Professional Baseball Strength & Conditioning

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FASTER STARTS AND QUICKER ACCELERATIONS

Acceleration Guidelines when Stealing a Base

By Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM

In an attempt to better serve the coaches, players and parents involved in youth and high school baseball, the PBSCCS periodically publishes information on factors that can affect conditioning and performance at these levels. Topics are selected from questions submitted by participants, coaches and parents in youth and high school sports.

The question for this posting was from a 16U travel ball coach – “I have been coaching a travel team for six years. In the early years, when the bases were closer, my teams were very successful when attempting to steal bases. Now that the boys have gotten older and the field is larger, it has become very hard to steal bases. Are there any suggestions, guidelines or keys that I can look for and use when instructing my team on base stealing? The following response is from Gene Coleman, website manager, baseballstrength.org and former head strength and conditioning coach with the Houston Astros and strength and conditioning consultant with the Texas Rangers.

Acceleration, the rate of change in velocity per unit of time, is considered by many in team sports, including baseball, to be the most important tool than an athlete can possess. Since most plays in baseball are over in five seconds or less, success in game situations is often more closely related to the ability to accelerate than to achieve maximum running speed.

From running out of the batter’s box, to sealing second base, to going behind the bag to make a play, to running down a fly ball in the gap; each of these movements need to be performed as quick and powerful as possible. The following outlines ten basic components of acceleration that can be used by coaches, players and parents to help improve acceleration when stealing a base.

  1. Set-up: Since it is impossible to recovery from a bad start, a proper set-up is the first thing to look at when evaluating acceleration. The proper set-up is an athletic position with the head and chest up, hips, knees and elbows flexed, weight evenly distributed between the feet with weight on the insides of the feet so you can go quickly in either direction and forearms and hands inside the knees.

  1. First step: Once you have established a proper set-up, the next thing to look at is the first step. Almost every successful base stealer in MLB uses a drop step when taking the first step. The drop step overcomes inertia, creates momentum, moves the center of mass closer to the front edge of the base of support and puts the body and limbs in the proper position to apply maximum horizontal force into the ground. The first step matters. With a poor first step it is very difficult to recover, especially in shorter distances. If you are running 100-m or going first to home, you might have time to make up for it if you can get to max velocity with no mistakes. If you are trying to run a fast 20-30 yards to steal second base, it’s going to be nearly impossible to recover from a poor start.

  1. Take-off angle: In track, the optimal take-off angel is about 45-degrees. When moving laterally from a standing position, most professional base runner’s take-off from an angle of between 47 and 50-degrees.

  1. Arm and leg mechanics: The arms and legs work opposite each other. As the right leg is extended, the left (opposite) arm comes forward, and as the left leg is flexed, the right (opposite) arm moves back. The arm strokes and leg strides are synchronized in both time and movement. The arms and legs are levers and their length determines their speed of movement. The arms move from the shoulder joint and the legs move from the hip joint. Most track coaches say that “the arms control the legs, i.e., the arms determine the tempo of the legs. Closing the elbow on the upstroke, for example, creates and maintains the fastest turnover in the legs. Flexing the elbow on the upstroke increases the angular velocity of the swing leg as it cycles through and prepares for the next stride. Extending the elbow on the downstroke increases the force applied to the ground by the opposite leg.

As one leg extends, the opposite arm moves forward from the shoulder and the elbow joint closes to approximately 90-degrees. Closing the elbow on the upstroke creates a shorter radius of rotation and makes it easier to bring the arm forward quickly to prepare it for the next downward stroke. Extending the opposite elbow during the downward motion increases the radius of rotation which helps increase the force that is applied to the ground during landing and take-off of the opposite foot.

At landing and take-off, the contact point between the foot and ground is the axis of rotation for the body’s center of mass. As the center of mass passes over the foot, the lead leg is extended at the hip and knee, force is applied to the ground and the center of mass moves forward and covers maximum ground. As the recovery (lead) leg is swinging forward, it bends (flexes) at the knee to shorten the radius and help it rotate faster with less muscular effort. The combination of optimal hip extension, knee extension and proper foot placement allows runners to apply max force to the ground, in the correct direction and in the least amount of time.

The hand should come up to about chin height and slightly inward and even with the midline of the body on the upstroke. The forearm and hand initiate the downward stroke by moving downward as the upper arm rotates backwards from the shoulder. As the arm moves down and back the elbow extends to increase the angle between the upper arm and forearm. As the hand passes the hip, the elbow begins to flex again and drive backward and upward as the shoulder rotates and finishes at approximately shoulder height with the forearm pointing down to the ground.

  1. Stride length (short to long): Stride length is the distance that the center of mass travels between consecutive contacts, i.e., from initial contact of the right foot to the next initial contact of the left foot. When accelerating to second (or to any position), stride length progresses from short to long. When taking off, ground contact force is high, ground contact time is long, stride length is short and stride rate is slow. With each stride, ground contact force and time are reduced and stride length and rate are increased. Since speed is the product of stride length x stride rate. An improvement of either or both will increase acceleration and speed

  1. Ground contact time and position: Ground contact time, the amount of time that the foot spends on the ground, is the longest at the start as the body overcomes inertia and the shortest when the body is in full flight and the feet are moving at maximum speed. It is, therefore, proportional to ground contact force and inversely proportional to stride length and stride rate.

Ground contact position is where the lead foot strikes the ground. Ideally, the lead foot should approach the ground in a dorsi flexed (toe up) position to put strain (elastic) energy into the muscles of the calf that can be recovered after the foot hits the ground. It should strike the ground on the forefoot (not the toes), land under the center of mass and drive straight back to propel the body forward.

  1. Shin-to-ground angle (small to large): The angle of the shin determines how much force is applied to the ground and the projection angle the body. At take-off and first-steps, the shin angle is small (45-50-degrees) and increases as the runner accelerates toward max velocity

  1. Velocity (slow to fast): Speed is how fast regardless of direction. Velocity describes speed and the direction in which the body is moving. As a runner accelerates, the rate and distance that the body moves increases with each step for the first 6-10 steps.

  1. Stride rate (slow to fast): Stride rate is the number of strides taken per second. As the runner takes off and applies force to the ground to overcome inertia, ground contact time is longer, stride length is shorter, and stride rate is slower. Momentum, velocity, stride length and stride rate increase and ground contact decreases with each step until the runner reaches maximum speed.

  1. Heel recovery (low to high): Heels should recover quickly, with backside mechanics (movements behind the center of mass) and large variations of motion kept to a minimum.

An understanding of these ten components of acceleration should help coaches, players and parents identify and begin to correct some of the basic problems related to acceleration mechanics when stealing second base and moving in the field.

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Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM has over four decades as a head strength and conditioning coach (Astros) and strength and conditioning consultant (Rangers). He is Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake, Website Education Manager baseballstrength.org and Senior Contributor for SportEdTV.

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