“I give this circus a ten” -a fan of your favorite MLB team after they blow a rundown situation. Baseball can be a simple game with relatively simple rules. Somehow, those simple rules can lead to some pretty strange situations on the field. A classic example of baseball turning into a circus is the rundown, or the “pickle”. This situation is seen often with inexperienced baserunners at the youth level and should be taught starting at a young age.
We will be defining a rundown, how to handle a rundown from the defensive side of the ball, baserunning during a rundown, and ways to incorporate rundown drills into your team’s practices.
A rundown is any situation in which a baserunner is stranded between two bases and a defender is blocking his or her path with the possession of the ball. In other words, a rundown is generally started when an infielder has the ball and the runner is caught away from the bag.
Rundowns from high school through the pros are most frequently the result of a runner getting picked off by a pitcher or catcher. Rundowns in youth baseball are most frequently caused by baserunners not knowing what to do in the given situation. This is an important distinction as the best coaching for rundowns in youth sports is to avoid them altogether. This can be accomplished by reviewing situational baserunning and listening to base coaches while players are on the paths.
Of course, rundowns are inevitable. So what are some fundamentals that all young baseball players should learn when they have their opponents in a pickle?
Force the runner back, never forward. Rule one in a rundown is to never let the runner advance. If a baserunner is caught between first and second, the defense should try to force the action back towards first base and never chase the baserunner towards second. This is an insurance policy in case there is a defensive mishap. If a defender makes and errant throw or drops the ball, at least the baserunner will go back a base instead of advancing.
The fewer throws, the better. Rule two is to keep things simple. Players should get the ball to the “forward” player, who should then run at the baserunner with the ball in their throwing hand. The defender should be able to either catch the runner or get him or her close enough to the bag to throw the ball and begin the process again. Throwing back and forth repeatedly just increases the chances of errors. The defense should make the runner commit and then get them out.
Communication and positioning. The other way many youth baseball squads mishandle the rundown is through a lack of communication or through failure to cover a position. Players should always be talking during a rundown. And once the ball is thrown, the players should “follow their throw” and cover the base where the ball ended up.
In theory, the defensive team should always end up on top in a rundown situation. In reality, the baserunner always has a chance. The strategy of baserunners is heavily dependent on whether or not any other runners are on the bases. For example, if a runner is caught in a pickle between third base and home, a runner at first base may try to draw attention to themselves or at least swipe second base during the rundown. Even if the runner gets thrown out going to second, ideally the other runner will be able to return safely to third.
How coaches choose to teach this tactic is also dependent on the team’s age, maturity, and skill level. For younger players, the best advice is to just run hard and try to make it to any base safely. As stated previously, teaching heads up baserunning to avoid getting caught in a pickle should be a higher priority.
Cal Ripken Jr. has a fantastic video tutorial on how to teach youth athletes rundown defense through a drill. Thankfully, a realistic rundown situation is extremely easy to duplicate in practice. At the youth level, the fundamentals of a rundown are far more important to teach than extraneous details like number of outs, other runners, etc. (at least at first).
An easy way to set up the drill is to give the pitcher the ball and have a baserunner take off from any base. The pitcher should charge the runner, force the runner to commit, then initiate the rundown. A successful rundown should always lead to an out and must absolutely never lead to a runner advancing. At the youth level, ensuring the runner returns to the starting point is not the worst thing in the world.
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