in drives up a batter's average because it cuts down the angles an infielder can take to the ball.   I guess what I'm saying is the infield should be in only under certain limited circumstances.   I see it far too often in softball.

The best example of the over-used infield-in play happens when bases are loaded or the runner on third is not a fast one.   If there is a force, the chances are very high that your fielder can nail the runner even if she is a little deep at her position.   There are very few situations in which a ball can't be fielded and an accurate throw made within 2.8 seconds.   The runner from third is not going to get the sort of lead a runner at first or second will.   if she does, she leaves herself vulnerable to a pitch out followed by a planned and executed pickoff play (we'll get to that shortly).   That should leave her in a relatively bad position to make it home on an ordinary grounder unless that is hit into the hole in the middle of the field someplace.   An ordinary grounder should be an easy force out at home even with the infield at fairly deep positions.

If there is no force, of course, you may end up having a tag play and you want to give your catcher as much time as possible to make it.   The infielders should shorten up a bit but that is not the same as a full infield-in approach.   Obviously, if you have a very skilled, very fast runner at third, and the situation dictates, well, then you've got to do whatever is necessary but not when the run is relatively unimportant.   If you're already down by a couple, you're going to have to get the bats moving anyway.   Why would you want to put yourself in a bigger hole by opening up an inning for the offense?   Sometimes you have to give up a run to put out a fire.   And if your hitters can't pull you out of the hole, well then you wouldn't have won anyway.   If you are up by a few, one run is only going to show up on the pitcher's era.   It is often better to allow a run mereloy to clean off the bases.   if you're up 3-0 and you pull in your infield to guard against a run in the fifth inning, you get what you deserve.

Finally, we come to my least favorite play.   It is my least favorite play unless it is done as a specific strategy to accomplish an important task.   Before I go any further, I want to give you some homework.   Go watch 100 games and bring along a pad of paper and pencil.   On that pad, I want you to write the number of times a catcher attempts to pick off a runner.   Note how many times the runner was thrown out and then how many times after she was not, she moved up a base anyway.   Note how many times there is a bad throw which allows the runner to move.   In each instance, make a notation to the inning and game situation.   Then, after you have compiled your data, make a value judgment about whether nailing that runner was important or not based on the situation.   I believe when you are done, you will have dozens of examples of catchers making throws.   In more than half of these, you will have judged the importance of nailing the runner as low.   There may be one or two instances in which the runner was nailed, though probably not - there isn't very much of that in softball.   And in many instances in which a catcher is trying to keep the runner close, she probably advances a base anyway.   A relatively high percentage of the time, the runner moves on because of a bad throw.   Other times, she is moved by a nunt or some such.

Catchers try to get runners, particularly on third, far too often in this sport.   The catcher is often left to her own judgment in this regard.   Well coached teams don't do that.   Well coached teams only want to see the catcher throw at a runner when the coach has called for the play.   I have seen so many attempts by catchers to throw out runners when the situation dictated otherwise that I cannot begin to count them.   Sometimes a runner steals a base and the catcher wants revenge.   Sometimes the runner sees the the first baseman or whomever is a little slow to get to the bag and she is merely harrassing the catcher.   Very seldom is a baserunner going to tease the catcher and then later steal a base.   If they're gonna go, they're gonna go.   They'd rather the catcher be sleeping than on edge, when they go.

The play which really bothers me is the one when the team in the field is up by one or two and the catcher's throw ends up in LF, allowing the runner at third to score and the one at first to move to second.   There are limited circumstances in which a runner on third should be thrown at because, let's face it, it is a difficult throw.   The runner can and should put herself in the way.   We teach runners to run right at the covering fielder when returning to third.   I want her to stare right into the fielder's eyes and then get deliberately in the way of the throw.   If she moves to her left, you move that way too.   if she moves to her right, that's where the ball is going to be, get in the way of the throw.   Unless the throw is high, there's no way the fielder can catch it.   if it's high, you're gonna slip under it.   If it is low, it is either going to bounce off you or skip into the outfield.   This is a low percentage play for the defense and one with significant peril.

