By Rick Johnston & Mike McCarthy
How many times have we seen baserunners pop straight up when they take their first step on an attempted steal of second base? How many times have we heard coaches say to these players “stay low” coming out of the steal stance? These are two simple signs that will tell us these baserunners are not in a good athletic “steal” position when taking their lead at first base.
A common method when taking a lead off is to have the feet wider than the shoulders (at left), with the right foot either dropped slightly behind the left foot and open, bent at the ankles and knees, the back slightly upright and the arms hanging downward, relaxed in front of the body. Of course the head and eyes are glued to the pitcher and focused on a body part. Wow, that’s a lot. Let’s go back to the very first point...that is, how many times have we heard coaches say to players “stay low”? We hear it all the time. Here is why...
During an informal discussion a few years ago with SST Canada's Larry Jusdanis, Larry stated that it was his opinion that most baseball players, even the fastest and best base stealers, had poor, inefficient running mechanics, especially when breaking for second base. He was and is right. When the feet get too far apart in the steal stance and as players break for second, you will notice many will take a negative directional step with their right foot. In other words, the right foot will pick up off the ground and move back toward the center of the body (toward the left foot), actually moving TOWARDS first base. We argue this is inefficient. Why are we going backwards? Further, as this occurs, the upper body will almost always lift and elevate, due to technique issues and strength issues (lacking) in the posterior chain, leading to players' “coming up” out of their steal stance. Furthermore, as they “come up” out of their stance, linear or lateral momentum is not gained in the direction of second base. They are instead going UP instead of OUT towards second base. If time is everyone’s equal enemy when stealing, don’t you think it may be wise to find a way to make better use of the time than to bring the right foot back and raise the body?
So, how about looking more closely at what world class sprinters do when coming out of the starting blocks and trying to be as much like them as we can? Yes, one can argue they are straight on to the finish line or don’t have to worry about getting picked off or worry about when the pitcher is going to pitch. This is true. So let's grant that fact and compare how they run - or more importantly accelerate through the first few steps - and see if we can't mesh that in with a stealing stance. We think we can.
Upon observation, sprinters do not start with their feet as far apart as a base stealer traditionally would (and by saying this we do not mean width-wise, we mean horizontally - check out the small stagger between left and right feet in a spinter's starting blocks on the right). Why? They need to get an explosive start, coming out of the blocks, staying low and getting locomotive as quickly as possible. The first steps for a sprinter are shorter than ensuing steps after their take off due to battling inertia. This is why their feet are rarely more than a foot apart in the blocks. So, as baseball players do we defy the laws of physics on our starts towards second base? No, we do not. We have to battle the same inertia and almost always with a weaker body (meaning lower body power relative to overall mass) than sprinters. So we also require shorter steps through acceleration. However, we so often start with our feet so wide apart (often 3+ feet after pivoting from a lateral stance to towards second base) when the fastest athletes in the world start with them so close. Why? This is inconsistent and we think the answer is "That is just the way we've always done it." And that is not good enough. We can do better, we believe.
If you are still not buying it with sprinters, then how about the people who might be the next fastest athletes on the planet and who, like base stealers, need to be athletic and reactive to the opposition - cornerbacks in football.
In football, cornerbacks are known as the cockiest, most confident players on the field, and for good reason. They often are in a defensive responsibility by themselves, also referred to as being "on an island", especially when in a man coverage defense. With roughly 70-80 defensive snaps in a professional game (per side), this means a lot of time on an island. So how do they stay above water? Well, in addition to usually being the fastest players on the team, they are also very quick to react to their opponents' moves. Kind of like a base stealer at first reacting
to the pitchers' and catchers' moves. Establishing this, it makes sense to see what cornerbacks look like just before the snap to see what position they put themselves in to maximize speed and reaction time. And to no surprise, they look a lot like they are in the stance that we are advocating here. Feet around shoulder width apart (some slightly more, some even less, but all much narrower than the typical baseball stance) and with an athletic bend in the waist. Here we have some of the game's very best in their "base stealing stance", if you will - future Hall of Famers Darrelle Revis and Champ Bailey and current Hall of Famer Darrell Green.
What then can we take from sprinters and cornerbacks? Well they are faster than most base stealers are, even in the MLB, and part of that is the technique they work tirelessly on, that which includes the type of stance we are supporting. So let's bring it to baseball. Try having baserunners begin their steal stance with their feet closer together, open or drop the right foot slightly and lean toward the right leg enough so that the knee just covers the tongue of their shoe. When the right knee is set in this position, a positive “shin angle” has now been created. From this position, the baserunner merely would lean and go, pushing off the right foot, while the left leg also pushes and crosses over. The “shin angle” will assist in the maximum pushing and creating a stronger amount of ground force power. Likewise, if there is an attempt to be picked off or back doored, they should still be in a superior athletic and powerful position to retreat safely to first.
When this type of foot work is fashioned, there will be the elimination of any type of “coming up” out of the steal stance and the elimination of the right foot taking a negative directional step wasting valuable time. Try it, test it, compare it to what you may already be doing and see if the results are positive. Good Luck. We just might have a better stance for stealing second base thanks to some of the fastest people in the world.