An oft-quoted baseball axiom is that in 65% of baseball games, the winning team scores more runs in one inning than the losing team does in the entire game.
Thus, the issue for coaches becomes how do you prevent those big innings that lose games? I believe the answer is through preparing your team to anticipate these situations that arise in the big innings as they begin to develop and to have your team prepared to do the little things that make the opponent truly earn big innings.
My philosophy about big innings is that while no coach likes to see big numbers against you on the scoreboard, they are easier to take when the offense earns them through a series of hits. As coaches, you cannot control whether your pitcher hits his spots or how the opposing team hits what is thrown.
What you must control is every other aspect of how big innings occur: from controlling the offense’s running game and how aggressive you allow them to be on the base paths, to how your defense is prepared to react to every situation and their mental approach to these situations as they develop.
Defensively, while you are limited in your control of excellent hitting execution that is not how most big innings usually occur.
Ask yourself, how many six-run innings happened against you last season because of a pair of three-run home runs being hit against you? And how many happened because of failure on the part of your team to execute things like turning grounders into double plays, runners advancing against you needlessly, balls being thrown past your catcher, and relief pitchers not doing their job? My experiences have been that the latter examples outnumber the former 10-to-one.
Since they usually happen because of the small things in baseball, you have to prepare your team to execute the little things that will cut off all big innings that are built strictly on things other than the opponents hitting the baseball. Here are some ways to do it:
STOPPING IT FROM THE MOUND
Emphasizing pitching from the stretch
90% of the key pitches your team will make in the course of a season will be from the stretch, so I think the best pitching coaches spend the majority of their preparation time emphasizing this. I think throwing from the stretch should be a part of your pitcher’s daily routine. When the big innings begin to take shape, this is how your pitchers will most likely be delivering the ball. He should be comfortable throwing from the stretch, prepared to make the pitches to end the inning.
Control the running game
If you can limit a baserunner’s lead and how good a jump he gets when they run, you’ll be taking away one of the offense’s key weapons in creating a big inning. The best way to keep baserunners honest is to throw back to the base, vary the length of your set times, and create doubt in the mind of the runner whether you are going to throw home. Many baseball purists dislike the way Bobby Valentine had the Mets’ first basemen hold runners on, but few can argue that when it is done correctly it does create some doubt in the mind of the baserunners.
Use the timed pick-off play to all bases
It is important for players not to think that their inability to pick off runners means throwing to the bases is pointless. If you can cut a baserunner’s lead by a step, you have done something significant and something that will help prevent a big inning. Timed pick-off plays, where a runner is not being held on a base and the pitcher delivers the ball to the bag as the fielder breaks behind the runner to the base, are great ways to both cut down leads and get runners out. These are plays that require some practice, but teams that execute them well are frequently paid big dividends. A successful timed pick-off play is a great rally killer and a psychological boost for a team when it needs it.
Don’t give into hitters when you get behind in the count
When pitchers face situations with runners on base and they start to get behind in the count, the impulse is to give in and throw one toward the middle of the plate so they can get a strike. This is the wrong instinct. Teach your pitchers that this should be only a last resort and to believe in their ability to throw strikes and pitch their game.
The type of pitchers that coaches want on the mound are ones who know how to cope with challenges, can control their emotions and can collect themselves in times of pressure. Pitchers who consistently work themselves out of jams are ones that do so because they focus exclusively on making good pitches one pitch at a time. Pitchers who consistently give up big innings are ones that get preoccupied with what is happening around them. Those pitchers think things like: “what happens if this guy gets a hit?”; “if I walk one more hitter, will coach take me out?”; or “why is someone warming up already?” Teach your pitchers that baserunners are a part of the game and to elevate their focus, not panic or become selfish as the inning becomes challenging.
Coaches also want pitchers who are unaffected by misplays behind them. How many times have you seen an error on a routine play followed by a four-pitch walk? This is another area where pitchers need to elevate their focus and collect themselves to prevent the big inning. Promote a forward looking focus.
Use your open bases wisely
Of course, there are not strict rules for the use of open bases that fit every situation. One accepted rule is to only intentionally walk a skilled hitter, never just to set up a potential double play. I think to prevent the big inning, it is preferable to try and eliminate as many intentional walks you grant with less than two outs as possible. Putting runners on with either none or one out is playing with fire and can be a catalyst to a big inning. Do it only against the most dangerous hitters. Think about how many of those who are intentionally walked eventually score – it has to be nearly 40%. On the other side of the coin, it is wise that with two outs and runners on (but first base unoccupied) to pitch to the batter with the open base in mind, especially if the on-deck hitter is weaker than the one at bat.