There are times when a pickoff attempt is worthwhile.   In the game I discussed a bit above, after the top of the inning, the team which opened up a lead went back out to play the field with a couple run lead.   The first batter up bunted and the defense rightly played for the out at first.   That left a runner on third with one out.   The coach saw that the runner on third was not being attentive enough.   Also, the girl behind the dish was a top notch catcher who is undoubtedly headed to a college playing career.   She has a quick release, a strong throw, and an accurate arm.   The coach called a play, the catcher caught a wasted pitch outside, and threw immediately to the fielder who was covering and expeting a throw.   They nailed the runner and that broke the back of the opponent.   That was a p-urpose pickoff with little downside potential.   That was a high percentage play.

Baseball and softball are games played with percentages in mind.   Everything you do on offense and defense has a percentage you can ascribe to it.   The situation dictates how you evaluate these percentages.   The level you play also has something to say about which strategies you emplooy and when but you should always strive to prepare your kids for the next level.   You don't do anything in a vacuum.   You must school your players on what is the right thing to do in certain situations and the coach needs to have control over when their players do what.   You can consider some of the plays I have brought up and perhaps many others that you deem important to your team.   You don't wanrt to evaluate these situations and your response while you are in a game.   Do it now and then teach your kids in practice or prior to games.   Execution is very important but sometimes you are better off having a kid know absolutely and immediately to eat it on a given play.

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Something Freakish

by Dave
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Something freakish happened at the Olympics.   There have been plenty of freakish "things" at this year's Olympics.   Of course there's the Freakish Chinese government with its centrally planned, highly disciplined and choreographed air pollution.   Too bad the authoritarian government didn't will away water pollution as well but that doesn't show up on aerial photographs of the venues.   Speaking of water, you've got to admit that US swimmer Michael Phelps is a bit freakish.   The 8 golds for a single Olympics are freakish in and of themselves.   The 14 overall career Golds are perhaps more freakish.   Then there's the likely event that his Olympic career is not over yet.   He may add to his career total at the next games!   That's pretty freaky.   But the 12,000 calories per day is so far off the freak chart, that it doesn't warrant discussion.   Still, this is a softball blog and the freakish thing I saw happened in a softball game.

If you don't have a DVR or, alternately, if you aren't an insomniac, you may not have seen many or any of the Olympic softball games.   The way the Americans plowed through the preliminaries was freakish but not unexpected.   Some have suggested that this is bad for the game's prospects for inclusion in future games.   Perhaps that's so, since nobody in the rest of the world wants to consider putting anything extra into the Olympics which would serve to increase the medal count for good ole USA.   But it is way too much to expect a team as talented as this year's squad to do anything less than compete for the gold medal while pretty much trampeling all but the absolute best opponents like Japan.   This country dominates softball more than any other sport including men's basketball and swimming.

How about the freakish Jamaican gold medal sprinter Bolt?   At 6 foot 5, he is freakishly tall for a sprinter.   I watched him run the hundred and he looked like a sixth grader running against the entire third grade.   His height was not as freakish as his performance in the hundred meter final.   He broke the world record which is always pretty freaky but he did so by besting his own previous mark by 3 tenths of a second.   If that's not enough, the previous mark was 2 tenths faster than anyone else has ever run.   That puts him a half second ahead of the next fastest human being ever to have walked or run the planet in a less than ten second race.   And anyone watching the event should have noticed that he did not appear to be trying!   There's an explanation for him not putting out his best effort - he said he wasn't there to break the world record, just to win the gold.   But, come on now, it isn't as if this is some sort of new race.   Highly trained athletes have been working at setting fast times in the 100 for decades.   How can someone step up and run 5+% faster than any other athlete has ever gone before?   I believe highly advanced blood tests are called for in this case, not so much to see if he used performance enhancing drugs but more to see if he is, in fact, human!!   In my humble opinion, his performance at these games should call into question his precise species.   He obviously has some Cheetah blood running through his veins.   And, maybe his speed should disqualify him from playing in any future reindeer games.   This was the most freakish performance to date in these games but perhaps when he runs the 200 in less than an hour from this writing, he'll best that with another, more freakish accomplishment.   Still, as I said, that's not what caught my attention.

