Too often — especially at the Major League level — I see a runner round second base and keeping an eye on the outfielder, looking over his shoulder. Inevitably, the runner is thrown out at third by a step. No doubt you’ve seen this yourself, as a coach, or been guilty of it as a player. Taking an extra base is aggressive baserunning, and can help win a ballgame. At the same time, you want to be smart and aggressive, because it is too easy to run yourself out of an inning.
Going from first to third, however, can be difficult for runners, particularly when the ball is hit to rightfield and behind them. When is it best to stay at second, or try for third?
First, the two “rules” of running to third:
1. Never, ever be the first or third out at third.
You can usually score from second base on a hit, so it doesn’t make sense to be the first out at second when you can be moved to third with a sacrifice bunt — and still have a second out to use as a scoring opportunity (i.e., sac fly, groundout, etc.). Similarly, you don’t want to be the third out at third because then the inning is over — and even if you make it to third, it’s still going to take a base hit to score you. This is especially the case on many youth and high school fields that have a backstop just a few feet behind home plate — where wild pitches don’t score runners from third.
2. Do not go to third when the play is in front of you.
There are a handful of exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, if the ball is being fielded in front of you — by the third baseman, shortstop, or leftfielder — then stay on second (unless being forced, of course). The obvious reason is the short throw it will take to get you out.
So, with the above understood, here is the situation: you are on first base, there is one out, the ball is hit to the outfield, and either the centerfielder or rightfielder is going after it. Before the ball was hit, you should already have taken note of where the outfielders were positioned — deep, shallow, cheating one way or the other — and therefore you should get a good “read” on whether the ball will drop safely or not. If you are unsure, then you run about three-quarter speed toward second, and look ONCE over your shoulder, BEFORE you reach second base. Based on what you see, make your decision then and there about whether you’re going to try for third — you should have made your decision by the time you are 2-3 steps from the second base bag. Regardless of whether you’ve made a decision or not, find the third base coach at this time as well — and do what he says. If it’s stop, then stop. If it’s come to third, then put your head down, get a good sharp turn around second (remember to touch the bag on the inside corner, pushing off it like a starting block), and run hard to third, eyes on the coach — he’ll tell you to get down and slide or stay up.
That may sound contradictory; why trouble yourself to make a decision if you’re going to do what the coach says regardless? A few reasons:
1. The coach may see something you didn’t. For example, maybe the fielder bobbled the ball, or let it skip by him, after your one look behind your shoulder. You may have decided to stop, but this new development gives you the opportunity to take an extra base.
2. The coach may not make the decision as quickly as you. Many coaches — particularly at lower levels — may not tell you what to do until after you’ve rounded second. By that time, it could be too late to take the extra base if you’re not going full speed. Or, maybe the coach was too busy waving the runner ahead of you home, and you are left to “coach” yourself until he can turn his attention to you.
3. Your reaction to the play will influence the coach’s decision. If you see an opportunity to take the extra base, and are running full speed to second, the coach will take this into consideration and wave you toward third.
If you’re ever unsure about what to do on the bases, the best plan is to run hard, expect to take the extra base, and look forward toward the coach. Don’t ever look back more than once, because by looking back as you run, you are not running at your top speed. Use the third-base coach to your advantage — that’s why he’s standing there, to be the eyes behind your head. He will tell you whether to continue toward him to third or to stay at second.