Use your inside move to see if the offense will show their hand
This is an easy play that carries no risk for the defense, but can be an important tool. When the opposition is in a possible bunt situation and there is a runner on second, do an inside move to see if the batter will show you what the offensive strategy is. Then, you can adjust your defense accordingly or force the opposition to change their call. That extra step that the defense has when they expect a ball to be bunted can be the difference.
Be unpredictable with your pitch selection
Too many pitchers freeze up when the bases are occupied. They stop thinking like pitchers – always using their fastball to get ahead or when they are behind. Trust your stuff and think aggressively (not predictably) to stay out of the big inning.
Don’t allow the baserunners to distract you from the hitter
There is no better way for an offensive team to create a big inning than to have a baserunner get inside a pitcher’s head and take his concentration away from his first priority – getting the hitter out. When you throw to the plate, be focused and collected on making the right pitch.
Get ahead in the count
This is basic baseball. Studies show that there is about a .100 point difference in the batting averages on balls hit into play from advantage counts (0-1, 1-2, 0-2), than from when you are behind (1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-2). Pitchers getting behind in the count are ways offenses build big innings. Don’t give hitters the chance to zone in on you.
Bring in relief pitchers who are truly ready
Warming up in the bullpen to relieve during an inning is one of the hardest skills for young pitchers to learn. This is a very underrated quality and one that in the college game your staff usually has almost no experience doing: very few high school pitchers have extensive experience pitching in relief. Yet, it is a vital part of forming a successful staff. Pitchers must be taught how to make good physical and mental preparation in the bullpen. The pitcher must learn to get loose quickly and know the difference between warm and truly ready to come into the game and get outs. Lastly, they must learn to use their warm-up pitches on the game mound, to make any last minute adjustments and acquaint them with the game mound (invariably different from the bullpen mound). Most big innings see at least one pitching change and the lack of preparedness by relievers is frequently a compounding factor.
STOPPING IT IN THE FIELD
Keep your concentration
Fielders’ minds tend to wander as the innings get longer. With each long count and each pitching change, there is an opportunity for the fielders to lose their concentration on the game. How many times have you seen your three outfielders gather together in centerfield during a pitching change? Do you think they’re talking about how to play a ball hit between them and the foul line or about something totally removed from the defensive situation? Do what you can to keep them in the flow of the game.
Have your catchers throw to bases after the pitch
While this can be a dangerous strategy, if you have the right personnel, it can be a great weapon to get outs and limit secondary leads. Again, this is another skill that requires some practice, but can pay big dividends.
Keep the double play in order
There are many situations where the defense’s focus should be on the back runner rather than the lead runner. When the lead runner won’t make the difference in the game, it is the back runner that is the signal of a big inning to come. For example, if you are ahead by four runs in the eighth and the opponents have runners at first and third with no outs, you should focus your energies on keeping the back runner close so you are a ground ball away from having the bases cleared. Don’t be afraid to treat a back runner on first the same way you would if he were a lead runner. If you have a good catcher, don’t be afraid to have him defend second base – be aggressive in shutting down the first and third steal, especially with less than two outs. The offensive team (especially if it is behind in the game) is going to want to limit its risk of making an out at home in this situation.
Have the catcher keep the ball from going to the screen
Big innings are almost invariably long innings and fatigue usually is a factor. Pitchers’ arms and catchers’ legs get tired as the innings drag on and this is frequently one of the causes of a big inning. Do everything you can to keep your catchers fresh and focused during the long inning and ready to prevent any ball from getting past them. Wild pitches or passed balls are almost always a contributing factor to big innings.
Convert the outs when they are given to you
Another frequent factor in big innings is a failure by the defense to convert outs when they are presented to them. How many times in your career has your team’s failure to get an out on a sacrifice bunt opened the floodgates? Defenses sometimes get greedy in these situations: the opposition bunts with runners on first and second and they try to get the lead runner going to third and end up with nothing. Another good example is when a borderline double play ball is hit: the defense gets greedy and tries to turn two and ends up with none. Get your defense into the mind-set that if the defense gives you an out, take no chances on converting one out at a minimum (unless the game is on the line). Make them learn when to take chances and when to play it conservatively.
