Baseball’s Unwritten Rules: Base Running Do’s and Don’ts

Every year you will read or hear that a Major-League manager declares his most important, absolute first rule is that every one of his players must run hard to first base, every time. Then, inevitably, during the season players will be disciplined, or called-out, for not obeying the most important, absolute first rule. Frankly, it’s awful that such a basic tenet of the game even must be mentioned at the highest level of baseball; because it is the easiest thing a player should do during a game, and not doing so can be the difference between his team winning or losing.

For a very good reason, the name of the Game is Baseball. The object of every player when they step into the batter’s box is to reach all four bases safely, as the result will be scoring at home plate, or helping their teammates advance safely, so they can score. The following logic is that every player must run as fast as they can to every base, every game, to minimize the defense’s ability to stop them from scoring. When they do score it is not called a touchdown, a basket, a goal, or a point; it is called a Run! The symmetry is obvious; every base runner must run as fast as they can to every base to increase their team’s opportunities to score Runs. That’s as simple as it gets!

A common belief is that a player cannot steal 1st base. Not true. Just as other bases can be stolen because of a bad throw, a missed throw, or a lack of urgency by a fielder, the same can be said about 1st base. In order to steal a base, every player knows that they must run as fast as possible or be thrown out. The fact that every defender accepts this reality creates the pressure that causes those misplays. The run to 1st base is no exception.

Over the past four decades’ base running has eroded to the extent that when a player does run hard to every base, every game, it has become the exception not the norm. The previous norm was that all players always ran hard to every base and any player that didn’t was found sitting, warming the bench, or playing for another team. Because running hard was a given, not running hard was completely unacceptable, especially to 1st base, because a batter cannot reach any other base safely, until first making it safely to 1st base. It’s more of that symmetry thing.

This is what some Pros had to say:

  • HOF Red Schoendienst, Mgr.: “… good players run to first base as fast as they can after hitting the ball.”
  • CHOF, Coach, Skip Bertman-LSU, 5X Champs: “A poor start from home plate can make the difference between being safe or out on a close play at first base. Every player must give 100 per cent when running to first base. You can never tell when an easy ground ball will be booted. Naturally, each player must be reminded not to look at the ball. The runner should keep his eyes on first base. No! don’t jump at the base”
  • CHOF, Ron Fraser-UofM, 2X Champs: “The all-out sprint between the batter’s box and first base starts immediately after the ball is hit. No time should be lost in watching the ball. Even the time it takes to glance in the direction of the ball may mean the difference between reaching safely and being out.”
  • HOF Satchel Paige, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

To be clear, looking for the ball is not only about the run to 1st, it is also about looking at the catcher on an attempted steal. In addition, many Major Leaguers make the mistake of continuing to look at the ball when running to other bases. Sometimes, they will even miss, or trip over a base, failing to advance to the next base when the opportunity was there for the taking.

If the batter hits a ball to right field the play is in front of him and he makes the choice to try for 2nd base and decides if there may be a chance to also advance to 3rd base. Once he decides to take that chance, he should stop looking at the play being made by the outfielder, focus on making an aggressive turn around 2nd base, to then look at the 3rd base coach’s signal to stop at 2nd or continue to 3rd. If the ball is hit to center or left field the choice is made after an aggressive turn around 1st when the runner again has the play in front of him. If waved home by the coach it then becomes the responsibility of the on-deck batter to signal the runner to slide, or stand-up crossing the plate. Once the runner makes a turn around 2nd it is his responsibility to run as fast as he can and accept the decisions of the coach and on-deck batter – not try to follow the ball.

If you look – you lose!

There is a very sensible unwritten rule that a runner should never make the first or third out of an inning at 3rd base. A runner that has reached 2nd base safely with no outs is already in scoring position for a base hit and can possibly score without the benefit of a hit, by two subsequent outs. The runner that reaches 2nd with two outs is also in scoring position and will end the inning by making the third out at 3rd, removing the potential to score. Making the first or second out at home plate falls into the same category.

The unwritten rule regarding the lead from 2nd is, with less than two outs, unless forced by having a runner on 1st, not to immediately run on a ground ball hit to his right between the runner and 3rd base. If fielded by the third-baseman or shortstop the result will probably be an easy out. A runner should immediately break for 3rd if the ball is grounded to his left, as it becomes a difficult throw for the shortstop or second-baseman, they very rarely make the attempt, and should the ball reach the outfield there may be an opportunity to score. In every case, especially with all today’s drastic infield shifts, the runner must look, prior to every pitch, for the location of the infielders. Their positions may change with every pitch and effect the decision on whether to break, or not.

Opponents will love any team that violates these unwritten rules.

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