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Going against the book.

There is an expression in politics that has gained favor in recent years: "Think outside the box." Baseball coaches should listen. They are not doing it enough. Our game is so filled with tradition and statistical analyses that we'll rarely find anyone going against the norm.

Anytime a manager does something unusual, the first thing the color commentator will say is "He's going against the book!" Surprise, "the book" isn't infallible. Look at these 16 examples:

1. Don't steal third base with two outs or make the third out at third.

This is something you hear a lot and I think it has some resonance at the major league level. The concept is that since a runner is likely to score from second on a base hit, there isn't a lot of percentage in taking a chance to reach third base.

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At the college and high school levels, don't believe in the validity of the rule. First, because of the drastic number of passed balls/wild pitches in amateur ball. Second, the greater number of infield hits at the lower levels of the game. Third, the lower level pitchers have a lot more trouble holding runners on at second base.

During my tenure at the U. of Rhode Island, we had a lot of positive results in pressing the defense in this situation, particularly when the hitter was down in the count. In my four seasons in the program, we had a catcher throw the ball into leftfield at least a half dozen times.

Between the element of surprise in this steal, the throw to third base (which is not as practiced as the throw to 2B), and having the catcher forced to throw around a right handed hitter, coaches might be surprised with how effective this tactic can be. In addition, just the idea that a team will be aggressive on the base paths may sometimes changes the way that the pitcher will attack hitters.

2. Pitchers must finish in a fielding position.

This is another thing that you hear a lot--about how critical it is for a pitcher to square up in fielding position at the end of his delivery.

I don't disagree with this concept, but if you watch baseball at a high level, you will see how rarely it is truly followed. Watch any game that Bob Gibson ever pitched, and you'll see that landing in a fielding position was about the last thing on his list of priorities.

I think that when young pitchers hear this concept, they tend to adjust their motions to finish in a certain way--often to the detriment of their overall pitching motion.

What I would suggest is that it is more critical for a pitcher to land in a balanced position (whether he is off center or not), where he can react to a ball hit toward him--without necessarily trying to land in a true fielding position.

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3. Pitchers should not throw too much, they need lots of rest.

Why is it that for decades teams thrived with a three-man rotation? In many ways, our old-time pitchers were more durable then today's pitchers. Think about this: Our modern pitchers have much better medical care, since so much more is known about the care of arms and the prevention of injuries. They also lift weights, are stronger, and know so much more about proper pitching mechanics, thanks to video.

So, why with all these big advantages, do we suffer so many more arm injuries than we did years ago?

I believe that a lot of it has to do with not throwing enough. A lot of pitchers get injured because their arms are not in the kind of condition that is necessary to withstand the rigors of pitching in games.

I believe the way to combat this is by putting the pitchers in an aggressive throwing program during the pre-season. When freshmen arrived at URI, I started them on a program in September that eventually led them into doing some throwing almost every day by winter. We had great success with that program. It led to a sharp decrease in arm injuries.

4. Play for the big inning early.

You hear this a lot in lectures on offensive strategy: Many coaches believe it is a mistake to limit yourself early in a contest by sacrificing or giving up outs for runs. They believe that this is something to do late in the game only.

I disagree with this concept. I have seen figures that claim that something in the neighborhood of 70% of baseball games are won by the team that scores first. Now, if you know that having a lead in a game will alter the opponent's strategy and make them more conservative as they play from behind, shouldn't you press this advantage?

I believe that if you have the opportunity to take a lead early in a game, you should seize it. In countless games that I have coached, we have had the other team's starting pitcher on the ropes early in the game, and before we knew it, we had let him settle down and steal the game from us.

When the game is in the early innings, I believe in getting ahead and setting the tone if the opportunity presents itself.

5. You have to have the infield in on the grass to cut runs off at the plate.

This is a very overrated concept. Think of it from this perspective: When you bring the infield in for a play at the plate, how often do you have a close play at the plate?

Most of the time when the pitcher is throwing from the stretch and a ball is hit at an infielder, the plays at the plate won't be close. By bringing the infield up, you reduce their range and give the offense the opportunity to start a big inning.

Unless there's a speedy runner on third base, I believe in bringing the infield one step in on the corners and two steps up in the middle. Advantages: the balls that cannot be converted into outs at the plate can become outs at first instead of hits; "bleeders" are kept in front of fielders to prevent a runner on second from scoring.

6. Always guard the lines late in the game when protecting a small lead.

In my opinion, this is old-time baseball that does not reflect the way the game is currently played. In today's game, rallies start up the middle of the field--the most vulnerable spot for the defense.

Guarding the lines late in the game open holes between the middle infielders and the corners and often allow teams to start rallies at the most inopportune moment. I have seen many balls hit to the third baseman's left still go for doubles, which is what this defense seeks to protect against.

The next time the game is on the line and you are protecting a lead, ask yourself: What is more likely to occur, a base hit over the bag that the third baseman cannot reach and leads to a double, or a ground ball that will get through because you have changed the defensive philosophy that got you the lead in the first place?

While this may have been a great strategy for John McGraw, it is now out-dated and is employed more out of tradition than rational thought.

7. Pitchers should not field pop-ups.

I once saw a terrific team from Broad Run HS in Virginia almost lose a state championship game because of this. Some coaches instruct their pitchers not to leave the dirt area on pop-ups, except to cover or back up a base.

I'm not quite sure of the logic in this. Anytime the pitcher has the best chance to field a pop up, he should do so. One blatant example is the pop-up in front of home plate. The corner infielders will usually be playing too deep to get to the ball, and the only options will be the pitcher and catcher.

