The essentials of baseball movement training for position players entail specific speed, power, and agility (acceleration, deceleration, and redirection) components. Specificity in programming is determined by movement dimensions, integrated planes of movement (frontal, sagittal, and transverse), and positional attributes (3,11). Strength coaches should be active in game observation to modify and individualize the team conditioning program to cater to all players' performance needs. Observation will indicate frequencies in running linear base distances; maximum lateral, forward, backward, and rotational running movements (governed by position and situation); and braking and starting mechanisms in making plays, stealing bases, etc.
Concurrent strength programming must be considered when preparing the annual baseball movement training program. Both strength and speed training must be organized in a logical format to target bioenergetic needs, monitor and rectify overtraining, undertraining and noncompatability training before the competitive season (1,3,5,8,12). Program flexibility, undulating training cycles, and open communication should be emphasized to promote beneficial adaptation and an improvement in game speed (8).
GAME SPEED TRAINING IN BASEBALL
The development of maximal strength (>85% 1 repetition maximum training) and power (the product of force and velocity) is critical to the improvement of running speed (covering a distance in the shortest period) and initial and transitional acceleration (vector quantities indicating the rate of speed development) (1,3,4,11,12). As stated by Szymanski and Fredrick (11), initial acceleration in baseball occurs from a starting position or post-hitting contact to within the first 15 m (49.21 ft) and transitional acceleration occurs from 16 to 30 m (52.5-98.43 ft). Ironically, baseball players never reach maximal velocity (occurring within 31-60 m or approximately 102-197 ft) at any point in game movement, as curvilinear baserunning and linear distances of 90 ft or less do not permit maximum velocity, neuromuscular activation (11,14).
Traditionally, the 60 yd (180 ft/55 m) dash time has been used as the gold standard evaluation method for assessing players' speed (5). However, the 60 yd dash may not indicate true demonstrations of players' game speeds according to game distances and 2-base advance running situations (5,11). According to Coleman (5), Jeff Bagwell (1B, Houston Astros) had been clocked at 7.0 seconds in the 60 yd dash while demonstrating first to third times (180 ft) in the range of 6.80-6.85 seconds.
The disparity between game speed evaluation and the traditional 60 yd dash assessment tool should steer strength coaches, baseball coaches, and professional scouts to place more emphasis on acceleration (a game speed property) over traditional maximum speed assessment. With respect to benchmark game speeds, home to first times when a ball is contacted in the infield for a possible infield hit or beating out a double play should be between 4.0 and 4.2 seconds for left-handed hitters and between 4.1 and 4.3 for right-handed hitters at the average to above average rating (5,11). First to third as well as second to home times should be less than 7.0 seconds, with average speeds occurring from 6.8 to 6.9 seconds (5).
The purpose of this 3-part article is to present “game speed” conditioning drills designed to improve initial and transitional acceleration involved in base-stealing, sprinting up the first base line, and the enhancement of curvilinear speed for 2-base and 3-base advances.
PART I: INITIAL AND TRANSITIONAL ACCELERATION TRAINING
Acceleration toward bases from starting positions (i.e., primary base-stealing leads or lateral secondary leads) is arguably more important than the achievement of top speed. According to Verkhoshansky (14), acceleration is the physical expression of an athlete's highest capability in generating energy in the shortest period. Maximum cellular utilization of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) by high activation motor neurons and corresponding muscle fibers (fast twitch, type IIx) permits greater amounts of muscular force to be produced by the body (1,14). Large muscular forces generated by the body act on the ground producing large opposite ground reaction forces that translate to produce forward motion (4,14). Essentially, a base runner's ability to rapidly impart peak muscular and ground reaction forces, for his given body mass, will contribute to greater relative acceleration capabilities (acceleration = force produced/mass of body) (4).
Neuromuscular recruitment in generating maximal force is executed by graded increases in alpha motor neuron firing frequency, motor unit recruitment, and the fiber characteristics of the motor unit pool (1,14). The size principle states that motor units are recruited from smallest to largest. Thus, acceleration training exercises must be carefully selected by the baseball strength coach to challenge the neuromuscular system to recruit the largest motor units at the fastest possible rate (1,3,14).
