Baseball 101: The Right Way to Build a Team and Play the Game

Darrell HorwitzSenior Writer IIAugust 6, 2011

Baseball 101: The Right Way to Build a Team and Play the Game

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    1: The key to building any successful baseball team is the foundation. That means building a solid base in the minor leagues that continually supplies the major league team with a stream of quality players, both position players and pitchers.

    It also means not only drafting and scouting players, but getting the most out of their ability, and utilizing them to their strengths to become the best possible player they can be.

    You have to be able to develop them and you have to be able to develop stars. That will keep your costs down on the major league roster and is the only way to build a successful team for the long term year in and year out.

    There are many steps involved in building a championship franchise. Having a plan is the key. Those teams that are successful have a way that they do things and a philosophy in place.

    Luck always plays a part, but having a plan and sticking to it helps you get lucky.

    This is my way to build a baseball team, and these are my ideas.

    Read, learn, and enjoy.

Teaching the Players How to Play the Game

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    1: Part of that process is teaching them how to play baseball. Just because they are athletically gifted does not mean they know the game.

    Charlie Manual, manager of the 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies became a manager in the minors a long time ago and admitted that even though he played professional baseball for many years, that he knew very little about the game of baseball and had to learn on the job.

    I would have classroom study in every aspect of the game throughout the minor leagues starting in rookie ball all the way through Triple A. Sports should be instinctual, and if you know what you’re doing without having to think about it, you’re going to be a much better player.

    Speaking to Dusty Baker several years ago, he mentioned that a player running the bases should be able to do it without even looking at the base-running coaches. He used Willie Mays as an example when he played.

    2: There should be a system in place in the kind of players you draft and develop and what kind of a team you want to be.

    There should be a plan and it should be carried out through the minor league process at every level. There should be an organizational way of doing things, and if you want to advance in the organization, you will follow those guidelines.  

How to Hit

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    1: Knowing the strike zone: Identifying a strike and swinging at good pitches add up to a better hitter.

    Of course there are examples of great bad ball hitters like Roberto Clemente and Vladimir Guerrero, but hitters as gifted as them are few and far between.

    If you know the strike zone and don’t swing at bad pitches, you just made your job that much easier.

    2: Patience: Make the pitcher work. Don’t give in and swing at the pitchers pitch. Make him work and look for a pitch that is in your zone.

    A hitter that can work the count and adapt not only helps himself but he helps the whole team. He makes the pitcher throw more pitches and helps get you into the bullpen sooner, where normally you will face weaker pitching.

    3: Hit the ball where it’s pitched. How often do you see players lunging across the plate and trying to pull the ball?

    Of course, if you have to lunge for the ball, it’s probably not a strike anyway, but if you hit the ball where it’s pitched, you’re that much tougher to defend and get out.

    Hitting to all fields is a quality of smart ballplayers. If it’s outside, just reach out and poke it that way. You’re a lot more likely to get a hit that way.

    4: How to give yourself up: Knowing the situation and adjusting your strategy to what’s best for the team makes for a winning team.

    If there’s a runner on second with no one out, hit the ball to the right side of the field to advance the runner to. Every extra run you score means the other team has to score two to beat you.

    Scoring first is also a key. If you can score before the other team, statistically that team wins a good majority of the time.

    Check out the records of bad teams and see how good their record is when they score first. It’s surprising how much better they become when they have the lead.

    5: Adjusting your approach with two strikes: Until you get two strikes on you, you can attack the ball. Once you get two strikes, you must adjust and try to make contact and put the ball in play.

    A smart hitter always adjusts his approach when he has two strikes on him, whether it’s choking up on the bat or shortening his swing.

    6: The art of bunting: Everybody on the team should know how to bunt, both to sacrifice and bunting for a base hit.

    It doesn’t matter if you’re the best hitter on the team, or the last player on the bench.

    Every run counts and getting a runner over often leads to more runs.

    Being a threat to bunt for a base hit keeps the fielders in, and makes it easier to drive the ball past them. If you keep them honest, it makes everybody a better hitter and gives your team more opportunities.

How to Run the Bases

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    1: How to go from first to third. Part of base-running is watching the ball as its hit and being able to read it off the bat.

    If you know a ball is going to fall in, you don’t have to wait to take off, and you have a much better chance of going from first to third.