If you haven't seen any of the softball medal round, you may want to skip the remainder of this paragraph so I don't spoil the outcome for you.   As much as the US dominated preliminary play, the first game of the medal round was quite a bit different.   Japanese ace pitcher Ueno held them in check.   That could be called freakish by itself but what first strikes me about Ueno is she can throw the ball 70+ mph.   The official listing of Ueno says she is 5 feet 8 inches tall.   She is not 6 feet or taller.   I didn't think it was supposed to be possible for anyone that height to throw that hard.   Her speed alone should put her into the books as a freak but her pinpoint accuracy is perhaps even more freakish.   Another freak on the softball diamond is American Crystl Bustos.   As good as Ueno is, she must have not enjoyed the moment Bustos stepped to the plate in extra-innings.   The US had already scored the go-ahead run but Bustos pretty much put the game out of sight when she jacked one out for a 3-run homer.   Japan did score one in their half but that was all the offense they could muster.   Bustos is a great hitter but that fact gets lost on a freakishly good hitting team.   They've hit almost .400 in these games.   That's not, however, as freakish as their pitching.   The rest of the world is hitting under .050 against US pitching.   And it wasn't until the medal round that anyone scored an earned run against them.   That results in a freakish ERA but the thing which caught my attention happened in what turned out to be an inconsequential moment.

In the middle of the first medal round game against Japan, Stacey Nuveman came to the plate with a runner on first and one out.   Nuveman is a top hitter although she has struggled quite a bit in these games.   She was, however, starting to come to life as things began to really matter.   She got hits in each of the last two preliminary games she played.   She had already gotten a hit off Ueno in the third inning, at the time, just the second one the team had been able to muster.   But the freakish thing Nuveman did was ... drumroll ... she laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt!

The bunt didn't matter as Jung struck out looking to record the third out but Nuveman's bunt could have changed the outcome of the game.   I thought big, strong girls weren't supposed to be able to bunt.   I've heard many of you out there tell me time and time again that you don't want your real hitters bunting.   Nuveman is one of the top hitters to have ever played the game.  

Nuveman finished her NCAA career with four career records: home runs (90), RBI (299), slugging percentage (.945), and walks (240).   Her on-base percentage was around .600.   Her international career is almost as good as her college one.   In 2004, she hit over .300 in the Athens Olympics.   In 2005, she hit over .400 at the World Cup.   In 2006, she hit the home run which resulted in the eventual winning run in the World Cup championship game against Japan.   If Stacey feels obligated to learn to bunt, everyone should!

Many folks I know have said that they'd prefer girls just hit.   Many folks I have come into contact with have argued over and over again that they don't want girls waisting time learning to bunt when they can hit .500 or get an extra-base-hit in a quarter of their at-bats.   There seems to be an aversion to ... sneer ... small-ball.   I've discussed this issue while watching pretty high level high school and 18U games.   I've dealt with it in discussions with parents during 10U, 12U, even 14U seasons.   I've seen huge arguments break out because some big strong kid was told to bunt in the second to last inning of a 0-0 game.   I've seen entire teams come apart over precisely this issue.   It truly is a shame.

The fact is, at some time or another, every kid who has ever played the game of softball is going to come face to face with a situation in which bunting is not only the best play but really the only reasonable one.   I don't particularly care if the girl in question is hitting .500 or .050.   I don't care if she or her parents see her as a homerun hitter.   I don't care much if she cannot run to first in under 3 days, let alone 3 seconds.   Every kid who steps foot into a batter's box must learn how to bunt.   It's as fundamental to the game as, well, bunt defense.   It's as fundamental to the game as throwing, fielding a grounder or pop-up, or learning to swing the bat.   I can't say it enough so I'll repeat myself.   Every softballer must learn to bunt.

