When To Bunt and When To Walk: A Coach's Guide to Coaching Players

All’s fair in love and baseball, right? That may or may not be entirely true 100% of the time. However, it’s certainly true that for a youth baseball team to play well, on the field or at bat, they need a coach that knows the game and can communicate how to play it.

Basic Baseball

Baseball at its most basic level is pretty easy to grasp. A pitcher throws a ball to a batter, the batter tries to hit the ball in a way that allows them to run around three bases and back to home plate (where they were standing at bat). If there were people from the team that were on any base from previous hits, they have an opportunity to move through the bases towards home. Each player that safely gets home scores a point, called a “run.” The team on the field (not up at bat) has a players at home plate (catcher), the pitcher, at each of the three bases, and at other strategic points on the field. Their job is to catch the ball when they can, throw the ball to teammates, and when they can, tag the runners out before they are safe on a base. The game is played in nine innings, designated by each team being at bat until they have three outs. The team with the most runs wins and if there is a tie then the game goes into extra innings.

Coaching a Youth Baseball Team

From there, the nuances of the game, the rules and the strategy become complex pretty quickly between stealing, fouls, and what makes a strike versus a ball and when a pinch hitter can be used. In some ways baseball is thus both the simplest and the most complex sport to master. Good players need solid skills with a bat and abilities at a minimum to run, catch and throw. Great players can do all of those, and slide with impressive accuracy.

So, as the coach of a youth team playing America’s favorite pastime, you have to know a lot, understand a lot and be able to teach a lot to many kids of various abilities. Each component of the game has its strategies. For instance, when to steal a base or two and when to intentionally walk a batter. However, one of the most important strategic decisions starts with the batter-up on plate when they have to decide at which balls they swing and how they should swing. There are at least four options from the batter’s perspective. As the coach it is both your job to help the players be prepared with the skill set to operationalize any of these when the timing is right and to recognize the player’s strengths and limitations and have them focus on one. You also have the responsibility to assure that the player is coached on the strategy that is best for them and the game in real time.

Batting Coach

When a youth batter comes to the plate and faces a pitcher, depending on their age and the league, they may have balls delivered to them that range from an average of 30 mph to 50. Top little league pitches have been clocked at 80 mph, which is getting pretty close to the average college pitch speed. (Source). The point being that once the ball leaves the pitcher’s hands the batter who is standing only about 60 feet from the pitcher, with the ball actually traveling about 46 feet, doesn’t have a lot of time to make a decision - she has to go on training and instinct. (Source). These distances increase as the kids who are playing age up, making the play even faster. So, in prepping your team to be at bat, break down the options and know the pros and cons of each for the game at hand and the player’s strengths. What you don’t want to do is put them in a position where they are striking out.

The Options at Bat

In general terms, the options a batter has are:

  • Try to hit a home run. This entails knocking it out of the park - a talent that is coveted by many and comes with standing ovations and sometimes fireworks. It is not easy to hit the ball in a way that literally leaves the boundaries in front of the foul ball lines, but if the player can do it they should go for it. Or, if it is early enough in the game and you have a strong chance of winning regardless of the outcome, let the player swing for all they are worth.

  • Try to hit to a hole in the field. This takes perhaps the most skill from a batter, as it means either literally to an area with no coverage and no player that can get there, or to a known weak player or players that are covering a section of the field.

  • Don’t swing at anything and try to get the four balls necessary to walk to first base (automatically advancing a runner there to second). The biggest problem with this tactic is that if the pitcher sends the ball into the strike zone and the player doesn’t swing they run the risk of striking out.

  • Bunt the ball. This might well be the most strategic move a player can pull out of their baseball tool-kit. “Bunting occurs when a batter holds the bat in the hitting zone and, without swinging, lets the ball make contact with it. The idea is to deaden the ball so that the baserunners can advance (or the hitter can get to first base) while the opposing fielders run in to make a play.”

As a coach, one of the biggest gifts you can give to the youth baseball players on your team is the ability to handle the bat with confidence. Thanks for reading and we invite you to continue to follow Hustle Fitness for more tips on being a great youth baseball coach.

Felipe Leon