How to Take a Lead at Second Base
If you’ve watched even a modest amount of baseball, you’re probably familiar with the phrase, “scoring position.” This isn’t really an official term — it’s of course possible to score from any of the bases — but to be in scoring position simply means you’re on second or third base, where you could likely score on a single.
However, being in scoring position does not guarantee that you’ll score every time on a hit. There are numerous variables to consider, as well as a few important ways you can improve your chances of scoring from second base. When you lead off from second, you face a lesser risk of being picked off than you do at first base. However, being a good base runner at second base is all about being aware of your surroundings and putting yourself in the most advantageous position to score.
Amazingly True Story
If there’s one person familiar with the peril of trying to score from second base, it’s former Atlanta Braves first baseman Sid Bream. It was Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS — winner goes to the World Series. With the Pittsburgh Pirates leading the Braves 2-0, Pittsburgh sent its ace Doug Drabek back out to the mound for the ninth inning to try and finish the shutout. After a double, an error, and a walk, Drabek’s night was finished.
Closer Stan Belinda entered, allowed a sacrifice fly, issued another walk, and then induced Brian Hunter to pop out with the tying run on third base. With two outs and the Pirates still up 2-1, David Justice was on third, Sid Bream was on second, and the light-hitting Francisco Cabrera was the pinch-hitter.
Cabrera improbably lined a single to left field. Justice scored, and Bream got a good jump from second base, but the 6’4” first baseman was not known for his speed. Bream chugged around third, and for a moment it looked like he would be out at the plate. But the throw from left fielder Barry Bonds was just a hair off-target and Bream (barely) slid into home safely, clinching the National League pennant for Atlanta. It was their second of five pennants in the 1990s; Pittsburgh has yet to return to the postseason.
Many of the following tips are also important to learn when leading from first base. For a breakdown of that technique, check out the iSport guide “How to Take a Lead at First Base” (link to the right).
Know the Situation
The game situation will have a major impact on the type of lead you take. Moreover, there are several factors to keep in mind so you can make quick decisions on the base paths. Here are some points to consider before every pitch:
- Outs: Knowing the outs is vital when you’re on second base because it affects how aggressive you need to be. For example, with one out, be prepared to tag up and advance to third on a fly ball to deep right or center field. But with no outs, be more conservative on fly balls; you never want to make the first out at third base. Be ready to advance to third on a grounder to the right side with no outs, but if the ball is hit in front of you (to third base or shortstop), don’t run into a tag out. With two outs, your job is easier because you can start running on contact. But if there is less than two outs, be cautious when trying to score on a single — you need to make sure the ball isn’t caught before you take off.
- Score: The following rule applies when leading from any base. If the game is close, and your potential run is important, be aggressive with your lead to give yourself the best chance to advance. If your team is up or down by a lot of runs, be more conservative; you don’t want to waste an out on the bases by being careless.
- Outfielders: Watch the opposing outfielders in warm-ups and during the game, and pay attention to the strength of each outfielder’s throwing arm. This piece of information gives you an idea of how likely you are to advance or score. Also, when you’re on base, glance back and check where the outfielders are positioned. If they’re playing in, they will have a better chance to catch a shallow fly ball or throw you out at home on a base hit.
- Other base runners: If there’s a man on first base, then you have to go to third base on a ground ball. Similarly, always pay attention to runners in front of you. If the man on third can’t score on a play, then you can’t advance to third base.
- Offensive signs: There are not many instances in which you’ll receive the “steal” sign at second base. However, there are plenty of situations that might call for a sacrifice, so you need to know the play if your coach signals for a bunt. The defense will try to get you out at third, so it’s important to get a good lead (without getting pick off) and a good jump towards third base.
Taking Your Lead
Now it’s time to take your lead off second. Be aware of your surroundings, and follow these tips to get yourself in the optimal position:
- Watch the pitcher: A pick-off attempt is less likely at second base, but you’re at a greater risk of a surprise pick-off attempt because there are two fielders who could potentially sneak behind you to second base. Pay attention to the pitcher’s feet: If he’s going to try a quick pick-off, he will move his back foot first. Also be aware that after the pitcher lifts his leg, he is still allowed to wheel around and throw to second.
Hot Tip: Do Not Pass
When you’re running the bases, always keep your head up. Watch the base coaches and the runners ahead of you. Remember, you’re automatically out if you accidentally overtake (run past) another base runner.
- Listen to your coaches: Your base coaches will help you by telling you where the middle infielders are positioned (since they’ll usually be behind you) and whether you should shorten or extend your lead.
- Weight balanced: Like at first base, pitchers will take any opportunity to pick you off if they catch you off-balance or not paying attention. Take your lead in an athletic position with your feet spread out, knees bent, and weight forward on the balls of your feet. Don’t rest your hands on your knees, and maintain strong balance so you can react at a moment’s notice.
- Secondary lead: Once the pitcher throws to the plate, extend your lead with a couple quick shuffle steps. This gets your momentum moving forward in case the ball is hit in play. A good secondary lead can put you nearly half-way to third base — just be sure to scamper back quickly after the pitch, because the catcher may try to pick you off.
Take Proper Angles
Perhaps most important (and certainly the most unique) aspect of leading off second base is the angle you take. And you might be surprised to know that geometry plays a fairly significant role in base running.
There’s only one instance where you want to take your lead from second base directly in the baseline: When you know you’re only going to third base, and you need to get there quickly. For example, if you’re trying to steal third or advance on a bunt, you want the shortest possible line to third base, so you stay in the baseline.
In all other instances, you need to be prepared for the fact that you might have to score on a base hit. In this case, leading within the baseline requires you to sprint to third base, make a 90-degree turn, and then sprint home. Making a quick turn like that kills your momentum, so it will take you much longer to reach the plate.
As such, get in the habit of taking your lead deeper in the baseline. Take a few steps back towards the shortstop. This will allow you to take a wider angle when you round third base so you don’t have to slow down when trying to score. Normally two or three steps is sufficient, but with two outs you can make your lead even deeper, since there’s a greater chance that you’ll be able to score on a hit.
Push the Envelope
In many ways, leading from second base tests your aggressiveness. If you can get the pitcher to pay attention to you, that’s a small victory — splitting his focus between you and the batter could cause him to make a bad pitch.
The key to being a good base runner is the ability to react quickly and make the right decision based in the game situation, and the best way to improve this is simply though experience. The more time you spend on the base paths, the greater understanding you’ll have of how to assess the game and give your team the best chance to win.