In order to fully understand this, let's look at a game scenario.   There is one out in the sixth inning of a nothing-nothing game.   The number three hitter has just walked.   The hard-hitting, high average clean-up hitter is stepping up to the plate.   But she looked really bad her last at-bat, striking out swinging on three pitches.   The number five hitter drilled a double to right center, only to be left at second when the next two hitters struck out swinging.   The opposing pitcher is obviously very good - only the number five has looked decent against her.   What are you going to do?   Let your number four swing away and possibly leave the runner at first with two outs?   No, you must bunt and at least give the number five a chance to bring her home.   If the other team walks her, then so be it.   You can't control that.   For now, you must set the stage for scoring a run.

Let's say a kid hits .500 with extra-base-hits making up half her successful at-bats.   There is a 50-50 chance she'll get a hit in any particular circumstance.   And there's a 25% chance she'll hit a double or better.   These odds obviously vary depending upon who she is facing.   But a well-prepared bunter should be able to get one down 75% of the time in a sacrifice situation.   That's a higher percentage bet, particularly with no outs.   You just can't afford to pass it up.

OK, I'm done amusing and proseltyzing you.   Please teach your kids to bunt.   It is a necessary, fundamental softball skill.   If the one time homerun record holder can do this proficiently, there is absolutely no valid excuse for any softballer to not learn how to bunt.

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Permanent Link:  Something Freakish

Small Ball, Sneer

by Dave
Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The coach of our next opponent approached me because I was the only one wearing the "official" team shirt.   He said, "Hey coach, how'd you do in the last round?"   I told him that we hadn't had much of an opponent in the quarterfinals of the tournament.   We had won via the run rule, something like 12-0.   I asked the coach to reciprocate by telling me how they had done in their quarterfinal game.   He said, "We won 8-2.   They weren't very good either.   They tried that small ball stuff on us and scored two runs in the first.   After that, we shut them down."

The coach had said "that small ball stuff" with such a sneer that it startled me.   After he left, I immediately went to the real coaches of our team (I coach a younger age group) and told them what the guy had said.   They laughed and the manager said, "I guess we'll have to bunt them into submission."   We did just that, scoring 2 runs in the first which would have given us the win regardless of anything else.   We scored a couple more in the next inning with our ... sneer ... "small ball tactics" ... sneer.   After that, we let our hitters hit away which was easy since their pitcher didn't want to walk anyone lest we engage in small ball again.

The opposition scored one in the fifth and that was about it.   They couldn't touch our pitcher and they certainly were not proficient at "small ball."   It wasn't much of a contest.   We got all we needed in our first at-bat.

Did you happen to catch any of the first two games between Arizona and Tennessee in the championship series of the women's college world series?   The first game was not particularly interesting as two solo homers won the day for Tennessee and Monica Abbott was lights out.   Arizona was not able to get many runners on base and, on the few occassions they did, they could not move them.   Game two was a bit different.

In game 2, Arizona got a few more hits but they were still unable to move the runners along.   Tennessee threatened several times but didn't score as the game went into extra innings 0-0.   I'm still a little stressed by it all.   Who was I cheering for?   I was cheering for as third game.   It doesn't so much matter to me who wins the championship.  -; I have a deep aprpeciation for Mike Candrea but I think it would be better for the game to have someone else as champion - especially an SEC team.   But in my heart of hearts, what I wanted was another game.

So the game went on very stressfully with nobody pushing one across.   There were threats and good pitching and fielding put a stop to them.   I think it could have gone on like this for hours, perhaps days.   Finally Arizona began bunting.   They pushed across the winning run on a slap to short with runners at the corners after a great slide on which I'm still not convinced the runner from third got a hand on the plate.   "Small ball" won the day.   I expect we'll see the same sort of game played tonight when the champion is crowned.   I expect maybe both teams will try "small ball," sneer.

I asked a kid to join my team last fall and she agreed.   I had invited her because she could bunt and because she was versatile enough to hit away when I didn't ask her to bunt.   We already had two kids who could slap and drag.   I felt that, given other qualities of kids who had joined us, one more kid who could bunt would be a good idea.   Unfortunately, the parents see this girl as a "real hitter" and for most of this season, she has pretty much refused to bunt.   I say refused but it hasn't been particularly obvious or overt.   What happens is whenever she is called on to bunt, she fouls off two pitches and then I let her hit away.   She hasn't laid one down for us all season.   She pulls back and takes a strike sometimes and the remainder of opportunities result in foul balls.

