Why “Small Ball” Still Has Value, Especially at the Amateur Level
By Jim Koerner
Have you noticed how baseball has transformed over the past decade at the Major League level? According to Baseball Reference, home runs per season have increased from 4,552 in 2011 to almost 6,000 (5,936) in 2021. With this increase, strike outs have also surged from 34,489 to over 42,000, with a decrease in batting average, stolen bases and sacrifice bunts. Batted balls in play during each game have decreased and swing and miss rates are on the rise. Training academies are also preaching the importance of maximum exit velocities and increased attack angles. I’m not here to argue the merits of the homerun, and who wouldn’t want to hit the ball farther and harder? I am also a big advocate for the extra-base hit and a big inning. But at what cost?
It’s one thing to see these trends at the highest level of baseball, where the pitching and defense are unmatched, but it’s completely different at the amateur level. The goal is to score as many runs as needed during a game, and there is more than one way this can be accomplished. The versatility of our hitters plays an important role in this concept and needs to be addressed in our player development models. To further emphasize my point, let’s look at these numbers:
In the early 2000’s batting average and stolen bases per season were consistently higher than they are now. With that, strikeout rates were lower as well as homeruns per game. One might think runs per game would suffer with the decrease in home runs, but in fact, the opposite occurred. In the early 2000’s runs per game were higher than they are now (as high as 5.14 in 2004, compared to 4.53 in 2022). There are multiple reasons for this including the aforementioned change in pitching, but it helps prove there is more than one way to a score run.
Growing up, my father taught me how to use the proper tools for different jobs. You wouldn’t use a wrench to hammer a nail. The same framework can be applied on the baseball field. Think of each game as a different type of job with different tools needed. During a season, you will experience slugfests and pitcher’s duals with multiple variations in between. Players that possess the skill sets to succeed in multiple run producing ways are the players that can win any type of game. One dimensional players, and one dimensional teams, are easier to pitch to and easier to defend. Let’s fill each player’s toolbox by teaching them the necessary skills to play tough against all opponents.
Defining “Small Ball”
“Small Ball”, otherwise known as the Short Game, or "manufacturing runs," is defined as an offensive strategy in which the batting team emphasizes run production by advancing runners into scoring position in a deliberate, methodical way without requiring extra base hits, or sometimes, any base hits at all. I would argue that Small Ball doesn’t necessarily need to be methodical at all, but it can be rather aggressive and entertaining. Let’s break “Small Ball” into three categories. Those categories are the bunt game, base running and situational hitting. The bunt game includes all types of bunt plays, including the sacrifice, drag, push, suicide and safety squeeze. Base running will include, but is not limited to, stealing bases, dirtball reads, advancing two bases at a time, or taking any extra base (i.e. an outfielder bobbles the ball or over throwing to cut offs or throwing to the wrong base). Situational hitting would be a hit and run, run and hit, hitting behind runners, scoring the runner from third base with less than two outs and other bat control techniques. I’ll even include two strike adjustments as a form of small ball, since strikeout rates have climbed dramatically over the years.
1. Bunt Game
Contrary to some belief, bunting is not easy, and the higher the level of baseball the more difficult it becomes. All forms of bunting require skill that needs to be perfected, like any other aspect of the game. While controversial in nature due to advanced stats on run probabilities, there are still multiple situations where a bunt is effective.
Defense, in general and at the amateur level, can be suspect. The increased chaos a bunt causes puts more pressure on the infield to make plays. In addition to the lack of pitcher fielding practice at some levels, drag, push and sac bunts can all have a time and place for success. Knowing what side of the field the bunt needs to be directed can increase the odds of it being successful. Typically with a runner on first, the batter would want to put a sacrifice bunt down the first base side. With runners on second, or first and second, the batter wants the third baseman to field the ball. When bunting for a hit with either a drag or push, it’s important to know if a left or right handed pitcher is on the mound. Typically a left handed pitcher falls off the mound towards third base, which makes a push bunt (a bunt between first and second base and past the pitcher) the more appropriate call. With a right-handed pitcher that falls off the mound toward first base, a drag bunt down the third base line is the proper play.
The right time to use these tactics depends on multiple variables. Factors such as the speed of the batter, where you are in the lineup, the score of the game, and who is on the mound all play a role for both you, and your opponent. Two of my favorite bunt plays, which are extremely difficult to defend at any level, are the suicide and safety squeeze plays. When executed properly, they should both lead to guaranteed runs for your offense. If you are facing a dominant pitcher or your batter has been struggling at the plate, and your team needs an insurance run late in the game, this can be the perfect play.
I also want to make note of the ancillary benefits the threat of a bunt can cause. With the increased popularity of the shift, holes in the infield are harder to find for a hitter. If your batter can put a bunt down, the defense needs to respect this as a viable option. The corner infielders can no longer play at greater depths. The more the infield must move-in, the greater the space is for the hitter to find a hole. On the opposite side, if the infield doesn’t respect the bunt option and continues to play back, this opens up room for a drag or push to be more successful.
