The Fastest Way to Steal Second Base Drop Step or Crossover Step?
By Gene Coleman, Ed. D, RSCC*E
There are two starting techniques that most baseball players at all levels use when moving laterally to steal second base: 1) taking a crossover step and 2) performing a drop step. The purpose of this post is to discuss which method is best and why.
Success when stealing second base is a function of how fast you can accelerate and acceleration comes down to starting mechanics and ground reaction force. Those who support the drop step say that it is the most effective technique for lateral acceleration because it creates an “optional” posture for force production by opening the hip, knee and foot to second base, produces positive joint angles and proper body lean for max force production and overcomes inertia by creating momentum in the direction you want to go.
Those who oppose it say moving your lead foot backwards before take-off is a “false or negative step” that causes you to lose ground when your goal is to go forward and decreases your ability to accelerate. A review of high-speed video, scientific research and an analysis of MLB stolen base leaders, however, does not support these claims.
Let’s start by looking at what happens instinctively. Research indicates that when the body needs to move quickly, it will instinctively position itself to move most efficiently. Scientists say that when we get startled, we kick into a “fight or flight mode” to prepare the body to attack or escape. Something similar occurs when we need to react and accelerate. The body is placed on alert and reacts by putting itself in the quickest and most efficient position from which to initiate movement. How does this apply to acceleration in sport? When you get feedback or receive a stimulus from a play that requires you to move quickly in any direction, you will instinctively reposition your feet to accelerate your body in the needed direction. Loren Landow, Head Strength Coach of the Denver Broncos, says that this is a preparatory movement that we instinctively perform in order to create the most efficient body posture (leverage) from which to move5. This ability comes from our innate fight or flight system. It does not have to be taught. It’s a natural reaction that we are born with.
What does high speed video tell us? Video analysis indicates that the drop step is not a backwards step. If it were a true step back, the center of mass (hips) and lead foot would both move backwards. This clearly does not happen. Video shows that the drop step creates a positive shin angle in the direction of force, which in turn creates forward lean and moves the center of mass forward1. An important factor in the drop step is that it gets momentum going in the direction you want. Once momentum is created, you simply catch the momentum and go.
The drop step also better utilizes the stretch shortening cycle from the ground up. The elastic properties of the Achilles tendon and reflex movements of the ankle, knee and hip are enhanced as the foot aggressively returns to the ground after initial lift off. This creates greater impulses, produces higher ground reaction forces applied in a shorter period of time and reduces the time needed to reach peak horizontal ground reaction forces needed to accelerate the body quickly toward second base. The end result of the drop step is greater directional force and power in the horizontal plane, faster acceleration and faster top speed than the crossover step1, 6.
What the scientists say. Studies published in both the Journal of Biomechanics3 and the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research2, 4 indicate that, when left to choose their own starting technique, 95% of the subjects tested used a drop step. The data also indicated that the drop step produced the highest horizontal push-off force and the fastest sprint times when compared to other starting procedures.
The findings in the previous two studies are consistent with those observed in professional baseball. MLB and MiLB players were electronically timed and recorded using high-speed video as they ran all-out 10-yard sprints during spring training The video data were analyzed using Dartfish 10 to evaluate running mechanics and measure running speed, acceleration, take-off angle, stride length, stride rate, first-step quickness, etc. Players were divided into two groups: 1) drop step group; and 2) crossover step group. Results indicated that average time for the drop step group (1.54 sec) was faster than that for the crossover step group (1.58 sec). While the difference was statistically insignificant, it is meaningful because players using the drop step group reached the 10-yard finish line 9.1 inches ahead of those using the crossover step. A
In addition to producing a faster 10-yard time, the drop step also produced a longer first step (38.8 inches vs. 38.1 inches), required less time to move the line of gravity over the base of support to initiate forward movement (0.37 vs. 0.39 sec), took less time to complete the first step (0.71 vs. 0.72 sec) and produced a lower take-off angle (49.2 vs. 51.8 degrees of forward lean). The drop step group got the back foot off the ground quicker than the crossover step group, had a faster first step, long first step and a faster time to the finish line.