Don’t let the runners move up on plays to the plate
This is another play that goes unpracticed by many teams and can be the root of a lot of big innings: after a hitter singles with a runner on second base, the defense tries to throw the runner out at the plate and in doing so the hitter moves up to second. Now, all the potential outs that may have been recorded as the offense tried to move that runner into scoring position (sacrifice, stolen base, hit and run, etc.) are gone. Teams need to adopt a defensive concept where they do everything they can to prevent that runner from moving up. There are three main ways to do this: don’t let the catcher and the rest of the defense wait for the umpire’s call at home, have him ready to react to the advancing runner immediately after the tag is applied; practice and master the art of the fake cut off by the deep cut off man; and, make sure the fielders are properly covering the occupied bases so that the baserunners aren’t able to make too big a turn.
Use aggressive bunt defenses to keep the offense out of their game plans
There are certain circumstances where letting the offensive team sacrifice is acceptable to the defense, while there are other times when you ought to be aggressive and do what you can to take away that option. In obvious bunt situations with critical runners on base, don’t be afraid to have your corner infielders take a very aggressive position. This puts the pressure on the offense to either make a perfect bunt or take their chances swinging the bat. If you can take them away from their game plan, it is the kind of mental victory that helps prevent big innings.
Have your outfielders make accurate throws
The ability of your outfielders to consistently hit the cut-off man and to make accurate throws to the bases are important factors in staying away from the big inning. Anytime that a ball thrown to the plate is more than a couple of steps off line is an opportunity for the baserunners to move up, a big contributing factor to big innings. The same is true for balls that miss the intended cut-off man: those few seconds when the ball is being retrieved is where the offense can pick up an extra base. The more that these plays are practiced on a regular basis, the less likely they are to occur in the game.
Use trailer plays (when possible) to cut down the big turns
When a defense allows a baserunner to take a big turn, you are opening the door that allows the offense to start thinking about taking an extra base. For example, on a “double-possible-triple” with no one on, have the first baseman trail the runner to second. Knowing there is someone on second base will limit his move toward third. It also will decrease his opportunity to take advantage of a dropped, missed or bobbled relay throw.
Practice knocking balls down in the infield when there are runners on base
What is the difference between a ground ball that gets through to the outfield and a ground ball that is knocked down by an infielder? It usually means one more base to the lead runner at a minimum, and these are the bases that are critical in big innings. There is a huge difference between balls that get through and those that do not. This is a skill that a team ought to practice, as it can be a big factor in stopping big innings from developing. If your team gets particularly good at this skill, it may even lead to turning these knocked down ground balls into outs.
Back up the bases properly
This again is a skill that at times can be taken for granted and not practiced. How many times have you seen a pitcher, feeling sorry for himself after a hit, be lazy in going to back up? How many times have you seen players who are backing up not get the proper depth and see the ball get past them, too? It happens too often and a factor in this is that it is a skill that is not practiced enough – work on your pitchers knocking the overthrown balls down and getting proper distance when backing up.
Use your trips to the mound
There is a mystifying preoccupation in many levels of baseball today to preserve your trips to the mound. Think about the 65% statistic: your preoccupation should be with preventing the big inning, not saving trips. Then, when you do make trips, use them to relay calm and break the tension. A big part of pitching out of jams is mental and you need to get your pitcher into the proper frame of mind in these critical situations. When you’re out at the mound on a trip, convey calm and use the trip to impede the offense’s momentum. If you are out of trips, have your catcher go out. Sometimes pitchers react better to encouragement from their peers.
Jim Mason is the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at George Washington University in Washington DC.Mason came to GW after five years (2000-2004) as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of Rhode Island. In 2002 he was a featured speaker at the National High School Baseball Coaches Association’s annual clinic, speaking to nearly 600 coaches on the training program used by the Rhode Island pitching staff.
Mason held the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator positions at Division III St. Mary’s College (MD) from 1995-1999 and helped turn around a program that had just one winning season in its 28 years of existence prior to his arrival. St. Mary’s finished with a 26-7 record in Mason’s final year as a coach.
Mason graduated with a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Washington DC, where he started his college coaching career with Gallaudet University.