    You also have to watch where the fielder is going. Is he running straight in, or is he running side to side? What kind of an arm does he have?

    How fast can you run and more importantly, how well do you know how to run the bases? Speed helps, but being smart helps even more.

    2: Scoring from second on a single. Again, you use the same principles as above.

    How good is the outfielders arm? Is he coming in or does he have to run to the side to get the ball, which makes it much harder to throw.

    How well do you run the bases? Do you cut the base at third, or do you take a wide turn? A split second is the difference between being safe and out.

    Even if you’re out at the plate, if it’s a bang-bang play and takes a perfect throw or relay to get you, it’s a smart play. You want to make the other team have to make a play to beat you, and more times than not, they’re going to make a mistake.

    3: How to read where the ball is going off the bat: Again taking in the principles of the above points, if you’re on base, you should be able to read where the ball is going.

    You always want to make sure a low line drive gets through the infield before committing, but the better you can read the direction of the ball off of the bat, the better base-runner you will be.

    4: When to run: Know “your” limitations. If you’re a slow runner and you’re on third with less than two outs and there is a shallow fly ball, don’t run.

    You can fake a run to draw a throw and maybe they will throw it away, but knowing your limitations keeps you from running into stupid outs.

    5: Tag up on a deep fly ball. Doing that when you’re on third is obvious, but how about when you’re on second or even on first?

    It’s easier from second to go to third, but if you’re on first and the ball is hit to the warning track area in left or right or even closer in center and it’s obvious the fielder is going to catch the ball, why go half way?

    Again you have to read the fielder. Is he running back to catch the ball so he has no momentum to throw the runner out? Even running sideways gives the same disadvantage to the fielder. How strong is his arm? If he has a weak arm, you can definitely run on him.

    Every run you manufacture makes it that much harder to beat you because that’s another run your opponent has to overcome.

Stealing Bases

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    1: How to read the pitchers move. Reading a pitcher involves knowing his tendencies and how good a move he has to first base.

    The bigger lead you can get, the more bases you can steal. Sure speed helps, but why can guys like Albert Pujols and Chase Utley, not traditional speed merchants, steal bases and very rarely get thrown out, or in the case with Utley last year and in 2009, not get thrown out at all?

    It’s because they’re smart base-runners and know how to read the pitcher.

    Anyone can steal a base, if you just take the time and do the work to become good at it. You may not lead the league in steals, but you can definitely help your team win more baseball games.

    2: Watch where the ball is going. How many times do you see a runner steal second and the ball goes into center, but the runner wasn't paying attention and slides and ends up staying on second when he could easily have gone to third? The same thing happens at third.

    If you’re alert, you can score more runs. It also helps to know how well the catcher you’re running against throws the ball, and how quick his time is from home to second or third.

    How quick is the pitcher throwing to home? Some pitchers just invite you to steal on them, so you might as well take advantage of that.  If you’re stealing third and the batter is right-handed, it hinders the catcher making the throw to third and easier to steal the base.

    3: As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, stealing third is often easier to steal than second because of the hitter blocking the view, and because you can get a bigger jump on second base. 

    Also, teams are often more lax and don’t expect you to steal third most of the time, so that’s an advantage.

    (I would hire former great base-stealers and base-runners to teach the players how to run the bases and to steal. I would drill them until it was second nature. The less you have to think and the quicker you can react, the better runner you will be.)

How to Pitch

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    1: Strike one – get ahead of the hitter. If you consistently get ahead of the hitter, you are in control. The hitter is at your mercy and you can make him have to hit your pitch.

    2: Pitch inside. The pitcher has the right to pitch inside. You want to keep the batter off the plate and make him vulnerable to the outside pitch.

    If you don’t throw inside, he can crowd the plate and then he’s got the advantage. Do not be afraid to brush the hitter back if he does crowd the plate. I’m not saying to hit him, but you also can’t let the batter intimidate you.

    3: Move the ball around – keep the hitter guessing. If you move the ball around inside and outside and up and down, you’re going to keep him guessing and not let him zero in on you. A baseball is already hard enough to hit, it’s even harder if you don’t know where it’s going to be.

    4: Know the situation you’re in. Pitching involves thinking and taking advantage of that situation.

    If you’re ahead in the count, throw it out of the strike zone and make him fish for it. Whose on base, how many outs are there, what type of hitter is up: These are all things you have to consider when facing a batter.