ACCELERATION TRAINING CONCEPTS: PLYOMETRIC-PREPARATORY ACTIONS
Linear and rotation-to-linear acceleration can be enhanced by implementing plyometric-preparatory actions (PPAs) (7). Immediately after a PPA's eccentric phase, an increased contractile stretch of muscles' passive and contractile elements will propagate a rapid transfer of elastic energy, as well as increased contractile recoil (1,3,8,14). Ultimately, the application of a powerful preparatory stretch-shortening cycle will contribute to greater concentric forces exerted by the body against the ground in generating forward linear motion (1,3,8,14). Running distances to accompany PPAs should alternate between 10, 15, 20, and 30 m to encompass natural variance and gradation in stride frequency and stride length ingrained in initial and transitional acceleration (4,11,14).
An adequate movement and strength base should be established before introducing PPAs due to the force needs in generating power, acceleration, and absorption of shear and compression forces (8,10). As a general guideline, it is suggested that an athlete be clear of orthopedic injury and demonstrate a relative barbell squat strength ratio (weight lifted divided by the body weight) of at least 1.5 (10). The athlete may also participate in low-intensity plyometric training as stated by Shiner et al. (10). Basic pretraining movement programs must develop proper running technique, posture, stride cycling, and deceleration and redirection capacities. Without a solid grasp of sprinting fundamentals, points of deceleration will become more evident with greater physical challenges. As a safety note, PPA training should be performed on absorbent surfaces to reduce compressive loads and if administered on the playing field, cleats should be worn for enhanced traction and reduced slippage. PPAs should always be avoided in wet weather conditions and avoid practicing on loose warning track gravel.
Squat jump sprint
The squat jump sprint (SJS) (Figure 1a and 1b) is the least complex PPA movement (triple joint flexion-triple joint extension to landing in sagittal plane) and should be utilized for learning technique for future training success. Strength coaches should overemphasize landing strategies, which must be ingrained for progression and future success. With respect to coordinated landings, the athlete should try to soften impact by landing with flexed joints, in opposition (right hand-left leg or left hand-right leg) and coordinate powerful arm and leg actions as rapidly as possible in generating force for acceleration.
Reverse squat jump sprint
The reverse squat jump sprint is a progression of the SJS and can be conditioned to allow for rotation takeoff from left- and right-hand sides. Again, landing strategy must be practiced and optimized for improved acceleration.
Triple jump sprint
The triple jump sprint is a dynamic PPA in which the athlete executes 3 consecutive bounds to initiate a sprint. Athletes should avoid increasing bound length, as excessive eccentric loads on the hamstring group before takeoff maybe injurious. Instead, athletes should attain greater vertical heights in preparation for the acceleration component.
Lateral hop sprint
The lateral hop sprint coordinates rotational acceleration and the force transfer generated by the outside leg transmitting through the external-internal obliques, trapezius, serratus, rhomboid groups, and posterior deltoid of the outside shoulder. Redirection actions occur synergistically in combination with powerful internal and external hip rotation in producing forward acceleration.
Shuffle hop shuffle
The shuffle hop shuffle provides an increase in momentum applied to PPA in a lateral direction (frontal plane movement). This particular drill introduces a secondary lead. The athlete should concentrate on powerful shoulder abduction on landing and the avoidance of increasing or decreasing shuffle length (foot to foot clearance)
Mountain hiker sprint
The mountain hiker sprint (Figure 2a, 2b, and 2c) generates acceleration to build elevation. This particular drill has the athlete alternate the lead foot once as it regains its position before takeoff. The athlete should condition both feet as lead feet and emphasize high stride frequency over length early on in the drill.
The catcher sprint is designed specifically for catchers. From a comfortable crouch position, the catcher will perform a PPA into a throwing position, as if he was trying to throw out a runner and then sprint immediately on foot landing. This action will coordinate acceleration throughout the receiving-throwing sequence as applied ground reaction forces in throwing out of a crouch are overexaggerated.
The burpee sprint is a complex movement, which rapidly accelerates the center of body mass upward and outward from a ground position. The athlete is lying prone in a push-up position. He coordinates a ground plyometric by performing an explosive push-up while driving the knees toward the chest and recovering in a crouch position. The crouch position is immediately followed by an explosive squat jump, followed by linear acceleration on landing. Landing strategies must be coordinated in a similar fashion to the SJS, as the squat jump is the latter portion of the PPA.
