Baseball has a problem, a problem that has been ingrained in us since we first step foot on a practice field. We as coaches have become accustomed to this problem, and probably reinforce this behavior day in and day out. We train at a pace that does not replicate in game action. Our practices are slow and not game speed. We show these guys 65 during BP, and expect them to hit 85-90 with ease. And even when it comes to Fungo we hit them groundballs and let them ease practice reps through to make sure we finish plays, and don't end up chasing balls. Yet When we get to the game we rush throws, and don't have a feel for the flow of the play.
Alright, as far as this being a breakthrough idea I'm sure we can all say that this is not. Everyone knows that training game speed reps is an issue. Everyone understands that this problem is as widespread as baseball itself. There are plenty of ways to mimic game speed with drills, and punishment, but to me I wanted to find a way to mimic these in game experiences with every rep we take. Infield partner/tight drills are for mechanics, and the cage is where we can fine tune things, but when we get onto the "live" part of practice I want plays to be crisp, and me not to have to constantly be yelling "game speed". These are a couple of ways that I've been able to institute some of those ideas with extremely cheap options, both financially and cheap as far as expense of players training economy. ( I don't want my outfielders running 35 sprints to first just to take infield fungo) These steps were taken to get fast sharp reps during every day practice, both increasing reps and practice "feel", but more importantly increasing in game performance.
The first thing I immediately think of when it comes to fungo is seeing the outfielders grab a helmet and line up at home plate. Now that is a viable option and will produce quality reps, but when it's late in the year, or you want outfielders to get defensive reps there needs to be a solution. Enter the stopwatch. Literally one of the easiest additions to practice. Every coach should own one of these, and if you do not then I'm sure a track coach near you does. using a stopwatch to time reps will increase speed and decision making. According to HS baseball web the average time from contact to touching 1st base for a RH hitter is 4.3 seconds. LH hitter 4.2. (http://www.hsbaseballweb.com/pro-scouting/scouting_speed.htm ) For most of my infield plays including double plays I allow 4 seconds from the time the ball is hit to the time the ball is in the 1st baseman's glove. This amount of time is tough to meet when you haven't been practicing at that speed, but it takes immediate effect. Standing by 1st base with a stopwatch and yelling out times will speed up reps, and make players aware of the amount of time a play takes. Infielders will continue to develop knowledge of the speed of the game, and their decisions will be returned with instant feedback. As they mature, and throws/fielding gets cleaned up they will start to compete for the fastest play at 1st, or the quickest time for a double play. Taking the top play and posting that information, or making it a goal to beat will also drive players.
Mimicking game speed with mini games is also a great way to keep baserunning to a minimum, keep competition throughout practice, and maintain a high pace of play. Moving the bases 10 feet closer, or starting infielders on the OF grass cut and hitting normal groundballs will elicit cutting ground, and learning a feel for "game speed".
These all sound like positives and will encourage players to speed up and make decisions quickly, but do expect a downside. If you have not practiced at a high intensity then players trying to speed things up will quickly display flaws. Sped up throws may be errant, and decisions may be predetermined without recognizing speed of ball, or runner. These are obstacles that will take time and maturity to work through.
Where defense takes you personally yelling out feedback baserunning can have it's own unstated feedback. Players will learn efficient paths if you provide incentives for them. Nothing is more frustrating than having a good batting practice session only to see lazy baserunning. Baserunning can win ball games, and is personally my favorite part of baseball. In order to have good baserunning like all things it must be practiced, and it must be coached. Kids don't like baserunning unless you make it worth their time. I have found that rather than doing it at the end of practice, where it becomes punishment we do baserunning as one of our first items of practice. We cut down on reps, and focus on quality over quantity. To start practice we take a timed stolen base. Kids take their normal lead with a pitcher live on the mound. I stand with my stopwatch and we take 2 timed stolen bases. The good thing is if you have a lot of players there's multiple bases to do this from (Just because you're on second base doesn't mean you can't work on a 1st base lead and stolen base). The point of taking this and timing it is for what I call "Green light groups", which I talk about here. Kids will see this as an opportunity to move up in groups, and to prove they are capable of stealing a base.
Using a live pitcher is a great way to practice taking live quality reps, and is something I preach as much as possible. Live pitching with a live catcher is a great way to have kids compete against each other. Stolen bases, catchers throwing down for caught stealing, and Pitchers getting to work a slide step to give catchers a chance. Timing all of these things is integral to this process, and can show you weaknesses, or strengths to build your team identity.
This is where I believe most coaches see the need for game speed reps. This is extremely obvious when your players step up to the plate and can't compete with the velocity. This situation can not happen. Your leadoff hitter returing to the dugout saying "it's fast" is demoralizing for a team and sets the tone for the rest of the hitters. Having said that, to me BP is the easiest to adjust to get to game speed. With all the tools most schools have it's just an adjustment of planning practice to get high intensity reps.
First option: Machine hitting. Using a pitching machine and a radar gun to set the velocity takes only a couple of minutes and will let your players see high speeds with minimal effort. Machine also provides a consistent velocity to let hitters get timing with it. It's very rare that you get a player that will not have a clue of the timing even after multiple rounds. With using a machine it's very important that you set it up as close to 60' as possible in order to give players an actual representation of the velocity of that pitch.
Second option: Velocity Equivalency throwing. I call it this because it reminds me that every detail is important including the distance that I use from where I throw. It's not just let's set it up here today, I instead use a radar gun to gun myself (usually it's not good) and then adjust the distance I throw from by using the chart found here. The perceived velocity for the hitter is a representation of a game like speed. This option also gives guys with unique timings, (hand separation, front food land, hip turn) and vision of the release, the opportunity to see that while taking Batting Practice.
Third and probably favorite option: Live AB's. This is the closest game representation you can have while in a practice setting. Pitchers are throwing live bullpens with a hitter in the box. This not only works offensive, but also bullpens. Hitters and pitchers both working on competing at the plate. If you throw a catcher back there and a baserunner at first you can also work your jumps and catchers pop time. This option will create serious competition during practice. They are the best way to mimick a game, and your players will be fired up to compete against an actual opponent. In order to get the full effect of an in game at bat hitters exit the cage after a ball is put in play. Just like they would during a live game.
These options all provide simple ways to increase practice speed, and in game performance. Players will compete during practice, and increase confidence in all aspects of the game. Preparation is one thing I feel can change a teams identity and make players feel as if they are ready for any opponent they face. Hiding velocities, and getting kids to feel good are important for some people, but to completely get your players ready for an opponent you have to increase intensity of practices. Removing Conventional Batting practice and bullpens will prepare players for opponents and get your team ready regardless of the time of the year.