Coaching Tips for the First Baseman
I think sometimes the first base position at the younger levels can be under rated by some coaches. The first base position is sometimes seen as an easy position with little responsibility when in fact the opposite is true. To properly develop a good first baseman the coach must teach the player a number of different position specific skills and responsibilities. Let’s take a look at some Baseball Coaching Tips for the First Baseman.
#1 Selecting Players to Play First Base
A taller, larger player who would be a bigger target for the infielders to throw to would be a natural fit. However, a baseball coach with a limited pool of players may not have that luxury. It will be more important to find first basemen with the following attributes: ability to receive throws including really bad ones, good fielding ability, good foot work, and players with a little more maturity who will have the ability to make quick decisions & understand situational play. What I’m saying is that ability should outweigh size. However, if a coach does have a taller, larger player who just isn’t ready yet then the coach can work on grooming that player to become a first baseman. Size and ability would of course be the total package.
#2 A First Baseman’s Mitt
If the league doesn’t already provide one then a wise investment for a baseball coach would be a first baseman’s mitt. I bought one for my team when I was a coach and felt it was money well spent. At the baseball level I feel the players should be using the proper equipment whenever possible. Also, the first baseman’s mitt is like a catcher’s mitt but only for the first baseman. The glove is bigger than other infield gloves to help better secure thrown balls and it’s padded more for repetitive hard throws that a first baseman will have to receive during games and practice.
#3 First Base Foot Work
This is yet another skill that appears easy but takes some practice before it is perfected. A young player who has never played the first base position before will have to get used to finding the base with their foot while at the same time trying to focus on the incoming throw from an infielder. Not only will they have to make sure to have the base secured with their foot but also must make sure they are not standing in the middle of the base because the baserunner is entitled to an unblocked base.
The first baseman will sometimes stretch for a weakly thrown ball in an attempt to make it a closer play at first base. However, something that happens quite a bit at the younger levels is a first baseman that stretches to early for a thrown ball. The problem with stretching too early is that if the throw is off target then the first baseman’s hips are now locked which causes immobility. Most of the time the first baseman will not have enough time to get out of the stretch position and field/catch the wild throw. If a first baseman wants to properly utilize the stretch then they must learn to first read the thrown ball while it is in the air and then determine if it will be necessary to stretch.
#5 Picking a Ball in the Dirt
I always coach my first basemen to anticipate bad throws. Anyone can catch the easy ones, the good first baseman catches the difficult ones. Heroically picking a bad throw out of the dirt can change the momentum of the game and is an exciting play for the first baseman to execute. The proper technique for cleanly fielding a throw in the dirt is to stretch to the ball, getting in a lower position. Just like a grounder, work from the ground up receiving the baseball with soft hands while absorbing it towards your body just like you would with a hard hit grounder. In most situations, whether the first baseman sets up to backhand it or scoop it is their personal preference of how the feel most comfortable. Coaches need to practice these picks as much as possible so their first basemen feel comfortable and this becomes a routine play.
#6 Holding the Base
A first baseman’s main responsibility is catching the ball. A first baseman will have to learn when it is necessary to give up holding the base and attempt to simply secure the ball. A wild or off target throw will make a first baseman have to make this split second decision. The first baseman is better off leaving the base to attempt keeping the wild throw in front of them rather than risking the ball ending up in “no man’s land” which will allow the baserunner(s) to possibly take extra bases. Sometimes it is actually a defensive advantage to abandon holding the base and go after the ball. For example, an off target throw that pulls the first baseman off the base and near the path of the baserunner will allow for a tag play to force the runner out before the runner can even make it to first base. A coach can do the best they can to teach good decision making but the best teacher will be experience which includes game experience as well as lots of practice.
#7 Take It Yourself
Many times a first baseman will have to make the decision to attempt to make a force out at first base without assistance or make an alternate play that will involve tossing/throwing the ball to another player covering first or possibly throwing to another base entirely. The easiest way to simplify this for a young first baseman is to use a very basic concept- if the batted ball draws the first baseman away from the base then most likely this is going to require assistance. On the other hand, if the play draws the first baseman very close to the base then the first baseman should take the “easy out” unassisted. With a runner on first ( with less than two outs), a young first baseman maybe tempted to pass on the easy out to start a double play. Again to keep things simple, the easy out should almost always be taken and after the easy out at first is made then a throw can be made to second for a possible tag out. Again this type of decision making skill is best taught to a player by gaining experience at the first base position.
#8 Tossing the Ball to The Pitcher Covering First Base
When the first baseman is drawn away from the base, the pitcher will cover first and receive a toss/throw from the first baseman. Sounds easy, right? Not so fast. This is a skill that I have seen under practiced or not practiced at all at the younger levels and it’s a big mistake. There is actually a lot of timing that goes into this seemingly simple play. The first baseman must lead the pitcher with the toss/throw which requires good timing. If the first baseman tries tossing/throwing the ball directly to the pitcher as they run then a lot of times the ball ends up behind the pitcher causing the pitcher to have to reach back for the ball which is now going in the opposite direction of the base. Even if the pitcher is able to secure the ball, it will be a much more difficult play and usually is not successful. A timing play such as this should be practiced regularly.
#9 Foul Popups
When playing at an unfamiliar field, a first baseman needs to look over foul territory in case of a foul popup. On smaller fields, the best technique is usually to run to the fence and then try to find the ball. When younger players do not know where the fence is, they are uncertain as to where they can move and drop easy popups that should be outs. Plays behind first base the first baseman should learn to run to a spot but hopefully a faster fielder with a better angle, the second base or right fielder, will call them off and make the play.
#10 Fair Popups
First basemen need to aggressively pursue balls in the triangle between first, home and the pitchers mound. They will have the best angle and a sure handed first baseman will be the best player for most of those plays.
#11 Interfering With Runners
I find that a problem a lot of first basemen at the younger levels have is positioning when they are not involved with a play. This can be a huge problem because a lot of times this leads to the first baseman interfering with runners. The first baseman must be taught to allow a clear base path for the runner. An immature first baseman will also sometimes be tempted to make unnecessary contact with base runners ( like a fake tag) or flat out attempt to slow down the runner by blocking the base path. The coach must teach the first baseman to be a disciplined player who doesn’t make these type of mental mistakes.
#12 Defensive Positioning
There are three basic defensive positions for a first baseman. Against a right handed batter, the basic defensive position is almost even with the base and about four to five feet away from the base depending on skill level & range of the player. Against a left handed batter, the basic defensive position is behind the base about four to five feet and again this will depend on skill level & range of the player. Defending a bunt or if the play is at home then the basic defensive position is in front of the base and on the infield grass. A coach can also “tinker” a bit with defensive positioning based on prior knowledge such as opposing player ability or even the field itself ( fast infield, slow infield, spots that produce bad hops,etc.).
#13 Fielding Under Pressure
The first baseman will quite often encounter very close plays at first base that will involve hard hit balls and base runners speeding towards the base attempting to beat the fielder to the base. A first baseman can become pressured by attempting to field a ball followed by making a play while the base runner is closing in on the base. The best advice to give a first baseman trying to handle this type of pressure is to take things one step at a time. The initial focus has to be on securing the ball which won’t always be clean ( hard hit balls can be knocked down, dropped, bobbled, etc.) and then making the play which will either be by an assist to another fielder or the first baseman taking the out themselves. Again, experience and maturity will also help handle pressure. The more pressure situations the first baseman encounters then the more “battle tested” they will become.
First base is not one of the most glamorous positions on a baseball team but it is very important. To develop a complete first baseman, a baseball coach must not only work on fundamentals but also the position specific skills that make the first base position challenging and unique.