By LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
© 2011 Collegiate Baseball
COLUMBIA, S.C. — In the history of college baseball, no team has ever stolen bases at the rapid clip Benedict College has this season.
The Tigers are averaging 6.44 stolen bases per game with 232 in 272 attempts over 36 games to rank No. 1 in all of NCAA baseball. Benedict broke a 23-year-old NCAA Division II national record for team stolen bases last season with 316 in 53 games as they eclipsed the old mark of 291 set by St. Leo.
For the last two seasons, Benedict has led the nation in stolen bases per game at 5.96 in 2010 and 6.06 in 2009. Over the last 3 seasons, the Tigers have swiped 739 bases which is absolutely unheard of. And their success rate has been close to 85 percent.
No school on any level of college baseball has ever come close to this amount over a 3-year period factoring in the number of games Benedict has played.
Digging a little deeper, Benedict swiped 34 bases during a doubleheader against Voorhees College in two 7-inning games this year. The Tigers swiped 17 bases in one game. Last year, 10 players had 19 or more stolen bases.
And the beat goes on.
The mastermind behind this base stealing madness is Head Coach Selwyn Young. He played his college ball at Pepperdine University under Dave Gorrie in the late 70s and learned the game in the greater Los Angeles area as he studied base stealing legend Maury Wills of the Los Angeles Dodgers, among others.
Now in his second year as the head coach at Benedict, records are falling left and right with the running game he has implemented at the school.
“We don’t just run at every opportunity,” said Young. “We have smart players who run on specific counts that we are fairly sure opponents will throw off-speed pitches on. We chart opponent pitchers to find out what they do in every count to find out if they have tendencies. And you would be surprised how predictable teams are in different counts.”
Unique Pitch Count Chart
Young said his kids keep a special chart to track every pitch count.
“Along the top is 0-1-2-3 and along the side is 0-1-2-3. We then have our kids mark H for hard pitch on every count or S for soft pitch. If the pitcher tendency on a 0-0 count is a fastball or hard slider, there will be a bunch of H marks in that category. If there are certain counts which show a high percentage of soft pitches (curves, changeups, etc.), then those are great counts to steal on.
“Base stealing is a thinking man’s game, and we explore every avenue to make our attempts a high percentage move. This is my 38th year in baseball counting the time I played in high school, college, and pro ball. When you have been involved in the game that long, you pick up a bunch of things over time.”
Young said that his players are all world class readers of pickoff moves as well.
“We have everybody in the dugout watching opponent pitchers, from head to toe, to find out what tips off their pickoffs first. You would be surprised that many times it isn’t the foot that triggers a throw to first base on a pickoff. It can be many different body parts. And believe me. We dissect what that first movement is that shows the pick.”
Part of this remarkable story is that Benedict is not simply a base stealing team. When pitchers throw more fastballs with runners on base, their hitters pounce on them as attested to a .350 team batting average this season over 36 games and 8.9 runs per game to rank fourth in NCAA Division II this season.
“A lot of teams will use the slide step from their pitchers to get pitches quicker to home because all of our opponents know we are going to run no matter what. Teams have tried everything.
“Pitchers have held balls for long counts, threw over to first numerous times, stepped off — you name it. We try to be smart about the tactics other teams try on us. With our philosophy, the focus is mainly on the pitcher. Almost everything we do is based on what the pitcher does and the count which makes what the catcher does less important. If a catcher is not skilled, that obviously helps us as well.”
It doesn’t hurt that 10 players on this year’s ball club run a 6.7 60-yard dash.
“We do recruit speed, and we have a number of fast runners. But speed isn’t everything. They have to be taught all the little things to be successful base stealers. That is why I teach a base stealing class which helps the players understand what is expected. We also do a lot of form running with distance running and sprints. They do stride drills and different running drills to strengthen their legs.
“There is 90 feet between the bases. If you have a guy with a five foot lead, it should take him 12 steps to get to second base. If he leaves at the proper time, he will almost always be safe. Usually you take 10 steps and then slide.”
System Tough To Stop
Young, who coached with the Santa Barbara Foresters for six years and led the 2001 ball club to 257 stolen bases, a National Baseball Congress record, said that his system is extremely difficult to stop.