ACCELERATION TRAINING CONCEPTS: OVERCOMING A STATIC POSITION
Drills are carefully selected to create situations where the athlete must overcome whole-bodied, large, mass moments of inertia (resistance to linear and angular accelerations) through various static preparatory positions. The drills may include perceptual cues (either visual or auditory) to initiate forces required to produce explosive, linear, and angular motion; overcoming the weight of the segments; their anatomical relationship to respective joints and musculature; and gravity. The cuing component acts in a similar manner to reading pitchers or responding to a first base coach in the incidence of an overthrown pick-off attempt. Force synergism and maximum acceleration are the performance needs of interest, and therefore, distances should be established at 5-10 yd.
Get up series
Lying prone or supine with hands directed forward or backward, the athlete responds to a cue and instantaneously coordinates upward and forward motion from an extreme static position. The ability to raise and accelerate one's center of mass (CM) from a ground position will translate to baseball-specific actions in accelerating the body during baserunning, fielding, and catching situations.
Lateral ground hop
In the frontal plane single-leg kneeling position with contralateral knee and hand positioning, the athlete will generate powerful hip extension and abduction in propelling the body laterally (Figure 3a and 3b).
In a sagittal plane dual-leg kneeling position, the athlete sits on his heels with his arms back behind his body. From this position, in a coordinated fashion, the athlete rapidly flexes his trunk forward and swings his arms upward rapidly, producing hip flexion to land on his feet.
The movement can be 2 part in raising the center of gravity (CG) from the ground surface when finishing in knee-hip extension from a squat.
Knee ups plus
In a sagittal plane single-leg kneeling position with arms back, the athlete propels himself upward, rapidly raising the ground knee. In air, the athlete raises the lunge leg knee and lands on the contralateral ground leg. Therefore, the athlete must accelerate both leg masses while in air (Figure 4a and 4b).
ACCELERATION TRAINING CONCEPTS: SLOW TO FAST
There are certain competitive instances where athletes commence rapid acceleration from a slow preparatory motion. This can be seen when corner players act on a bunted ball or when a base runner on third base takes his secondary lead toward home plate and scores on a contact play. The following drills are designed to accelerate the CM under conditions of lowered inertial properties (when the CM is already in motion). Similarly, the CG (vertical distance of the CM from the earth's surface) will also be constant when employing such drills.
- Walk-sprints initiated by walking and then rapidly accelerating to linear motion. The strength and conditioning professional can arbitrarily decide upon how many paces his or her athletes will walk until powerful acceleration. Similarly, due to the low impact nature of this drill, sprint distances may also vary. Athletes can be cued to take off on command or be debriefed on how many paces they must initiate before takeoff.
- Walk-back sprints has the athlete start on the finish line facing the starting line. The athlete walks forward toward the starting line, and then on command, he will rapidly rotate his body and initiate forward acceleration through the finish line. The athlete may be instructed to turn to his left and to his right to condition both left and right foot starts.
- Backward walk-sprints (BWS) occur when the athlete starts at the finish line facing the strength and conditioning coach and proceeds to walk backward toward the starting line. When appropriate, the strength coach will cue forward acceleration.
- Forward jog sprints will have the athlete jog for 10 yd, sprint for 10 yd, jog for 10 yd, and finish with a sprint for 10 yd.
- Backward jog sprints are similar to the BWS, as the athlete will have increased braking force by the hamstring in coordinating forward acceleration from a backward jog. A proper backward jog entails having the athlete run with his head forward “nose over toes” position in combination with trunk flexion. This will allow the athlete to be more efficient in braking to produce forward acceleration.
PART 2: LEADOFF TO ACCELERATION (STEALING SECOND BASE)
From personal observation, movement patterns from a primary lead in stealing first base have shown many inconsistencies across amateur, collegiate, and professional levels. Offensive players are often taught to crossover their lead foot (foot closest to second base) with their lag foot (foot closest to first base) in an effort to generate a steal start. This action is known as a “crossover step” start, which may prove to be ineffective (4). Similarly, the primary lead has many different angles of hip flexion, spinal extension, knee flexion, and arm placement. Most joint angles and body segment positions are predetermined or ingrained by the athlete by comfort. At present, research has not presented the effectiveness of joint position or steal-start kinesiology in scientific journals.
