First base in baseball is more difficult to play than most people think. Good first basemen save their teams countless runs during the course of the season. They do this by using proper footwork and balance. Not all throws from infielders are on the mark. Low throws, wide throws, high throws, and every kind in between are what the first basemen must deal with. So, here are the top five footwork steps a fundamentally sound first baseman does.
1. Get to the Base Quickly
The first baseman should read the ball off the bat, and when it is hit on the ground, he should run to first base as quickly as possible. Naturally, he must take his eye off the ball, but experienced first sackers know where the base is almost instinctively. They use peripheral vision and repetition to know exactly where the base is and how many running strides it takes to get there — but all first basemen take their eyes off the ground ball. Of course, when they get to the base, they find the ball and focus on the next step.
2. Set Up Correctly at the Base
Set up next to the base in fair territory and face the infielder who is fielding the ground ball. With his chest facing the infielder, the first baseman gives the best target possible to the fielding infielder. With four infield positions besides first base (the pitcher is now an infielder too!), there are four general directional angles the first baseman can use. Do not put either foot on the base — yet. He should be in an athletic, ready position to catch any potential bad throw.
3. Read the Throw From the Infielder
This can’t be overstated. From his athletic, ready position the first baseman now reads the inbound throw. Is it high, wide, or low? How much velocity does it have? Which infielder threw the ball? This last question is important because every player has a unique flight to their throws. Some infielders throw with high velocity all the time. Some have a natural sink to their throws. Experienced first baseman read the throw first, before moving his feet.
It’s very important the first baseman not stretch to receive the ball until the throw is in flight and he has read it correctly. When I started playing first base in professional baseball, I did this incorrectly all the time. And many times the direction of my stretch was not the direction of the incoming throw — and it cost my team precious runs.
4. Use Footwork to Receive the Throw and Touch the Base
When a good throw is in flight, the first baseman now moves his feet to make the catch while touching the base. Either foot can be used to touch the base; however, most young players always use the same foot every time. This is okay, but more experienced first baseman learn to use either foot to touch the base — depending on the throw’s direction.
For instance, if the throw is to the outside of the base toward right field, he will put his left foot on the base while striding out with his right foot in order to reach the ball. Conversely, when the throw is inside the base (toward home plate), his right foot is on the base and left foot is striding. By switching feet this way, he extends his potential reach by a good margin. And, for throws directly at the first baseman, either foot can be used to touch the base.
It’s very important the first baseman not put his foot in the middle of the base. Players can get injured if this happens. We’ve all seen youth league first baseman put their foot in the middle of the base and the base runner either trips over it, or steps on it, thus injuring either the runner, first baseman, or both.
First baseman should always touch the inside of the base, not the top of the base. Inside means the edge of the base that faces the infield. Bases are approximately three to four inches high and have a crowned top. The sides of the base are high enough for the first baseman’s foot to fit next to, or on the top edge of, the base. Also when throws are wide, either outside or inside, the corners of the base extend his reach and should be used.
5. Adjust to Poor Throws
The third step in our series here described reading the throw. If the first baseman determines that the throw is completely off line, he should use footwork to come off the base. Only repetition and experience can tell the player when to do this. In these instances, don’t worry about touching the base, just make the catch. This prevents the batter-runner from advancing to second base, or other base runners from either advancing or scoring.
Low throws are another matter. If the low throw will skip far enough away from the first baseman, he should stay square to the throw and not attempt to stretch out for it. The idea is to provide time and distance to read the hop and hopefully catch the ball. Good first baseman know when to stretch for low throws and when to stay back and receive them on a long hop.
In between hops are tough. These are low throws that will not provide either a long or short hop. But, with the largest glove on the field, some first baseman get lucky and the ball bounces in to their glove. My rule on these throws is to relax your glove hand and do the best you can. But, and this is important, if there are base runners who will score when the ball gets by the first baseman, the first bagger should get in front of the low throw and block it. The batter-runner will most likely be safe, but it has prevented a run from scoring and given our team a fighting chance.