CONWAY, S.C. — Gorilla ball is going the way of the Dodo bird in college baseball.
After Louisiana State flexed its muscles with numerous home runs enroute to four national championships in the 1990s, a new offensive trend which focuses on base stealing has made its presence known throughout the sport.
Five of the last six teams that have captured the College World Series employ aggressive running games.
The five include: 1998: Southern California, 1999: Miami (Fla.), 2001: Miami (Fla.), 2002: Texas, 2003: Rice.
The only team to break this trend was LSU during the 2000 season.
Collegiate Baseball reported in the Sept. 5 issue that a 30 percent decline in home run production has taken place since the 1998 season due to the mandatory use of the -3 bats.
Undoubtedly home runs are scarcer in high school baseball than ever before since hitters also utilize the -3 bats. But no figures are available from the National High School Federation to show how much the decline is.
Since the running game is now an integral part of offense, Collegiate Baseball thought it would be appropriate to interview one of the top baseball coaches in the nation who specializes in the running game - Head Coach Gary Gilmore of Coastal Carolina University.
During the 2002 season, his ball club led the nation by swiping 192 bases in 222 attempts over 63 games for 3.05 stolen bases per game.
Last season, Coastal Carolina ranked No. 1 in total number of stolen bases in NCAA Division I with 155 in 197 attempts over 63 games.
"College baseball has changed the past few years," said Gilmore.
"Up to about 1998, we saw teams hit many more home runs than they do now. Now you don't necessarily see entire teams with huge players trying to hit balls out of the park. More and more teams use athletic kids who are agile and can run the bases."
Stealing Practice Imperative
Gilmore said the key to his teams having so much success on the base path is the incorporation of the running game into practice every day.
"We don't have a lot of days where we just hit and catch ground balls. We put kids in competitive settings every practice on the base paths where they can refine their techniques for reading pitchers and run the bases in a more proficient manner in an aggressive style.
"I don't think there are many teams which spend as much time on the running game as we do. But we have found that an aggressive running game can pay huge dividends over the course of a season.
"Base running practice is hard work, and some kids just don't like to spend the time necessary to be good at it. Kids who run the bases are similar to offensive guards or centers in football. They make a big block which frees the halfback for a touchdown. But all you read about in the paper is how many yards the running back had. Most of the time in baseball, you read about the guy who had the key hit but not the base runner who scored on the hit."
It All Begins In Dugout
Gilmore said good base running begins in the dugout.
"We utilize scouting reports, watch pre-game infield and use a stopwatch on the arms of outfielders, catchers and first basemen. In addition, we closely watch between inning warm-ups, check the defensive position when in the on-deck circle, and the coaches must know what each of our players' running times are between bases.
"Our absolutes at all bases before stepping off a base includes: (1) Know the game situation with number of outs, inning and score, (2) Get a sign from the coach and lead runner, (3) Check defensive positioning, (4) Know where ball is, (5) Make pitcher engage rubber."
Gilmore said some have accused his program of only recruiting fast baseball players, and that is why his teams enjoy so much success on the base paths.
"That's not entirely true. Many programs have fast players. But its what you do with the players you have that allows them to be great runners on the base paths. Do we have any unbelievable secrets? Probably not. The vital part of our system is to practice base running every practice and scrimmage. We want our kids learning how to be effective on the base paths during game speed practice and scrimmages. If the kids make mistakes, we want them to learn from their mistakes. During scrimmages, we even take into account players who may go 0-for-4. We still will put that player on base to let him gain valuable base running experience."
One key element of Coastal Carolina's running success can be attributed to Gilmore's philosophy that you never force a runner to steal on certain pitches. Instead, he gives a sign that allows the base runner to steal within the next 2-3 pitches.
"The runner's job is to get a great jump. If I tell him to go on a certain pitch, it hinders his aggressiveness as he becomes more tense. His jumps and reactions are not nearly as good.
"When I played the game, I was a pretty good base stealer. I had coaches who gave me the green light and others who wouldn't allow you to steal unless they flashed the sign. Only then could you steal - not before or after that pitch. And I always had a problem with that philosophy.
"I feel that if you attempt to steal 110 times, you should be successful 100 times. If you steal 100 times and get caught on 50 occasions, that is hurting your team.
"Kids buy into our system. If they don't get a great jump, they wait for another pitch to go. This style of aggressiveness is what we want in our program. We work and work and work on being aggressive and running in the right situation."
Gilmore discussed leads next.
"Our goal on primary leads from first to second is 13 feet. This is the point where the right foot of the base runner is. Then if our guy can get a good, aggressive jump off the pitcher and is a plus runner, he is usually safe at second 90 percent of the time even if you have a great catcher and middle infielder making the tag.
"We always use a stopwatch on opposing catchers' throws to second prior to games. Our staff also keeps track of the arm strength of the first baseman. In addition, we time the pitcher's throw to home plate and his throw to first base for righthanders.
