The Cardinal Rules of Baseball
Baseball is a game of rules. There are the basic rules, such as three strikes for an out, four balls for a walk, and three outs retire the side. There are also the so-called “unwritten rules”, which rear their heads on occasion during a season. These include not stealing bases with large leads, and not bunting during the late stages of a no-hitter; “rules” or traditions that exist to ensure that coaches and players respect their opponents and the game itself.
A third category consists of Cardinal Rules, which are the finer points that help players operate within the team concept. Some might describe these principles as the mental aspects of winning baseball. Others would suggest they are ways to make young players more complete and effective performers. Regardless of how they are categorized, these cardinal rules lead to success, from youth leagues to the Major Leagues.
Joe Mikulik understands how important the cardinal rules can be. Mikulik played 12 years in the minor leagues with the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians organizations. Since retiring as a player, he has been a coach and manager in the minors, guiding the Asheville Tourists, the Class A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, for 14 seasons. In 2015 he started managing the Frisco Roughriders, the Class AA affiliate of the Texas Rangers. He won more than 800 games and guided the Tourists to the South Atlantic League championship in 2012, and has won over 1,000 minor league games in his career. The former outfielder, who coaches youth-league players during the offseason, believes that some basic rules can make the difference between winning and losing, no matter the level of play.
“There’s no doubt there is a right way to play the game,” Mikulik said. “And the ones who do are the ones who have success.”
There are Cardinal Rules to hitting, baserunning and pitching. Let’s start with those for hitting.
Mikulik joins most professional coaches in believing that the more a pitcher works in a game, the more success the offense will have. It’s simple logic: the more pitches a pitcher throws, the more likely he is to make a mistake. That philosophy leads to one of Mikulik’s first cardinal rules.
“If the first hitter or two of an inning, particularly at the start of a game, hit the first pitch, the third batter should not swing at the first pitch he sees,” Mikulik said. “That strategy accomplishes a couple of things. First, it makes the pitcher work a little bit. Up to that point in the inning, the pitcher has had things pretty easy. He also has not had to show what he is and is not capable of throwing for strikes. By taking a pitch or two, the batter as well as the next hitters in the lineup can get a better feel for what they can expect when they step up to the plate.”
Hitters also can be team players when they understand the game situation, which leads to the second and third cardinal rules.
If there are no outs and a runner on second base, the hitter’s goal should center on hitting the ball to the right side in order to get the runner to third.
If there is a runner on third and less than two outs, the hitter should focus on simply making contact with a pitch that he can handle in order to get the barrel of the bat on the ball and drive it deep.
“If the infield is playing back and you make decent contact with a runner on third, you’ve driven in a run,” Mikulik said. “If the infield is playing in and you hit the ball hard, chances are that ball is going to get through for a hit. It’s easier said than done most of the time, but if you go up to the plate knowing what you hope to accomplish, you have a much better chance of having success.”
Mikulik says that the difference between good hitters and mediocre hitters, both at the professional and amateur levels, involves developing an approach when hitting with two strikes. Traditional coaching suggests that hitters choke up on the bat and shorten their swings in such situations. While Mikulik agrees that those strategies can help, he believes it is just as important to think about what the pitcher is going to throw next.
“In that situation you have to be ready to hit the fastball,” Mikulik said. “That’s big. If you’re a young hitter and you’re thinking breaking ball, you’re not going to be able to hit the fastball. Later on in your career, you may want to sit on a breaking ball if that’s what a pitcher uses as his out pitch. But at the youth-league level, you have to be able to hit the fastball, which is the pitch most pitchers at that level can throw for a strike.”
The Cardinal Rule repeated most often on running the bases is the one that centers on not making the first or final out at third base. The reasoning is simple. Once you have reached second base, you are in scoring position and there is no reason to risk cutting short a potential rally or running your way out of the inning unless you are certain you can reach third easily.
Other aspects of base running require a player to think. At higher levels of youth baseball, executing a successful hit-and-run can mean the difference between a win and a loss. While the batter must do his job by making contact, the play has no chance of succeeding unless the runner does his part.
