Make the Game Itself Your Team's Opponent
By Darren Fenster
In June of 2016, Coastal Carolina University won the NCAA Division I National Title. The Chanticleers led all of college baseball with 95 home runs, ranked seventh overall in stolen bases with 111, and eighth nationally with 72 sacrifice bunts. Gary Gilmore’s club won a ring with an incredible combination of power, speed, and small ball.
The 2015 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals valued contact over power offensively, while putting together a bullpen full of big-velocity arms on the way to the city’s first crown since 1985. Louisiana State University teams of the 1990s arguably invented gorilla ball baseball, absolutely mashing their way to five National Championships over the a 10-year span.
Those three examples are proof positive that there are many ways to win many games. Every year, teams are made up of different players with different strengths. With a solid understanding of the things your group does well, you can strategize to play to those strengths, like LSU did with their power, the Royals with their bullpen, and Coastal with their dynamic combination of abilities.
But regardless of the makeup of your team, one thing will always remain a constant: in order to win, that club is generally going to have to execute the fundamentals of the game better than the team in the other dugout. Whether it be for a 162-game Major League Baseball season, or a 20-game high school schedule, the same premise applies. Execute the fundamental skills of the game better than the team in the other dugout, independent of the name across that club’s chest, and you’ll win more times than not.
With a runner on 3rd base, and less than two outs, it is a hitter’s responsibility to drive that run in, no matter who is on the mound. It makes no difference what team or what hitter put the ball in play, the defense still has to handle relays cleanly, while throwing the ball to the correct base; take the out that’s there for the taking on a rundown or a sacrifice bunt; and allow pop-fly priority to work on a ball hit into the Bermuda triangle of the shallow outfield in between three players. Quality pitches down in the zone and on the corners of the plate are far tougher to hit than those belt-high and down the middle, regardless of who is standing in the batter’s box.
The opponent will forever be a changing variable, but the game and its fundamentals will always remain a constant, day in and day out. With that in mind, we can emphasize the importance of those fundamentals by implementing them in many parts of our practices. Like a football team doing a walk-through the day before a game, on the diamond we can break down the responsibilities for each player on the field to make sure they know exactly where they need to be and what they need to do in order to execute a specific fundamental to perfection.
By introducing plays in an X’s and O’s format, and literally going through things at a walking pace, we give our players a very simple means to see and understand the game. For instance, on cutoffs and relays, we can place a focus not only on lining up to the base, but also on the technique and footwork for infielders to catch and throw the ball back in. Offensively, we can put our hitters in different situations (like a man on third with less than two outs and the infield in) during batting practice so they can grow accustomed to having an approach to get the job done both with their swing and pitch selection. Pitchers can do the same when working in the bullpen, mentally putting themselves in the game with certain pressure-filled situations against certain types of hitters. Everything that will ever come up in a game can be simulated in a very controlled environment during practice.
After a win, chances are you’ll be able to point out a handful of well-executed plays (or failed execution on the opponent’s side) that were the reason for coming out on top. Following a loss, the inability to play the game cleanly (or successfully by the opposition), offers a “why” for us being unable to pull things out. Most games provide great examples of how the basic team fundamentals play a direct role in the game’s outcome. Use those examples, both the good and the bad, to strengthen your stance and your team’s buy-in to taking pride in learning a singular approach: to play against the game’s constants, not the ever-changing opponent.
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.