Some friends and I were out on the Royals’ backfields watching the minor-leaguers do a base-running drill. The runners were starting at second base and going second-to-home; they were practicing their turns at a base.
The idea was to hit the inside corner of the bag, not the middle, because hitting the inside corner saves a few inches and might be the difference between being out or safe on a bang-bang play at home plate.
During spring training, the Royals practice a “fundamental” every day; maybe it’s turns at a base, cutoffs and relays, or the right way to run a contact play.
For example ...
Outfielders are supposed to catch grounders with their glove-side foot forward, but it has to be practiced.
Some outfielders will get in the habit of catching the ball with their glove-side foot back and their throwing-side foot forward, and that sets off a chain of events — none of them good.
Catch the ball with the glove-side foot back and the glove will also be back. Because the glove isn’t out in front, the outfielder won’t be able to see the ball all the way in. Any last-second bad hop and an outfielder has an increased chance of missing the ball.
You wouldn’t think there’d be too many bad hops in the outfield, but those pretty patterns they mow into the grass are achieved by making one section of grass lie one direction and the next section of grass another. The light reflects differently off each section and then we see patterns in the grass.
But those patterns cause the ball to “snake,” or slightly change direction each time it hits a new pattern. And that’s why you need your glove out in front; it allows you to watch the ball all the way until you catch it.
Having your glove-side foot back also turns your shoulders the wrong way.
Say you’re right handed and your glove-side foot is back as you catch the ball. That also means your left shoulder is back. You need that shoulder to be forward if you’re going to make an accurate throw. If the left shoulder does not get closed up all the way — and starting wide-open makes that more difficult — the throw will be off-target to the arm side.
Field a grounder with the glove-side foot forward and the left shoulder is already partially closed; it puts the outfielder in a better throwing position.
My friends were amazed at the attention to detail required of professional players, but there’s a reason it has to be this way. Former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa described it pretty well.
La Russa once had this to say about such fundamentals:
“All those ‘routine’ plays, all those pieces that get executed hundreds of times over the course of a season, they all needed to be practiced mercilessly. The way you make those fundamentals sound is to do the right thing over and over to the point where it becomes automatic and you can make the play by pushing that figurative button that allows you to execute them. As a result of that kid of preparation, you won’t get bogged down by these routine plays. You can then concentrate on the uniqueness of that day’s game. If you’re finally called on to execute a bunt to win a game or a pennant, all that work on bunting fundamentals in spring training will make that possible.”
Now think about the 2015 playoffs: How many games did a team give away because it didn’t execute a fundamental? An outfielder throws to the wrong base, a second baseman lets a ball get through to the outfield, a ball drops because an infielder and outfielder failed to communicate.
In the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series, Mets first baseman Lucas Duda should have been able to make a simple throw home to cut down Eric Hosmer at the plate. But Duda got in a hurry, didn’t get his arm on top, and slung the ball sidearm. That poorly executed fundamental helped him miss his target; Hosmer scored and turned the game around.
There are no small things in baseball. Practicing footwork and getting your arm into the right slot in March can help you win a World Series in November. But if you don’t spend enough time on those things, it can cause you to lose a World Series as well.