The use of pinch runners and pinch hitters is a staple for managers to use at all levels of baseball. These substitutions usually occur late in the game. What we don’t consider, as coaches and/or strength coaches, is how to ensure players are prepared to enter a game (usually late) and be expected to be at “game speed”. A coach can implement effective pre-game stretches, but this doesn’t mean that the player will be prepared for a 9th inning appearance.
The following are a list of scenarios which could place a player at a higher risk of injury.
1) Pinch runners / hitters may not have been active for up to 4 hours.
If the first pitch of a game was thrown at 7:05, chances are that team stretch took place roughly 2 hours prior to the game. Then take into account when pinch runners are used (typically late in the game). Using logic, that could be at least 4 hours when the player last did any type of active warm up!
2) Weather considerations.
The colder the weather, the more time it should take a player to prepare themselves for game speed.
3) Injury history considerations.
If a player has a history of hamstring injuries, having that player pinch run is putting them at a greater risk of a reoccurring injury.
4) The pinch runner / hitter is an everyday player.
Often times everyday players are given a day off. Even though the player has been given the day off, a manager may still use that player. Let’s face it, baseball can be a grind. If a guy has played 40 consecutive days, when he is not in the starting lineup, chances are he may take full advantage and coast through team warm ups. Next thing you know, he strains a muscle in a late inning running or hitting situation.
5) The pinch runner / hitter is NOT an everyday player.
In professional baseball, there are very few days off as there is a game almost every day. Position players rarely sprint on off days, and the few sprints they complete are prior to game time. Non-starters may go weeks without sprinting in a game. Chances that they replicate a game speed sprint aren’t likely, so it becomes imperative to stress this issue and educate players.
Below are a few tips to ensure that the risk of injury for a pinch runner or hitter are reduced.
1) Keep bench players active during the game.
Vary who plays catch with the corner outfielder, rotate players on foul ball duty, or just send them down to pole and back (high school and college setting would be appropriate).
2) Build a mobility/dynamic routine players can perform in the dugout.
There are several ways that you can package mobility drills together in order to prepare a player to enter a game, but a few things must be constant. Those constants are; glute activation, hip mobility, thoracic mobility (especially hitters), and dynamic hamstring stretches. Below is a sample video (roughly a minute) of a few drills pinch runners and hitters can do prior to taking the field.
3) Let the player know as early as possible they may be entering the game.
Having been a former coach, I know that this one can be especially tough. The game situation can change in a blink of an eye, and it is difficult to foresee everything that may present itself in a game. With this being said, a player that may pinch run or pinch hit could be given a heads up an inning prior. No harm or foul if the player prepares himself and doesn’t appear in the game.
4) Have non-starters complete more sprints throughout the week.
I rarely conditioned position players as a coach due to the demands I placed on them in practice. Since being at the professional level as a strength coach, I now see the importance of sprinting non-starters during the week. The sprints can be as simple as 8-12 30 yard sprints once or twice a week.