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How to Teach Young Baseball Players to Run the Bases

We asked Don Simon, a long-time coach and former MLB umpire, for his tips to successfully navigating the basepaths.

At some point in their baseball career, your kid is probably going to run to third base the short way. We’ve all seen it in T-ball ⏤ kid whacks the ball and takes off running in the wrong direction. But even when they master the general counter-clockwise rotation of first, second, and third, baserunning can still be tricky for new players. Why can you run straight through first base but not third? How far off the bag should they go on a fly ball? What should a runner on second do when a ball’s grounded to the shortstop? When it comes to baserunning, there are enough nuances and scenarios in baseball to confuse even the most natural Little Leaguer.

Which is why Fatherly called up Don Simon ⏤ a long-time coach and umpire at every level of the game, from tee ball to MLB’s minor leagues ⏤ for his tips to teaching young players the basics of running the bases.

First Things, Well, First

The first baserunning tip young players need to learn is the difference between running through first, and rounding the bag to look for extra bases. If a ball is hit in the infield, players want to put their heads down and run straight down the line through the bag without slowing down, as if they were competing in a sprint. They shouldn’t slide ⏤ it’s too dangerous ⏤ and when walking back to the bag, they should stay outside the foul line, otherwise, they can be tagged out. Also, they should pay attention to whether the throw to first was errant. If the ball’s in the dugout, they need to be on second base.

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Hit the Corners

If a ball’s hit into the outfield, however, players need to learn how to round the bag. Rather than shooting straight through the base, players should start to arc their run ⏤ curving to the right of the basepath ⏤ about 10 feet before the bag. The goal is to be on a straight line trajectory with second base after touching the bag. The most efficient way around the bases, says Simon, is to hit the inside corner of the bag with their right foot while in stride, using it to push off strong around the corner. “In Little League, I see them all hit the middle of the base,” Simon says. “You see them running a big round circle around the bases, and then they get thrown out by a foot and a half.” Some coaches argue that runners should touch the bag with their left foot, not their right, but it’s trickier to learn ⏤ and both camps have their adherents. Either way, the technique used to round first base is the same for second and third, and you are going to want to demonstrate this to the kids several times so they can follow your path.

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Keep Their Head Up

Simon says that a lot of players will pound away for second with their heads down, but there are a few key moments when game awareness is key. “As soon as they hit the corner of the base they should pick up their head,” says Simon, and look to the third base coach who is watching the ball. That’s the coach who will either wave them on or raise their hands to hold them at second. Similarly, as they round first base, runners should have their head up and be listening for the first base coach, who may be yelling “keep going,” “go halfway,” or “hold up” depending on where the ball is on the field. If it’s a single, the baserunner will want to stop after a few steps and return to the bag, being sure to know where the ball is at all times.

Trust Your Base Coaches

Unlike a lot of things in baseball, baserunning isn’t a solo effort. It’s important to emphasize to young players that they trust their base coaches. Not only does the coach have a better view of the field than a player storming around the basepaths at full speed, but they have eyes on the ball at all times and are a much better judge as to whether an outfielder can realistically make the throw in time. This applies to all aspects of baserunning, says Simon, including stealing, going for home, and tagging up if it looks like a fly is going to get caught. “Listen to the third base coach to tell you where the ball’s at and where to go,” Simon says. “You gotta trust them. A lot of people don’t trust their third base coaches and they get thrown out.”

Pause, Read, and React

Once a runner is on base, Simon says he lives by a simple three-word mantra: pause, read and react. Which means that runners need to be aware of the number of outs and know exactly what they’re going to do in any scenario. If there are two outs, the player should almost always take off when that bat cracks. But otherwise, it’s important to pause and read the situation. If it’s a shallow fly ball that is likely to be caught, they should take several steps off the bag (some coaches say go half way) and wait to see if it actually is. If it’s a deep fly ball and they plan to tag up, they should keep one foot on the bag and get ready to sprint as soon as the ball hits leather. Or, if a player is standing on second with no outs and a grounder is hit to the left side of the field, the runner shouldn’t go anywhere (short of a quick fake to distract the shortstop or third baseman).

Regardless of the scenario, however, players need to remember the golden rule when on base, Simon says: “You need to watch the ball to see where it’s going. More and more MLB players are messing that up, they’re thinking they have to move on contact no matter what.”