Something about the manner and frequency this happened caused me to become suspicious that perhaps it was occurring intentionally.   I'm just guessing, I can't prove anything, but I think perhaps her father told her to just foul off the bunts until two strikes and then I'd be sure to let her hit away.   I've had a lot of discussions with the guy and I know he doesn't have respect for "small ball."   He has commented to me about how good his kid's swing is.   He occassionally sends her for private lessons to work on it, spending several hundred dollars per season.

The last time he told me about how nice her swing was, I reacted somewhat defensively by telling him that, given the "sweetness" of her swing, maybe he ought to invest in a bat.   He replied, it isn't the bat which determines the good hitter, it's the swing.   I agreed but I had to add that no matter how good of a swing a hitter possesses, she must also possess a bat and that thing your kid has in her hands doesn't qualify.   I suggested that he was going to need another bat for her because when we play the serious tournaments, the umps are likely to ban the thing for giving the opposition too big of an advantage and because it was manufactured before they put ASA and other seals of approvals on bats.   I was even willing to go into my own pocket to come up with the 30 bucks with which he could purchase a dramatically better bat.   But I digress.

I'm pretty convinced that this kid was not bunting the way I had seen her in the past because the father had become convinced that she should be a big hitter and because he had seen a little too much baseball.   People who spend their time around baseball rather than fastpitch softball sometimes make comments which are not relevant to the game.   This guy said some thing like that and I became convinced he was trying to draw parallels between the two games.   That's a fatal mistake.   So I needed a way to get this kid, and some others on the team, to bunt.   If I accomplished nothing else, that would be my success for the year.

My resolution was to announce that from this point forwards, we would be signaling bunts even on two strike counts.   I also announced that every kid on this team was going to have to put one down or I would refuse to let them advance to the next grade - no report cards, no graduation - unless and until they successfully bunted one into fair territory.   I told them that if I needed to, in one preliminary round game, each and every kid who came to bat would be instructed to bunt until they got on or were put out.   I added that anyone who refused to bunt would be benched.   Then I simplified the sign for bunt so that every person in the entire complex would know exactly when a bunt was called for.

The strange thing was that after these announcements, most of the kids, especially the "good hitter," were able to put down bunts at will.   Surprise, surprise!   For unknown reasons, almost nobody bunted foul after that.   I never had to bunt with 2 strikes.   I never had to take any extreme measure.   We went back to the old signs in hopes of catching our opponent by surprise.   Our kids just did it.   They bunted into fair territory because they knew they had no other choice.

Along with my announcements, I offered a bit of a lecture to both the kids and their parents.   I told them that bunting was far more an integral part of fastpitch softball than it was of baseball.   In baseball it is possible for a kid to never learn to bunt and yet be successful.   That's not the case in fastpitch where there are far more one run games and baserunners come at a greater premium.   If you don't learn to bunt, you will not be able to move to the next level.

I suggested to my team long ago that they try to attend high school and college games whenever possible.   Some have made an effort to do so.   Of the biggest HS games in our area, most have been determined by small ball tactics.   And many of the televised college games over the past couple of weeks have similarly been determined.   Since my announcement, a number of parents have been heard commenting that I was right about bunting and they're glad I was so abrupt with them about the subject.

I have always had an appreciation for a well made bunt.   I enjoyed bunting as a kid but my coaches would never let me do it.   I once bunted in a game and beat it out.   When I got to first, the coach greeted me with the threatenting statement, "if you ever do that again, I'm going to strangle you right here while you are on base and the game is still going."   That's because he wanted me to hit the ball hard into or over the outfield.   OK.   I learned to live with that as a young baseball player.   I only ever bunted that once in a game.   I never got proficient at bunting because I was more interested in preserving my life.   Then I grew up, had kids and the first thing I ever noticed in a fastpitch game was the value of a successful bunt, be it sacrifice or drag.