It's hard for me to understand why a catcher (with all his gear on) is expected to back up the ball, rather than have the pitcher come in for it. I instruct my pitchers to pursue all pop-ups that they can get to until called off by another fielder.

8. Never bunt with two strikes (if you foul it, you'll be out).

True, but have you ever really thought about it as an option? Bunting with two strikes makes some sense.

First, is the element of surprise: Defenses usually pull their infielders back with two strikes and leave the infield open for a bunt. Second, it keeps you out of the double play with a runner on first base.

Third, if you are trying to advance the runner, are your chances greater with one bunt attempt or with one swing and hitting the ball right where you want to?

And, lastly, the pitcher is usually the worst fielder in the infield--the offense wants the pitcher to have to field the unexpected bunt.

I think the bunt can be a very effective weapon in this situation, especially if you have the right person at the plate. As the legendary Frostburg State University coach, Bob Wells, once told me, "If you can execute, two strikes can be the best time to bunt."

9. Don't throw two consecutive off-speed pitches to the same location.

This is another thing you hear at the major league level a lot. You can fool a hitter once with an off-speed pitch, but if you come back to it, you'll get hurt.

At the college level, the exact opposite is true. If you throw a curve ball for a strike to a hitter, especially early in the count, the last thing he will expect is to see it again on the next pitch. The assumption is that in the pitcher's zest to mix it up, he won't double up on an off-speed pitch.

I think the better time for this is in a sequence to get the first two strikes, rather than the second two strikes. This is a contrary strategy that will leave a lot of hitter's shaking their heads.

10. Physical conditioning is more critical for pitchers than for other players.

This is something that has become clear to me over the course of my career: One of the challenging parts of coaching is to get your players to pay very close attention to what is going on for the entire game.

I think part of the reason why players' minds tend to wander, both in the game and on the bench, is a lack of conditioning. The better conditioned our players have been over the past few years, the better we have been able to get them to focus intently on the game.

Aggressive running and training programs should be the goal for all players on your roster, not just pitchers. Conditioning and concentration affect every aspect of team performance.

11. Speed cannot be improved.

This is something you hear all the time: that a player who is slow-footed is going to remain that way forever. There is an element of truth to this, but it is still suspect. You are never going to turn an 8.0 second 60-yard runner into a 6.7 sprinter. At URI, we had a lot of success improving the running times of our players. By putting them on a weight program, you can make them stronger, teach them to run with better form, and work on this regularly. We surprised a lot of skeptics.

Speed and running times can be improved, and in a game that is often a matter of inches and split-seconds, it can make a difference.

12. You'll get the same pitch on 3-2 as you got on 3-1.

This is typical major-league level thinking. A pitcher is behind in the count and challenges a hitter with a 3-1 pitch for a strike. Then, faced with another sequence where he must throw a strike, comes back with the same pitch.

This kind of pattern is very dangerous. It can make the pitcher predictable. Every good offense will pick up on it. Anytime the hitter can predict the next pitch, he puts the pitcher in a danger zone. The pitcher shouldn't be afraid to change his pitch on 3-2 and keep the hitter guessing.

13. Always go for the lead runner on the double steal with runners on first and second.

Virtually every catcher tries to throw out the lead runner in this scenario. There are a lot of factors, especially with one out, that lead me to think the opposite is best.

First, the back runner always gets a bad jump because he has to check the lead runner to make sure he is going.

Second, the back runner rarely runs his hardest because he does not think a play is going to be made on him.

Third, you avoid having to throw around the hitter to 3B, incurring the danger of a wild throw.

14. Don't pitch up in the zone.

You hear this a lot: If you keep the ball down at the knees, you'll usually keep the ball in the park. True statement, but if you can hit the top of the strike zone for strikes, your fastball can become a very dangerous weapon. You'll be able to blow the hitters away with a four-seam fastball.

By establishing the high strike, you can also change the hitter's eye levels--get him to chase pitches out of the zone.

At one time, pitchers would become discouraged from throwing the high strike because the umpires wouldn't give them any strikes above the belt. But this seems to be changing. The high strike has become a very good weapon against hitters, particularly those who don't have a lot of power.

While pitches up in the zone can sometimes hurt the hitter, their constant use throughout the game can change the hitter's approach to them.

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15. Use the squeeze play sparingly. When it fails, it can take you out of the inning.

The squeeze play, when executed correctly, is virtually impossible to defend. It is also one of the easiest plays to execute. It will give a better yield than a lot of other plays: the delayed steal, the hit and run, and the slash, for example. But, when it doesn't work, it can make the coach (and hitter) look bad.

Joe Torre, a manager who used to bunt a lot in his early years, was afraid to use it in the fourth game of the 2003 World Series with the game on the line. He lost that game and then the series.

When did we become so sensitive to criticism? Prepare your players to execute this play and have them do it with the game on the line, just like you would with any other play in the game.

16. Don't swing at 3-0 pitches--you might make an out.

Again, a concept that is correct, but it shouldn't be an automatic thing.

Pitchers will throw it right down the middle against hitters who have no power. If you have hitters with good discipline at the plate, who you can depend on to identify these pitches and lay off the bad ones, give them the option, especially with runners on base.

Never give away the fact that you might be swinging on 3-0. It will change their pitcher's approach when behind in the count. There will be times that you make outs on 3-0, but there will be other times that you will get a big lift from a hit against a 3-0 pitch down the middle, instead of taking your chances on 3-1 or looking for a walk.

By Jim Mason, Pitching Coach

George Washington U.

(formerly at U. of Rhode Island)
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Title Annotation:BASEBALL; coaching
Author:Mason, Jim
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:2657
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