Empirical observations. A review of video recorded on former MLB stolen base leaders indicates that most used some form of the drop step. Rickey Henderson, all-time leader in stolen bases (1,406 SB) was the “poster boy” for the drop step. An examination of the top 25 stolen base stealers in MLB in 2019 indicates that 24 of the top 25 used a drop step.
How does it work? So, how does stepping back, help you go forward faster? First, taking a drop step allows you to reposition your feet, open your hips and turn your shoulders so that your feet, knees, hips and shoulders are pointing in the direction that you want to go. Second, moving your lead foot back creates a forward body lean that moves your center of mass forward, positions the ground reaction force vector behind the center of mass and produces a straight line from the back foot, through the hip, shoulder and head to create an optimal angle from which to apply force from the ground up. Third, the drop step is a plyometric movement that puts strain or elastic energy into the muscles of the lead foot and leg that is recovered when you push off to help maximize force output.
Landow5 says that using a drop step (he calls it a jab step), lets you “trade inches for angles.” He says that even though the lead leg is actually moving away from second base, it helps you get there quicker by producing a positive shin angle and puts you in a better position to achieve acceleration for first step and those that follow. The repositioning of your front foot and improved shin angle improves acceleration by increasing the effectiveness with which the lead leg can apply force into the ground. Analysis of video, shows that while the lead foot is moving backwards, the center of mass is moving forward so, you are not losing inches with the drop step.
Potential mechanical problems with the drop step. While most authorities agree that this is the best starting procedure, it is not totally free from potential mechanical faults. The most common fault is the length of the drop step. Ideally, the step should be short and just long enough to reposition the lead foot under the center of mass. Some players step back farther than needed to increase the forward lean (starting angle). More is not better. The lean that you get into in order to accelerate is the result of the power and speed of the acceleration (how quickly you step back and put force into the ground). Body lean, by itself, does not dictate acceleration. If you lean more than your acceleration can handle, you will stumble.
Another potential problem is dipping the hips and shoulders to try and put more force into the ground. Newton’s Law of Action-Reaction says that when you apply force in one direction there will be an equal and opposite reaction. The key to an explosive start is to apply an explosive horizontal force into the ground as quickly as possible. When you allow the hips knees to flex too much or the shoulders to lean forward to try and generate more force, most of the force will be dissipated as heat instead of being applied to the ground.
The primary goal when moving laterally to steal a base, is to move as fast and as efficiently as possible. Research and empirical evidence indicate that the best way to do this is by using a drop step. The drop step is a natural, reactive movement used by the body to achieve the best position from which to quickly and efficiently apply force for powerful accelerations.
Boss, S. Comparison of three base stealing techniques in Division I collegiate baseball players. Dissertations and Theses @UNI. 2016; https://scholarworks.uni.edu/etd/314.
Brown, TD and JD Vecovi. Is stepping back really counterproductive? Strength and Conditioning J. 26:42-44, 2004.
Kraan, GA et. al. Starting from standing: why step backwards? J Biomechanics, 32:211-215, 2001.
Johnson, TM, et. al. Effect of four different starting stances on sprint time in collegiate volleyball players. J. Strength Cond Res. 24: 2641-2646, 2010.
Landow, L. Subtle movement – what’s the best way for an athlete to initiate movement? http://www.speedandagilitycoach.com/subtle-movements/, 2013.
Miyanishi, T, et. al., Comparison of crossover and jab step start techniques for base stealing in baseball. Sports Biomechanics, 16(4): 552-566, 2017.
Gene Coleman has over 4 decades in strength and conditioning at the MLB level (Astros 1978-2012) and Rangers (2013-2020). He is also Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake and Website Education Manager baseballstrength.org.