    A smart pitcher is a successful pitcher. Think of Greg Maddux.

    5: Don’t nibble. Nibbling gets a pitcher in trouble. Don’t count on the umpire to bail you out because every umpire has a different strike zone. Walks kill. Let the batter hit his way on base.

    6: Be ready to field your position. So many pitchers are completely off balance after throwing the pitch that they’re in no position to field the ball. Put yourself into position as soon as you get rid of the ball.

    Also don’t forget to run to first on balls hit to the right side of the infield, and to back up at bases when there is going to be a play there such as home plate.  

    7: Don’t forget about the base-runners. Keep them close no matter what base they’re on and let them know that you are aware of them. Give your catcher and fielders a chance to make a play whether it’s a steal or a play at a base.

How to Field

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    1: Outfielders: They have to be taught the best route to the baseball. That involves teaching how to go back on a ball as well as coming in.

    As Jimmy Piersall used to say, “Ball, wall, ball. Know where the wall is and don’t be afraid of it.

    2: Know the situation. When is the right time to dive for a ball and when is it best to play it safe? When you do dive for the ball, you have to make sure you keep it in front of you if you don’t catch it.

    3: Call for the ball. The other guy is not a mind reader. Make it obvious so he backs off.

    4: Hit the cutoff man. Don’t be a hero and air it out. Give your infielders a chance to decide if they should let the ball go through or cut it off. They can’t do that if you throw it too high.

    5: Don’t throw it to the wrong base. Don’t let another runner get into scoring position because you threw it to the wrong base.

    Assess the situation beforehand so you already have a plan no matter where they hit the ball. When you have to take time to think of what you should do instead of already knowing what to do, you can cost your team outs and the game.

    6: Throw the ball in once you catch it. If there are runners on base, don’t stand there and hold the ball. Throw it to the base the lead runner would be trying to get to.

    1: Infielders: Know who’s covering second on a bunt or a steal attempt. Communicate with each other. That also goes for first and third depending on the situation.

    2: Know when to cut the ball off on a play at the plate and when to let it go through. If the runner obviously is going to score, but the batter rounded a little too far off first or another base, you can catch him.

    If the throw to the plate is on target and it looks like it’s going to be a close play, let the ball go through. You need to stop any run you can from scoring.

    3: Know how to avoid the runner at second on a double play attempt and be able to throw the relay to first. Side-stepping, jumping over him, whatever it takes but don’t let the runner take you out of the play. You don’t want to give away outs.

My Philosophy

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    1: Build a strong farm system. It keeps your costs down when you constantly produce quality players. You also keep them under salary control for six years at the major league level.

    2: College players are closer to the big leagues. In the early rounds, if choosing between a college player and a high school player of near equal ability, I choose the college player. (The exception is an A-Rod type of high school player.)

    It’s also easier to project the college player. The high school player has more growing to do in more ways than one.

    3: Speed kills. Having players with speed that can run the bases and take the extra base creates more scoring opportunities.

    I think back to “Whitey ball” under Whitey Herzog with players like Vince Coleman, Tommy Herr, Willie McGee, etc. Having players with speed can also help you with defense, especially playing in bigger parks on the road covering the outfield.

    4: The importance of the “right” leadoff hitter. Having a leadoff hitter that knows how to work the count, gets on base no matter how he has to do it, and can steal bases greatly enhances a teams’ ability to put runs on the scoreboard.

    It also helps the batters hitting after him. The pitcher has to concentrate on the runner, throws over to first, and throws more fastballs to give his catcher an opportunity to throw him out if he tries to steal. (A perfect example was the White Sox of 2005 when Scott Podsednik was the key addition that led to them winning the World Series.)

    5: A good number two hitter is another important cog that makes a team work right. He has to have good bat control, be able to hit to the right side of the field, and know when to take a pitch to give the runner an opportunity to steal a base.

    If he’s also a good base stealer, it’s an added bonus.

    6: In building a team I look for baseball players more than just athletes who happen to play baseball. If you can combine both -- great; but I would prefer players that know how to play the game.

    My preference is to look at ballplayers that do have speed though, because I think that means so much to the success of the team. It's an overlooked part of the game today.

    7: My strategy is to try to score first. The team that scores first wins the majority of games -- even bad teams. A few years back when looking at the stat sheet in the press box when the Cubs were playing the Pirates in the last week of the season, the Pirates were thirty games under .500 but over .500 when they scored first.

