Teaching Small Ball vs the Home Run in Baseball

It is one thing to say “we will play small-ball” and another thing to do it. Small-ball is an approach that involves various factors to succeed. Contrary to what some might think, small ball is not opposed to the home run, and there is a right time and place for the home run in the small ball approach, but the home run hitting mentality is one recognized to be very rarely needed.

Small-ball is not simply about getting guys on base. It is not simply about hitting well in clutch situations or with runners in scoring position. It is not just bunting, or base stealing, or trick plays. It’s not only good batting strategy, or executing fundamental baseball like hitting the other way, executing hit and runs, or getting guys on 3rd in with less than two outs via the sacrifice fly. Rather, it is a combination of all of these things.

Most can simply be learned. It is all about tactics. Baseball is a wonderful sport because it is not just physical, it is as mental as any chess match. It seems you can never stop learning about the fundamentals of the game. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s another play or tidbit of information to log in the back of your mind for use later on.

Take batting strategy for example: Some coaches like Dusty Baker devalue walks, saying you should simply swing for the fences, and that you are not going to walk across the plate, but hit across it. Other coaches believe in always taking the 1st pitch, regardless of the situation, and being patient to a fault.

And both strategies have their faults. Small ball is neither about being overly aggressive, or about being overly patient. Rather, the key word is “selective”. Swing for the fences all the time and pitchers will start feeding you junk. You’ll never get any good pitches to hit because pitchers know you’ll swing at bad ones, so why give you good ones? This is obviously a bad approach.

Taking pitches all the time may seem like a good approach, but pitchers will also take advantage of this, and get the first strike on your hitters consistently. Now your hitters are behind in the count a lot and at a disadvantage. What is more, although you may get a lot of guys on base from this patient approach, it will be tough for you to knock runners in, since your hitters will be taking good pitches to hit, and missing good opportunities early in the count.

The key as a hitter for maximizing your ability to hit for power, hit for average, and reach base is to be selective. This means looking for pitches at the beginning of the count that you can be sure are strikes, and are in your power zone. It’s about looking for a pitch or pitches you know you can hit well and for power. Usually you only want to look for one or two specific pitches, and then expand on that once you get a strike on you, both in what pitches you will swing at and where in the zone you will swing.

The idea is to look only for sure strikes early in the count and gradually expand the zone, first from looking only for specific pitches, to looking only for sure strikes, and then to swinging at anything borderline. Your swing should also decrease in power as you get more strikes as well. For the first strike you can swing with all your power, for the 2nd you can still swing with power but it is more vital now to make contact since statistics show you have far worse chances at reaching base with two strikes, and with two strikes you have completely forgotten about power and are just looking to make contact and stay alive.

Another element of batting strategy is hitting to the right side of the infield with runners on base. It will be very difficult for a fielder to turn a double play on a ball hit in the gap on the right side of the field. Hitters must learn how to hit the other way as well as turning on pitches, which is too often the natural tendency, for them to be able to execute this consistently. If you can hit to the right side, it might result in an out in the score book but can be the same thing as a bunt since it moves the runners up a base and possibly into scoring position.

Also key to small ball is the use of bunting. This is something that hitters need to practice so they can execute it in game situations. You’ll hear the cliche “catch the ball with the bat” about bunting, which is the idea for beginner bunters. You also want to bend your knees to adjust to the height of the pitch, rather than leaning down for it. Bunting is key to moving runners into scoring position, as well eliminating the double play.

And then there are hit and runs. This is another useful tool for staying out of the double play. It is best used with hitters who make good contact and can hit the ball on the ground. It gives you a chance at getting a hit and the chances of a double play become very slim since the runners get a head start. It can also open up holes in the defense for the hit to go through since the shortstop or 2nd baseman is often forced to run to 2nd base to cover the bag for the base runner coming in, opening up a gap where they were just located.

If you have a hitter like Jacque Jones who consistently hits balls on the ground to the right side of the infield, it makes perfect sense to start the runner(s) so if he does hit one of his tailor made double play balls, you can only get the out at 1st base. And if he does get a hit, your runner(s) have that much better a chance of scoring.

As for stealing bases, this too is something that can be to some degree taught, although much of it depends on whether you have runners who are both fast and explosive. One of my early coaches taught me to steal bases by looking at the feet of pitchers. Right-handed pitchers often have to step off the rubber to make a throw to 1st base. You can also control your jumps off of 2nd base by being aware of the fielders, since they can’t pick you off if there’s no one on the base.

While I could say more about suicide squeezes and sacrifice flies, I’m sure it’s stuff most of you know or could easily learn. Small-ball is evidently more about tactics than anything else. Simply by learning the game and educating your team well you can have a good, small-ball executing team, no matter how much your hitters like to swing for the fences.

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