In fastpitch, you always want to try to put the ball in play because the bases are so close.   Yet it is a bit harder to bunt successfully with the different spins and such.   It's certainly not impossible but it is something which must be worked on.   And you have to take your opportunities in games to try it out for real as often as possible, especially at a young age and in meaningless contests.   Your offensive repertoire is most definitely incomplete if you cannot lay one down.   That is true whether you plan on breaking the NCAA homerun record or not.   There's going to come a time when you have to bunt so you might just as well get good at it.

During the broadcasts of the WCWS, both Jessica Mendoza and Michele Smith gave advice to would-be bunters.   Some of it I have heard many times before and some of it was, I think, new to me, at least until I considered it more deeply.   They both noted the difficulty of bunting a riseball or anything that comes in at eye level or above.   They both emphasized getting the bat head higher than the handle in order to avoid popping it up.   I had heard these things many times before and discussed them here.   But one thing Smith said which I found interesting was that the first thing she does when she tries to bunt is switch her feet.   She pulls her back foot forwards and then puts her weight on it.   I thought about this for a while and after contemplation, I realized it wasn't anything new per se.

Last year, or possibly the year before, in a discussion regarding the sacrifice bunt, I suggested that batters should square around before bunting.   Squaring around means pulling your back foot about even with your front and then standing with your shoulders nearly open to the pitcher.   I still believe this position offers some advanatages to the "pivot bunt" in which the batter maintains her basic foot position in the box.   But I've seen many bunters succeed using the pivot technique.   The pivot technique allows you to pull back and swing away in the event that is a better option than bunting.   Sometimes the infielders crash in hard on you while the middle infielders sprint to cover bases.   A well placed slap is a better alternative to a bunt in those circumstances.   So I'm not going to state that I believe one superior to the exclusion of the other.   I think there's room for both.

After considering Smith's advice and trying it out for myself, I came to the conclusion that what she was advocating was pretty much a square around.   If you try squaring around for yourself, I think you'll see that what was your back foot is, rather than actually being even with the front, now your front foot and your weight is on this one as Smith suggested.   You started out trying to be perfectly square to the pitcher but in reality, you have put what was your backfoot forwards and placed most of your weight on it just as she says.   If you don't do this, you really cannot cover the outside part of the plate which is where any good pitcher is probably going to try to throw it if she expects you to bunt.   I never really put much thought into what I was doing when I squared but as soon as I tried Smith's technique, I realized that is exactly what I do.

Jessica Mendoza was more focused on the drag bunt than on a generic sacrifice.   Her advice was to step back with your front foot and get into a good running position before doing anything else.   I'd never heard anyone explain it like that before but this too makes sense to me.   The only thing I would like to add is that you want to actually make contact as far up in the box as possible since that improves your chance of bunting the ball into fair territory.   The draggers I have seen in the past do not so much step back as they do step forwards with the back foot and get in exactly the position Mendoza showed.   But her approach actually makes more sense to me since it provides the opportunity to be moving far faster when you make contact.   Since the idea is to get to first before a throw rather than merely move baserunners, this is critical.   I think a little experimentation in practice makes it evident that Mendoza's approach is better than the way I learned dragging.

Mendoza also noted that both of her hands climb up the bat when she bunts.   She not only pushes her top hand up onto the barrel but also brings her bottom hand up about ten inches in order to get better bat control.   This may be difficult for young players to execute without getting hit in the hands.   But it is definitely a great way to make sure you have bat control.   I have seen a number of young draggers miss the ball outright more than they ever make contact.   And on the few occassions they make contact, they don't have enough control to put the thing down in fair territory.   The less bat you have, the easier it is to control when bunting.   But given a particular size of bat, the closer your hands are to each other, the more control you will have.

In conclusion, "small ball" is as important to softball as the relief pitcher (or a series of relief pitchers) is to baseball.   We do not have a bullpen full of backup catchers and pitchers in softball.   We don't need them.   Baseball does not make the use of "small ball" the way that softballers do.   The games are not all that similar in execution and tactics.   Applying a baseball ethos to the offensive side of softball is probably a formula for disaster.   No hitter under the age of 18 is so good that she doesn't need to bother learning to bunt.   And to the coach who sneered at "small ball," I hope you learned your lesson but I expect you didn't.


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