With respect to anatomical resistance to human movement, linear inertia and angular moments of inertia (segment masses and their moments of inertia) are primary items of which forces must overcome in an effort to produce acceleration of the CM (15). Inertial properties are anthropometric and therefore can entertain minimal change. If segment masses and lengths are not highly variable, the primary focus to examine motion resistance considers body positioning and its effect on increasing stability (15). Variance in one's ability to generate rapid steal-start motion will entail manipulation of the body's CG, being the vertical distance of the CM from the ground surface, and the base of support (BOS), which is the foot placement distance perpendicular to the vertical line of action imparted by the body's CM (15). Essentially, evaluating the CG position and added mass below the CG, as they interact with the body's BOS, should provide the necessary frameworks for scientific investigation into base-stealing kinesiology.
It is not atypical to observe base runners at first base displaying wide bases of support, often angling their knees medially (valgus position), hands low to the ground with the trunk mass supported outside the BOS through trunk flexion greater than 90°. Although primary leads are completely individual with respect to proprioceptive response and kinesthetic awareness leading to initial movement, there are some considerations to assess in providing the body with its best chance to reach maximum acceleration.
Increased stability (widened BOS beyond shoulder width and lowered CG with increased knee flexion and hip flexion), increased friction and resistance to movement (valgus knee position), and the addition of arm weight (hands inside BOS and below CG) may contribute to reduced acceleration rates. The baserunning coach should observe the athlete to find what combinations provide the greatest acceleration and ease in movement. If the leadoff position causes the athlete to expend great effort in achieving rotational-to-linear motion (i.e., powerful upward motion from a crouched position in moving to the direction of second base), further attention is needed. In essence, the base runner should gradually ascend in generating acceleration forces, rather than descending from a heightened initial position, such as coming out of a low stance (4). Video analyses may provide the best insight whether the athlete is wasting muscular effort and time in achieving his best horizontal lean (approximately 45°) from the horizontal plane (4). Similarly, the strength and conditioning coach should select or create appropriate exercises to condition the athlete to maintain consistency and efficiency in coordinating steal-start motions, as well as conditioning maximum acceleration at approximately 45° from the ground surface (4). The following body segment evaluation from ground to head may enhance performance in developing the best possible primary positions transitioning from start to maximum acceleration.
- Foot position-the athlete should start with his stance slightly greater than shoulder width, with the right foot slightly open toward second base. The left foot should be directed to home plate and slightly above the right foot to create a foot laneway on rotation.
- Tibial angle-the knee should be aligned over the foot to allow for balance and reduced resistance to leftward or rightward motion.
- Knee flexion-dynamic concentric quadriceps strength is maximized at 55-60° knee flexion (13). Greater degrees of knee flexion will add to lowering the CG (adding to greater stability and greater upward movement before rotational motion) and may increase the time to peak force application. Knee extension beyond 55° may not allow the quadriceps to achieve an optimal length-tension relationship in producing peak torque (13).
- Trunk-hip flexion-the placement of the trunk and hips should be balanced within the BOS. The increased flexion at both instances will require initiation of back extension torques and overcoming excessive hamstring loading from a bent-over position. Both back extension and increased eccentric hamstring loading (extension to flexion to extension) provide extrapreparatory movement versus the primary lead biomechanics required in acceleration (flexion to extension of joints).
- Arm position-the left hand should be placed at the left hip, and the right hand placed approximately 6 in. from the umbilicus. Elbows should be flexed, and shoulders should be relaxed.
- Head-the head must be in a neutral position (Figure 5)
As mentioned previously, many athletes initiate frontal to sagittal movement (movement in the transverse plane) by using a crossover step. The crossover step increases reliance on the lag leg (leg closest to first base) for initial force generation. In examination of sprinters, 2 feet are employed in producing tremendous ground reaction forces off the starting blocks. If not executed efficiently, the crossover step start method may increase the time of which an athlete is in single support (1 foot on a ground surface to initiate ground reaction forces) and thereby reducing acceleration force production (4).
The crossover step also has the tendency to put the athlete in ipsilateral symmetry (flexion of the same leg and arm), which causes the athlete to reorient his arms to coordinate maximum acceleration (Figure 6). Ultimately, a good start is one that has the athlete's head, joints, and CM directed to second base as fast as possible. Again, the crossover method may not be the best practice in rapidly orienting the body toward second base.