    8: I always try to score the extra run, and I’m not afraid to give up an out to do that. (That’s one more run the other team has to score to beat me)

    9: Against the norm, I play for the tie on the road. You can’t win the game if you don’t tie it first.

    10: Except in rare situations, I don’t intentionally walk a batter, especially to load the bases. It puts too much pressure on the pitcher to throw a strike, and to lay a fat one in to the hitter because he doesn’t want to walk him.

    I’ve seen this happen so many times after a walk to load the bases. Unless an Albert Pujols is batting, I never do it in a tie game where a walk can win the game for the other team.

    11: From rookie ball on, I build up my pitchers arm strength. I have them throw more often between starts, including throwing batting practice like pitchers used to do many years ago.

    Throwing more often and also more long toss helps to build up arm strength and endurance. (I have never understood how baseball players today are much bigger and stronger except for pitchers, who can barely pitch six innings and do it in a five man rotation vs. four in the past.)

    Teams baby them today and do not get the most out of them.

    12: I believe pitching eight or nine innings is a quality start, not pitching five or six. Nolan Ryan of the Rangers started pitching his starters longer last year and it worked. He is an example of the kind of pitcher I’m talking about from the past.

    13: I do not pull my starter to start the ninth   inning if he’s pitching well. No matter who your closer is, sometimes the starter is unhittable, and your opponent is relieved to see him taken out.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this backfire. I’m going back to the closer being the fireman and coming in when my pitcher is in trouble, not just because it’s the ninth inning.

    If you build up the pitchers arm strength, the pitch count is nowhere near as important as it’s made out to be in today’s game. Steve Stone exhibited a similar belief when I interviewed him in 2004.

    14: I go back to a four man rotation. It’s easier to find four quality starters than five. If you look at a teams’ won-lost record with a fifth starter going, it’s definitely inferior to the first four with your chance to win.

    15: I talk to and hire pitchers from the sixties and seventies that used to pitch complete games on a regular basis in a four man rotation like a Fergie Jenkins and a Bob Gibson. I have my pitchers learn from them how to build up their arm strength and be able to finish a game.

    I also talk to ex-Cy Young award winner Mike Marshall, who used to pitch an unheard of amount of innings in relief, and has some interesting ideas of why pitchers experience arm trouble and what they can do to avoid it. He has been largely ignored by team executives including Jim Hendry of the Cubs.

    It’s worth at least listening to what he has to say.

    16: My players always run hard after hitting the ball, whether it looks like an easy grounder to an infielder, or a hit to the outfield that they jog on assuming only first or second base.

    I want to put pressure on the defensive team to make a play and force them into mistakes. If your players don’t hustle, you can’t do that.

    I teach that in the minor leagues from rookie ball on up to the major leagues. If you play for my team you always hustle, and if you don’t, you don’t play and I don’t care if you’re the best player on the team.

    There’s never a reason not to hustle because it’s just laziness and accepted by everybody today. For the money players make, that’s inexcusable. THAT’S MY TEAM RULE, PERIOD.

    17: My players also never stand and admire what they ‘think’ is a home run. ‘Never.’ They run hard out of the box until the ball clears the wall.

    I’m tired of home runs turned into singles and sometimes the player is out at second because he watched the ball. (If they do, they are immediately pulled from the game.)

    Also, some doubles might be triples if you run hard out of the box. As I said before, I challenge teams into making mistakes.

    18: My team always tries to take the extra base. Put pressure on the fielders to make a play and force them into mistakes. This doesn’t mean to run recklessly, but to be smart base runners.

Conclusion:

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    My template to build a baseball organization and philosophies are definitely out of the box, but who is to say they won't work.

    Bill James was laughed at and ignored when he first came out with his thoughts. So many of my ideas are not being utilized, and I think that is a mistake.

    Everything I put out here is relevant, and can change an organization that is an also-ran into a contender.

    Does it make sense to keep doing the same thing you have been doing forever and expect different results? That's how most organizations do things.

    Somebody who utilizes the ideas I brought forth here could look really smart, and become the team that others try to emulate.

    I passed this exact plan on to the owner of a major league baseball team. I have yet to hear from him, but he would be smart to heed this advice.

    I don't just think it can work - I think it would work.

    What do you think?

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