Baseball: A Game of Decisions

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a podcast hosted by Luke Gromer, a youth basketball coach from Arkansas. In it, he was discussing how he teaches his team of 11-year-olds the importance of taking good shots in the game. Using a scale of three (for a poor shot that was well-defended or out of range) to nine (wide open or high-percentage shot), players scored points based on the quality of shot, regardless of whether it went into the basket. Coach Gromer was coaching his players about making the right decisions, rather than focusing on getting the best results.

This approach really resonated with me, because when it comes to coaching baserunning specifically, coaches are often blinded by a runner being out or safe instead of determining whether the decision to go for the extra base was a good one. If a guy was safe, it was a good decision; out, then it’s a bad one. That is most definitely not always the case.

For instance, if it takes a perfect throw from the outfielder to get our runner out, that result will generally be on our side because throwing with that kind of arm strength and accuracy isn’t a common skill. It’d be a good decision to go. If we are down by four in the 9th inning when a runner tries to steal second and the throw beats him by a mile but is high or off-line, even though he got the stolen base, that’s not a good decision within the situation of the game and will likely come back to bite us if it happens again.

As our organization’s Minor League Baserunning Coordinator, I often found myself talking to our coaches about coaching the baserunning decision and not the umpire’s call. In a results-oriented game, that’s a really hard thing to do… especially when an out on the bases is a costly one that ends a rally or gives the opponent momentum. As coaches, our emotion regularly kicks in whenever that happens. I know it did for me. But that’s when we must take a step back and look at the play beyond just the outcome.

We often hear baseball as being a game of failure, but when you look under the hood, you can see it is a game of decisions. Every single part of the game has some element of choice. Every pitch. Every play. Decision after decision after decision.

Think about hitting. Are our hitters swinging at the right pitches? Their swing decisions- not just ball or strike, but hot or cold spots within the zone- will directly correlate with their ability to hit the ball hard. A rocket lineout is a good swing decision even when the result wasn’t there. When it comes to pitching, every single pitch is a decision between the pitcher and catcher (and at many amateur levels, the coach, too) as to what pitch to throw the hitter. A bloop single on a bad swing against a perfectly executed pitch does not make it a bad decision to throw that pitch because bad swings on good pitches usually lean heavily in favor of the pitcher.

On defense, infielders must make decisions about how to get a ball and create an easy hop. Outfielders must decide what base to throw the ball to either throw a runner out or keep the double play in order. Those types of decisions are everywhere, all game long.

When our players consistently make good decisions, the positive outcomes we all want tend to follow, so let’s learn how to coach decisions, not results.

Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Infield Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In addition to being the Third Base Coach for the 2020 US Olympic Team, Fenster was previously 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.