The “push to drop” method has been designed to increase the instance of double support (2 feet to generate primary ground reaction forces) while concentrating on lead leg (right leg) force reliance in propelling the CM. Similarly, the arm path and upper-body synergism is designed to orient the body toward second base as a primary action before linear acceleration may take place. Rapid orientation of full body joints to allow for powerful flexion-extension actions in the direction of second base is pivotal (4). Such joint alignment will allow for maximal muscular recruitment and reduce the incidence of weaker abduction actions to generate forward acceleration (4).
The push and drop concept may prove to be a better technique in stealing bases and is not well documented in scientific literature. Starting from the leadoff stance mentioned above, the athlete is to push from the lag leg in moving the CM in the direction of second base while opening and dropping the lead foot behind the migrating CM in propelling the body forward. Opening and dropping the foot, behind the migrating CM, must occur by minimally clearing the ground to place flexed lead leg joints (ankle, knee, and hip) under or slightly behind the CM. As the CM shifts over the lead hip and foot, the athlete will initiate driving the body toward second base with double-support (2 feet) ground reaction forces, as the lag leg transfers energy to the lead leg. The base stealer will gradually ascend to an appropriate sprint height in continuation of powerful acceleration from a 45° angle to the horizontal surface (4).
The above lower-body sequence is actually initiated by powerful arm and torso rotation actions to orient the body toward second base. The left hand will thrust forward as the right hand pulls back to the hip, improving rotation of the torso and hips. Such upper-body actions increase the efficiency of horizontal abduction by the lag leg in moving CM and coordinating initial contralateral orientation of the right leg and left arm, which is sometimes inefficient in crossover step starts (Figure 7).
CONDITIONING FOR STEALING
Conditioning exercises should coordinate push and drop actions, allowing the athlete to manipulate the horizontal displacement of the CM. Similarly, work distances should emphasize the athlete's ability to achieve 45° horizontal lean in acceleration. The following exercises are such examples.
- Walk-into steal drills have the athlete take a crossover step, land on his lead leg, and take off with 2-ft ground reaction.
- Pivots (PV) have the athlete execute 3 violent PV (push and drop method). On the fourth PV, he will take off.
- Mini-lateral bound to steal exercises have the athlete produce small, lateral translatory movements, and then the athlete coordinates a landing strategy to accelerate from a push and drop action.
PART 3: CURVILINEAR ACCELERATION
Predominant speed training tactics for professional, amateur, and collegiate baseball focuses on linear running patterns and variation in metabolic demand (5,6,11). In combination to linear motion, it is important to consider angular or centripetal motion as base runners, pitchers, and outfielders run curvilinear patterns of varying radii. Most conditioning programs executed by strength and conditioning coaches and baseball coaches consider baserunning as the principle activity in conditioning curvilinear running technique and efficiency (5,6,12).
Curvilinear running performance can be further enhanced by manipulating the radius of curvature (2). In curvilinear running, the athlete must make all attempts to reduce deceleration from a linear path and accommodate for inertial changes and centripetal force acting on the body (external rotary force directed to the center axis of a curvilinear motion arc) (2).
Through curvilinear running drills, the athlete will condition foot supination and pronation strength and enhance arm action in diminishing the effects of deceleration and inertia (2). When running bases, the inside foot (left foot) is in a modified supinated position, whereas the outside foot (right foot) is in a modified pronated position to counter inertia and accommodate for centripetal force. Such joint orientations help maintain appropriate ground reaction contact (2).
Drills must be carefully selected and varied in the training week to reduce the incidence of overuse injuries (2). Drills can incorporate open curves and closed curves to decrease or increase the effort exerted by the muscles causing motion about the subtalar joint (2). It is also essential to train both directions for strength symmetry involving the left and the right subtalar joints (foot inversion/eversion) (2). Athletes should be on a surface that allows for appropriate friction and cleats should be worn. When performing such drills in an indoor setting, the coach must make sure that all athletes have appropriate footwear to support lateral traction and stability (cross trainers and no worn soles) and that the court surface or running surface is clean and dry.
The following exercises are examples of such drills ranging from novice to advanced training (open to closed curvilinear running drills).