“Guys who come into our program can be fast runners. But we still have to work on their stride length and form and make sure they run in straight lines from one base to the other. That sounds rather simple, but some runners stray to the left or right.”
Young also played in the Oakland A’s system when he played pro ball in the minor leagues and was introduced to Billy Martin’s system of small ball and running. His teams in the minor leagues won three championships with this system. His players not only steal second regularly. But they steal third with a certain philosophy in place and have been successful stealing home.
“When one of our runners is on second, he takes seven steps toward third and makes a mark. Then he goes out to 11 steps and makes another mark. The goal is to work your way out to the 11-foot mark and take off for third. You can walk or crow hop. But it is vital to watch the front shoulder of the pitcher to determine if he is going home or is picking at second. We have been very successful in stealing third with this strategy.”
Young said that stealing home is challenging but can be accomplished.
“With a runner at third, I will go down the line with him to see if the pitcher is paying attention at all to him. If I feel my guy can make it, I tell him to go. Recently in a game with two outs and two strikes on the batter, our runner from third stole home. The pitch got to the catcher (which was strike three), but he dropped the ball as my runner slid in safely. The catcher got up and threw the batter out at first. But the umpire didn’t allow the run. I’m still not sure about that call since the catcher dropped the ball.”
Young said his team reminds him of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
“You have kids running all over the place,” laughed Young. “We don’t care who is catching or pitching. We will run on anybody.”
The head coach at Benedict College was asked what he looks for when he personally dissects a pitcher before flashing the steal sign.
“Pitchers tip off when they are going to throw to a base. Some change their grips. You look for anything different than he normally does.”
Young said when he played at Pepperdine in the late ’70s, he was on an extremely talented team that battled Cal. St. Fullerton every year. One season, both teams made it to the College World Series.
“Augie Garrido was the coach for Fullerton at that time. We would split with those guys every year. One of the things I picked up from him as a player, even though I played at Pepperdine, was he told his players to identify the pitch and identify the area. That really stuck with me.
“I teach that today. Dave Gorrie was the head coach at Pepperdine at the time and spent hours and hours with our hitters. He was an incredible teacher. Bob Zuber recruited me to Pepperdine, and I didn’t play much my first year. He asked me to sit on the bench by him, and he would teach me how to play the game. He would call pitches and set up batters. It turned out to be the greatest learning experience of my life.
“When a big, free swinger came up to bat, he would laugh and tell me that he would start him off with a curve and spin the guy into the ground. And many times this is exactly what happened as both of us laughed. At the Pepperdine benefit game, pros such as Doug DeCinces, Robin Yount, Gary Alexander and people like that would drop by. They really gave back to the game, and you learned from them.
“I also learned a great deal from my dad who scouted the Los Angeles inner city. He was involved in baseball for over 50 years. My dad also ran a scout team for the Minnesota Twins, and I was the bat boy at the age of 10. I got to see players such as Don Sutton, Bobby Bonds and Rick Dempsey along with a great coach in Tommy Lasorda.”
Highly Structured Practices
Young said that base running is highly organized in his practices.
“We utilize all four corners of the diamond. A base runner is at each base and four pitchers near the mound. One is picking at home, first, second and third. The more runners can learn how to read pitchers, the better they will be. Pitchers will mix it up. They will go home a couple of times and then pick to the bag the runner is on.”
Young feels the best base stealer of all time was Ricky Henderson.
“The first step for him was crucial. He was at full speed after his first step. If you can do that, you can have a lot of success in stealing bases. Our kids work on that a lot.”
The delayed steal of second base is also a weapon for Benedict College.
“We want our guys to watch the second baseman and shortstop to see if they drop their heads and are not paying attention. At that time, it is perfect to put this steal on. Essentially, runners from first take a 5-step lead. Once the pitcher goes into the set position and breaks, the runner takes three shuffles and then is off to second. It really works well when the second baseman and shortstop are not paying attention.”
Young said that his runners don’t steal on their own for the most part. But when they get to a certain point in their lead and know they will be safe, they take off for the next base.
“I usually give them two signs. One of them is the steal sign and the other is understanding they can go if they get the lead they need.”
Young is equally proud of his team grade point average of 2.8 last semester with 15 players achieving a 3.0 GPA or higher. He also is thrilled with his team’s 14-game winning streak.
Life is great at Benedict College with the most high octane base stealing team in college baseball.