2. Base Running
For those old enough to remember Game 4 of the ALCS between the Yankees and Red Sox, you will remember one of the most important stolen bases in baseball history. Down one in the bottom of the ninth, with no one out, Dave Roberts steals second for the Red Sox. This stolen base ultimately leads to Roberts scoring to tie the game and an eventual Red Sox victory. Right place, right time, and the right person. The Red Sox were playing to win. They were facing the best closer in the history of the game, and they knew hits would be hard to come by. By stealing second base, they gave their offense three opportunities to get the base hit needed to tie the game. They could have sat back and waited for a double, but with Rivera on the mound and with his propensity for strikeouts and ground balls, it may have never come. Analytics say: if a player or team can steal bases at an 80% or better success rate, you are helping your offense increase their run probability. Your team needs to be prepared to capitalize in these high pressure moments. They should also be prepared to take advantage of amateur pitchers that don’t hold runners well or are slow to the plate.
I’ve always emphasized that immediately after a batter hits the ball his mindset needs to change from being a hitter to “what do I need to do to score.” If a base runner is solely relying on the next batter to drive him in, multiple opportunities to be aggressive on the bases may be missed. Aggressive base running goes well beyond simply stealing a base. The most important base running skill a player can possess is the ability to advance two bases at a time. This means going home to second, first to third and second to home. In order to do this effectively, the runner needs to be proactive in his approach. Hard turns around first base on singles can lead to doubles. Hard turns around first base with runners in scoring position can also lead to extra bases in the case of an overthrow by the outfield or throwing to the wrong base. The ability to go first to third or second to home on base hits will depend on knowing the positioning of the outfield defense before the pitch, gaining productive secondary leads, getting good reads off the bat, and taking the proper angles when rounding the bases. This all takes time to perfect and can be done most effectively during your batting practice routines.
A good base running team puts pressure on a defense to make plays and move fast, which can lead their opponent to make mistakes and errors. A player that has the feel to advance two bases at a time minimizes the need for an extra-base hit to score a run. Players that are a stolen base threat can divert a pitcher’s focus from the batter. This type of distraction can lead to more pitches to hit or increased command issues for pitchers. Teams that are proficient and proactive on the bases and ready to capitalize on all mistakes, are much tougher to play against and defend.
3. Situational Hitting
To have a good situational hitting team means your team is made of unselfish players. Many times, situational hitting means you’re giving yourself up for a productive out. If your lineup is filled with players that are willing to do anything for the overall good of the team, you should win a lot of games.
While we can cover many examples of situational hitting, including the hit and run or run and hit, the most important aspect to me is the ability to score the runner from third base with less than two outs. Most coaches would agree that they would trade an out for a run every time. This is a concept that needs to be emphasized with your team. With a runner on third and less than two outs you will typically see three different types of defense. Those defenses being the infield is all playing up, the infield is all playing back, or the corner infielders are up, and the middle infield is back. In two of those situations, infield back and middle back, all the batter needs to do is hit a ground ball to either the shortstop or second baseman to score the run. With the infield up, the batter is looking to hit a fly ball or line drive in the middle of the field. While neither the ground ball nor fly ball help the player’s batting average, they do become very productive outs by scoring the run. Getting your batters to make these unselfish swing adjustments makes your team tougher to pitch to and defend.
While situational hitting sometimes requires the hitter to cut down the swing and adjust, so does hitting with two strikes. While technically two strike adjustments don’t fall under “Small Ball,” everyone would agree that the more balls a team can put into play, the greater likelihood of having more base runners. Hitters that are tough to strike out increases the pressure on the pitcher, and often drives up pitch counts. These are benefits that can lead to more run scoring opportunities as the game progresses.
When extra-base hits and homeruns are hard to come by, your team still needs to find a way to generate offense. Having your players prepared to score runs in multiple ways only increases your likelihood to win any type of ball game. As an opposing coach, it is never comforting to know the team you’re playing can affect the game on multiple levels. Don’t give up on “Small Ball” strategy when planning practices and developing your players. At some point you will need it.
Jim Koerner is currently the Director of Player Development at USA Baseball. Koerner has 21 years of college coaching experience, including 18 years at the D1 level. He spent 13 years as a college head coach, with ten as an NCAA D1 head coach. Koerner has coached over 30 MLB draft or professional Free Agent Signees, 11 All-Americans, 4 Conference Players of the Year, 4 Conference Rookies of the Year, 2 Conference Pitchers of the Year, and over 60 All-Conference selections. Additionally, Koerner is a 2x Conference Coach of the Year and 2021 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Southern Division Champion..