"As for lefthanders, we time three areas in his approach to home. We time it when he picks up his foot, in the balanced position and when his gate is open."
Forcing More Errors
Gilmore said opponents routinely make errors when the running game is working properly because of the intense pressure put on defenses.
"Many times a catcher may throw a ball to second base in 2.1 seconds. But when they see an aggressive running team, they might try to hurry their throws to be at 2.0. That is where mistakes and errors take place which helps our cause. You also see this with pitchers. They may throw it to home in 1.25 seconds. But they attempt to hurry it up with an inaccurate 1.1 throw to home which is tough for the catcher to handle."
Using a stop watch is important in tracking his runners' progress as well so that coaches can send runners with a high probability of success when factoring in the base runner's speed, aggressiveness on jumps, the pitcher's throw home and catcher's throw to a base.
As far as running fundamentals, Gilmore has leaned a great deal over the years and never stops trying to gain more knowledge about this subject. That is what makes him such a superb skipper.
"For years I taught our runners to drop their lead foot back about three inches from their left toe and open up their hips. But my mind was changed during the past summer at the Bollettieri School in Florida. They proved to me through a laser timer that they had a better system for getting quality jumps.
"Here is how it works. Both feet are parallel to each other with the toes lined up (pointing toward the third base side of the batter's box). With the body in an athletic position, the first movement is an upper body rotation as you take your right hand and draw it to your right hip and throw a punch with your left fist across your body simultaneously. Also during this time, your left knee drives toward the middle of the body in a line to second base. Finally, the right foot pushes off."
Gilmore said the majority of good base runners cross over in this fashion naturally.
"We also have a 30-minute dynamic stretching routine so the body is exercised at all angles. In addition to this, we teach proper running mechanics. Once the runner is on his way, we attempt to have more feet contact with the ground. We work very hard on the number of ground contacts our runners can get. We employ a lot of track drills in these exercises over fall baseball practices."
Gilmore said that depending on how tired his players are, different stealing challenges are worked on each day in practice.
"We have all sorts of things they work on such as hit and runs, first and thirds, bases loaded plays, suicide squeezes, safety squeezes, scoring from second, running from first to third, scoring on ground balls, tagging up, stealing home, fake stealing, etc."
"In addition, we may have timed 60s, 20s or whatever it may be. If the kids are exhausted, they might work on 10 foot crossover starts. But the one constant is that our ball club is always working hard."
Different Types Of Steals
The Coastal Carolina coach was asked what types of steals his runners utilize depending on right or left handed pitchers.
"With righthanders, we use regular and delayed steals. In the delayed steal, our runners take their 13-foot lead from first base. Then they take three hard shuffles and stay square to the plate. When their right foot hits, they crossover and hustle to second base. It is imperative that they take as big of shuffles as they can. Hopefully the runner will be 25-30 feet away from the first base bag if he has done it right.
"With the delayed steal of second base, we are not concerned how far the ball is from the plate. We are worried about the middle infielders and where they are. We are attempting to get close to the same distance they are from the second base bag. Depending on where they are playing, they could be 25-30 feet or 40-50 feet away from the bag. It all hinges on if they are playing a batter to pull the ball, hit it to the opposite field, or positioned for a double play.
"If your players or coaches notice the opposing catcher is dropping to one knee after catching a pitch or the middle infielders are being lackadaisical in their approach to covering the bag between pitches, it is a perfect time for the delayed steal. We have found that the most successful guys in our lineup to perform the delayed steal are our catchers or first baseman who might not warrant the attention of opponents like faster runners in your lineup. It can really catch teams by surprise."
"As far as lefthanded pitchers, we utilize an early break, a jump when the pitcher goes into the balance position and a jump when he shows an open gate.
"Our focal points for stealing off lefthanded pitchers is to see differences in movements of his head, knee, foot, back elbow, shoulder, hand break or rhythm. Every lefthander is different. Some will look at you and pitch home or look at home and attempt to pick you off. The toughest lefthanders are the guys who look at the same target all the time and either throw home or pick.
"With some lefthanders, the knee raises higher or lower, depending on whether they throw home or pick. As far as the foot, some raise their feet slightly higher when picking off compared to going home. The back shoulder will turn toward third base if he is picking at first base. Some lefthanders have a shallow hand break on a pickoff and much deeper hand break when they go home. Again, it all depends."
Another helpful idea Gilmore suggested is having an area in the dugout where you can jot down tendencies of opposing pitchers or anything else that might give your team an edge. For instance, the middle infielders might be lazy after pitches with a runner on first base or the catcher might go down to one knee after pitches to throw the ball back to the pitcher.
"We have a large lineup card with plenty of space underneath to write things of this nature," said Gilmore.
"It is surprising what an entire team can pickup if they are alert. Any edge you can get like this is helpful."
Sliding is another important ingredient in Coastal Carolina's success.
"All of our players can slide the traditional way with straight in slides as well as those to the side of each base. But we prefer head first slides."
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