One of the challenges coaches at the high school and travel team levels has, is to conduct batting practice in a way that engages everyone meaningfully at the same time and is both effective and timely. The process here described is not instructional. It is designed to provide hitters with the opportunity to get in a significant number of swings and work on making their own adjustments. While some feedback from the coach is appropriate, it should be short and to the point as not to disrupt the tempo or pace of the drill.
The structure assumes a roster of 16, but can be modified to serve just about any number. 16 is ideal because it creates four groups of four players and the system is a four-based system.
Of the four groups, two are positioned in the field, one is working on a series of four different base-running skills, and the fourth group is hitting. Care must be taken to ensure that the catchers are not in the same group and not split between the group that is base-running and the one that is hitting.
The drill prioritizes the hitting group with secondary emphasis on the base-running group. Enough attention need be paid to this latter group in order to validate their efforts and stress the importance of proper base-running.
The group hitting consists of four members. Each hitter receives four consecutive pitches and then is replaced in the batter’s box by the next hitter until each hitter has batted one time. This process is repeated three times. Each batter receives 12 pitches. A fourth round can be added with modifications if desired and time allows. Once each hitter in the group as hit three times, or four if modified, the groups rotate.
The group consists of four members. The group will start at first base and execute each of the four base-running skills/strategies. The group will then move to second base, and then third base. Four base-running skills/strategies are implemented at those bases also. All runners are to wear helmets.
The skills/strategies at first base are the secondary lead, the steal, the hit and run and reacting to the batted ball.
The skills/strategies at second base and third base are the secondary lead, the steal, tagging-up and reacting to the batted ball. The hit and run or turn-and-face can be substituted for tagging-up at second if desired.
The assistant coach or knowledgeable parent supervises the base-runners, both to remind them of the particular sequence of skills and to keep them on task.
At no time during the drill do the fielders make an active play on any runner, and that includes the catchers. The function of the catcher during the drill is to provide a target for the pitcher and receive and return the ball when necessary.
When the base-running group is on first, all ground balls are relayed to second base. The second baseman and shortstop are to practice a phantom pivot or applicable footwork as if completing the double-play; they are not to throw the ball to first base. All balls hit to the outfielders are thrown directly into second. The throw should be strong, sharp, and preferably one skip. Deep balls are relayed to the tandem.
When the base-running group is on second and third, all ground balls are thrown to first base. There is the option to work the infield-in when runners are on third. With the group on second, all balls hit to the outfield are thrown to third. With the group on third, outfield throws are directed to second.
The drill relies on the pitcher throwing strikes. It is recommended that a coach does the pitching. The hitter receives four pitches and four pitches only. If a pitch is unhittable it still counts as one of the four. Any deviation will disrupt the base-running routine. While it is recommended that the pitcher throw from the stretch, it is for visual reasons only. The base-runners are instructed to “anticipate” the release only and react as if the pitcher was in the stretch. During the drill the pitcher is not going to pay any particular attention to the base-runners—other than to establish and maintain and effective pace; his job is to throw BP.
Two of the four groups are placed in the field and cover the traditional positions. Work to keep players in their natural positions, but it is not necessary. Regardless insist on a serious and applied approach.
The first hitter in the hitting group enters the batter’s box. The base-running group is lined up at first. The first member of that group steps off his primary lead. The coach delivers the first BP pitch. As he does so, the base-runner takes his secondary lead. He is then expected to react to the result of the pitch. If it is taken or swung on and missed, his immediate reaction is to return to first base. If contact is made, he takes an aggressive step or two towards second and then peels off; there is no need to continue all the way to second base. It slows down the drill.
The first hitter is still in the box. The second member of the base-running group takes his primary lead. The coach delivers the second BP pitch to the first hitter. The second base-runner practices the secondary and plays it out the same way as the first runner did. This process is repeated for the third and fourth base-runner. Hitter number one is done for his first round.
The second hitter in the group steps into the box. All four runners of the base-running group are still on first base. This time, however, they will take their primary lead and then execute the steal. Again they will only go a couple of steps towards second and then peel off. There is no response to the result of the batted ball; the skill practice is on getting a good jump. Four pitches, four runners, one skill, and then the next hitter.
The third hitter steps in. All four base-runners will execute the hit and run. The runner should pick up the batted ball and react accordingly, since that is part of the hit-and-run skill. On appropriate contact, there is no need for the runner to go on to second base: A hard step or two and then peel off.
The fourth hitter steps in. All four base-runners will react to the batted ball, and this time should do as they would in a game, up and until rounding second. There is no need to go any further; it will only slow down the drill. Insist that care is taken on infield pop-ups, line-drives, and that base-runners slide into second on double-play grounders. However, do not allow the middle infielder to relay the ball to first. An errant throw may endanger the other group members that are standing at the bag.
The coach or player delivering the BP pitches should by this time have established an effective pace and rhythm that provides the base-running group with the opportunity to do what they have to do without rushing or becoming careless, while at the same time throwing with the accuracy that allows the hitters to get in their swings.
To continue the drill, the base-running group all moves to second base; they should group just on the outfield grass straight up behind the bag. While the first member takes his primary lead, the first member of the hitting group steps in for his second round of four pitches. The routine is the same as the first time around: first hitter all four base-runners work the secondary lead; second hitter all base-runners work the steal; third hitter all runners work the tag/turn and face/or the hit and run—pick one; and, the fourth hitter all runners react to the batted ball, but go no further than rounding third.
The final and third round moves the base-running group to third, and each of the hitting group members bat a third time, four pitches each. The third skill in the sequence can be substituted for the infield-in, either going on contact or reading the batted ball. Infielders can play in and react to the runner, but throws should not be made to the plate.
At this point, the hitting and base-running groups can change places; the fielding groups remain in the field. However, there is the possibility that the second catcher might be in the hitting or base-running group. If that is the case, simply rotate in one of the fielding groups so that there is an available catcher without depriving that player of either the opportunity to hit or base-run.
If there is a desire to provide 16 swings instead of 12, simply repeat one of the bases, or a mix of particular strategies at particular bases as long as it fits into the 4 x 4 configuration.
Once the coach and the players get the structure down pat, pitch efficiency is maximized—192 pitches (depending upon the pitcher’s control), and group transition is worked out, the whole process can be completed in an hour and fifteen minutes, perhaps less. As necessary, adjust the structure for rosters of more or less than 16 players. It’s the concept that matters, not exactness of process.
As with any drill that considers both effectiveness and time constraints, this structure has its limitations. All hitters would prefer more than 12 swings and more individualized feedback. However, in terms of full team engagement and meaningful practice and reinforcement in multiple facets of the game, this BP drill is a good way to go.