“One of the cardinal sins is getting picked off on a hit-and-run,” Mikulik said. “The runner has to make sure the pitcher is going to the plate. You can take it a step further by making sure the runner isn’t leaning toward second when the pitcher throws over to first. That’s a clear indication of what the team is trying to do and can ruin the strategy.”
Base runners can also determine the outcome of a game with a rally-killing double play. Mikulik believes that young players need to be alert so that they will not be doubled off first on low line drives hit to the left side of the infield.
“If you’re on first base and there’s a line drive to the third baseman, it’s inexcusable to get doubled off first because the runner is not going to get past second base unless the ball is hit in the corner,” Mikulik said. “When you’re on first base, you have a clear view of what’s happening on the left side of the infield. So the key is to see the ball go through the infield before taking off.”
When on second base, players should have certain mindsets for particular situations. If there are no outs, the runner’s initial reaction should be to tag up on fly balls hit to the outfield. With one out, however, the runner’s first reaction should be to play halfway. What happens next is determined by how the runner reads the play.
“Where the ball is hit and how deep it’s hit, the runner has to read those things, which will dictate what he does next,” Mikulik said. “If the fielder is camped under the ball, get ready to tag. If both fielders have their backs to you, get ready to take off. But if you’re mentally ready to make those plays in those situations, you’re going to help your team by having a better shot at getting to the proper base.”
With two outs, runners should be a little more aggressive with their secondary leads off second base so that they will have a chance to score on anything hit in the outfield. Mikulik’s mindset is like that of most pro managers in that they want to put the pressure on the defense by forcing them to make plays at the plate. Most of the time, the advantage rests with the offense, particularly if the runner is paying attention and ready to run.
“Two-out hits are not common, so it’s mandatory that the runner be ready to do his part by getting a good lead and a good jump when the hitter comes through,” Mikulik said.
As with the base running rule of not making the first or final out at third base, the most repeated Cardinal Rule regarding pitching centers is: Do not surrender a hit on an 0-2 count. Up to that point in the count, the pitcher has done exactly what he had hoped by recording a pair of strikes. The result forces the batter to become more defensive at the plate, meaning the advantage rests on the pitcher.
“I don’t believe pitchers should throw a fastball high and outside on an 0-2 count in hopes that the batter will take a wild swing,” Mikulik said. “That just gives some of the edge back to the hitter. I tell my pitchers to keep the ball down, not up. A lot of hitters will chase low pitches. And even if the hitter makes contact, chances are it’s going to be a ground ball and not a potential big hit.”
“Never give up a two-out walk.” Another aspect that drives managers and coaches crazy arises when pitchers surrender two-out walks. Not only does a free pass give the offense some hope without doing anything, it also forces the pitcher to work harder.
As far as the overall development of pitchers is concerned, particularly those in the 12-14 year-old range, Mikulik believes that the key to success is developing command of the fastball and changing speeds. Coaches disagree about what age a young pitcher should start throwing breaking balls - Mikulik says not until high school - for a hurler who works off his fastball, develops a changeup and learns to move the ball in and out to hitters while keeping most of his offerings down is going to have the best chance at being effective at higher levels.
“If you’re able to do that, you’re going to get a lot of guys out. That’s what guys in the big leagues like Clayton Kershaw do. Sure, their pitches have outstanding movement, but they know how to pitch. They know how to keep hitters off-balance by changing speeds and moving the ball around the strike zone. They also keep the pitches in the park by keeping them low in the strike zone.”
Is there one Cardinal Rule players should abide by above the others? Mikulik believes there is, and it’s as simple as it can be. Players need to play the game.
“The more you play baseball, the more you can read balls off the bat, get good jumps, recognize pitches, that sort of thing,” Mikulik said. “Playing the game creates muscle memory and makes you a smarter player. If you play the game and you become a student of the game, there’s a real good chance you’re going to have some success and have a lot of fun in the process.”