Speed A Big Part Of Mountaineer Baseball
Major league baseball is going back to the future.
Once upon a time, when the ball was dead and pitchers dominant, they played a game of “Little Ball” which relied on speed. Leadoff man singles, steals second, is bunted to third, scores on an infield out.
Then along came Babe Ruth and all of a sudden the game underwent a power surge, but within a couple of decades it became clear that every power hitter wasn’t Ruthian in stature. They would hit 30 home runs, maybe, and bat .240 … big, lumbering players who added nothing on a defense, nothing on the bases.
Along came Jackie Robinson, bringing a daring, dashing style of play on the base paths, stealing home 19 times, only Ty Cobb from that dead ball era ever stealing more at 54 times.
Robinson and an influx of athletic African American and Latin American players changed the style of the game, the National League going from 1953 until 1993 — four decades — with a black or Latin American player leading the league in stolen bases.
The list was long and built of great, exciting players from Bill Bruton to Willie Mays to Maury Wills to Lou Brock to Tim Raines to Vince Coleman with Ty Cobb’s record of 96 steals from 1915 being broken by Wills of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1963.
But times, they are a changing, as Bob Dylan told us, and along came the steroid era and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds and the home run came back.
Today’s game is dominated by the long ball, by Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, more homers than ever being hit and with it more strikeouts, meaning less excitement in the game … less great defense, less base stealing and taking extra bases.
This has been the long way to get to the idea that this ISN’T how the game is being played in the college game, especially here at West Virginia, where speed remains an important part of the sport.
“Speed changes the game and it changes the way the other team pitches and the way it plays defense,” Mountaineer coach Ron Mazey said. “I wish we could do more of that actually, but you try so hard not to make outs on the bases.”
Think, for a moment, of the way speed actually affects a ball game. You have a speedy runner on first, a base stealer, and the batter gets more fast balls to hit. The pitcher might throw pitch outs, putting the count in the batter’s favor.
The infielders have to cheat a step or two toward the bag, taking them out of position.
It goes further. The pitcher’s attention is split between the base runner and the batter.
And that’s just in one situation.
Last week against Oklahoma State, WVU’s Brandon White showed what speed can do.
The fleet centerfielder beat out an infield hit, stole second and third on consecutive pitches and scored on a fly ball.
“He single-handedly scored a run on his own with his speed,” Mazey said.
“We have a group of guys on this team that we know pretty much have the green light to go,” said White. “When I’m on [base] , I try and get in the pitcher’s head. I want him thinking about me.”
Finding big power hitters isn’t easy in college for it’s a skill that comes with maturity, learning how to find pitches to drive as well as building up one’s body to drive them.
So, using speed makes far more sense, especially since it comes into play not only on offense but on defense.
“It’s the one skill you can use in every phase of the game,” Mazey noted.
And he has speed spread from the top to the bottom of his lineup.
Leadoff hitter Braden Zarbrinsky, Brandon White, Jimmy Galusky, Chris Gray and Tyler Doanes, a freshman who was the star of the victory over Canisius on Wednesday with two hits, including a two-run triple, that got his batting average up to .281.
“The sky is the limit for him,” Mazey said. “He is really talented. He’s got a lot of life in his body. You could see when he hit that triple, his uniform was just a blur running around the bases. A kid who can hit, run the bases and play defense can play for a long time.”
The result is while WVU is eighth in batting average in the league at .260 it ranks second in stolen bases with 60.
You may see a track meet on the bases this weekend as Kansas State comes to town for a key series, the Wildcats leading the league in steals with 69 and only nine caught stealing.
Mountaineers strike first! A 2-out infield single, with the help of an error, scores a pair of runs.
E-2, WVU 2, OSU 0.
— WVU Baseball (@WVUBaseball) April 15, 2018