If I were managing a baseball team, any player who didn’t hustle to first base on a fair ball, no matter where it went, but especially on a ground ball to an infielder, would be gone in a hurry!
It bugs me the way so many Major League players don’t hustle down to first base on a grounder, when first base in unoccupied. Oh, they’ll try hard enough to prevent a double play most of the time. But when they assume the fielder is going to make the play, they slow down noticeably.
Really fast left-handed batters can make it from home to first in less than four seconds. They are a couple of steps closer to first than right-handed batters, a decided advantage, especially when bunting for a base hit. On a routine ground ball the infielder has to field the ball cleanly and make an accurate throw to first to get the batter out. Most of the time they do that in the Majors.
But not always. Think of all the things that can go wrong on any given ground ball. The ball can
take a bad hop, causing the fielder to bobble it just enough for the batter to beat the throw to first. Even a routine ground ball can be mishandled. The fielder might have trouble getting the ball out of his glove. Or he might make a poor throw to first, one that the first baseman can’t handle cleanly, or one that pulls him off the bag.
When infielders know that a base runner is always hustling, always going all out to beat the throw, it puts more pressure on them, causing them to hurry their throw, thus increasing the possibility of an error.
A tie goes to the base runner, of course, but even if the ball gets there a fraction of a second ahead of the runner, there’s also the slim chance that the umpire can make a mistake and call him safe. Why make it easy for your opponents by giving up? Why make it easier for an umpire to see that you’re out? Umpires will never give a laggard the benefit of the doubt.
So a player should never assume that he is automatically out on a routine ground ball. Even when he sees that the throw is going to beat him “by a mile,” he should keep hustling down the line. The fans love a hustler. Scouts love a hustler. Managers and coaches love a hustler. Teammates love a hustler. Hustling makes an average ball player better, and a better ball player great. Many players could increase their on-base percentage and their batting average if they’d just hustle more.
How many times I have had occasion to say to myself or to someone with whom I’m watching a game, “He could have beaten that out, if he had kept hustling!” And how many times I’ve seen batters take it easy on a fly ball to the outfield, when they assume the ball is going to be caught. Just as infielders can mess up, so can outfielders. I saw the incomparable Joe DiMaggio drop a routine fly ball in a game with the Athletics. He was jogging in for an easy catch, but the ball hit the heal of his glove and popped to the ground.
A hustling base runner who takes advantage of an unexpected error or a ball that’s mishandled in the outfield can often wind up on second base, rather than first, or on third rather than second.
Some players can’t run well, that’s true. They’re naturally slower than other players. But they can still hustle, and when they do they often surprise themselves.