- Drop step arc conditions the athlete to initiate curvilinear sprinting with an open drop step (low to moderate radius of curvature) (Figure 8).
- Snow cone arc has the athlete begin his sprint on a linear path, running around the arc, and then continue running linearly to the starting point (moderate radius of curvature).
- Circle arc involves running in a continuous circle. Changing the radius of curvature will alter force applications (smaller circle is advanced to large circular running).
- Strength band training has the athlete performing plantar flexion, dorsi flexion, ankle inversion, and eversion to strengthen the muscles about the subtalar joint using elastic resistance.
Exercise prescriptions concerning all the previously mentioned drills must coordinate with strength programs, skill training, the demands of the competitive season, and metabolic needs. The primary energy sources for baseball motion are ATP-CP and fast glycolysis (15-30 seconds of high-intensity work) (5,11,12). The duration of effort should vary between both energy systems to ensure that running effort and neuromuscular activation coincide with baseball distance-time relationships (approximately 4-5 seconds for home to first, 7-8 seconds for home to second, 10-12 seconds for home to third, and 14-16+ seconds for home to home). Rest should correspond to activity intensity, repetition (reps), and distances. Generally, an activity to rest ratio of 1:8 early in the season should suffice for most durations, especially for tempo running (under 100% effort) (5,11). As effort increases, one may increase the activity to rest ratio from 1:8 to 1:12-20 for ATP-CP conditions (11).
As preseason and in-season approach, the training design must feature low rep, high-intensity work, and training sessions should be no more than 20-25 minutes in length. Often, conditioning segments in professional baseball occur before fundamental skill work. The goal is to prime the athlete before games on a daily basis, not to create fatigue before games. For neuromuscular consistency throughout the season, it may be better to run low volume (4-6 reps) at 100% rather than high volume, low-intensity effort training (5).
Training response and overtraining tendencies are highly individual, as some athletes will request greater stimulation, whereas others will desire less work in season (8). Player communication and game speed assessment should provide the basis for program evaluation and adjustment in such instances where the athlete has no perception of his total work and effort needs.
Off-season training is best suited for an undulating pattern (alternating intensities). As such, athletes can experience high-load and low-load training to combat central nervous system fatigue, overuse injury, and metabolic inefficiency (8). Again, player communication and drill speed assessment will allow the strength coach to find flexibility in programming and understanding as to where one has to increase volumes, intensities, or reduce training effort (Tables 1-3, off-season, preseason, and in-season).
From a professional baseball standpoint, directors and individuals in general management positions assess baseball prospects by their raw athletic qualities in combination with statistical presence. Within the prospect pool, players are designated by promise and proof of performance. The evaluation of an athlete's physical and emotional quality concerns his ability to demonstrate proficient, projectable “tools,” or skills, in addition to competitive behavior and psychology. A baseball player's competitive demeanor and emotional control combine to form an intangible performance factor known as “player make-up.” With respect to the tools criteria, characteristic within this particular assessment field includes an athlete's ability to run, throw, field, hit for contact, and hit for power to all fields. “Tools” players fall under the umbrella of athletes who demonstrate 4-5 skill-related attributes projected at high quality, one being running speed (9). The “numbers” players refer to the division of prospects that represent strong statistics but may lack a combination of physical tools considered to be at high professional quality. Numbers players are often older collegiate-experienced players who have shown an advanced ability to reach base and perform well offensively against proven talent at the collegiate level. Generally, these prospects often lack speed and defensive prowess, which may not be deemed important to offense-seeking organizations (9).
With respect to both prospect designations, optimizing an athlete's speed, power, quickness, and redirection capabilities will most definitely translate to an increase in player value and winning percentages bearing that the athlete has developed game instincts (5,12). A faster, more athletic defensive fielder has an opportunity to protect runs by taking away hits. On offense, a player who demonstrates a high percentage of ability to steal second base should be worth 0.50 runs to his organization the majority of times he reaches base (9). Similarly, an enhanced ability to beat out infield ground balls, double plays, advance 2 bases per hit, or advance on a bobbled ball will further add to a player's scoring potential (9). The enhancement of a team's scoring potential and run prevention capabilities is just one of the many ways by which the strength and conditioning coordinator in baseball contributes to a winning organization.