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Blue Rocks rolling on the basepaths07/25/2008 9:00 AM ET
By Tim Britton / Special to MLB.com
Rocks tend to be stationary objects. They're big and heavy, and they usually don't move very much.
On the other hand, once rocks start moving, it's hard to make them stop. So maybe the Blue Rocks is an apt name for the team nobody in the Carolina League can slow down.
The Wilmington Blue Rocks are baseball's fastest team. Through 102 games, they've stolen 200 bases -- 81 more than the next fastest team in the Carolina League. It's already a club record, but that might be just the first of several records Wilmington, well, steals, this season.
The Blue Rocks are on a pace for 282 thefts in 144 games. That can challenge the Carolina League record of 293, set by the Durham Bulls in 1980. In fact, in the last 16 years across the Minors, only the 1998 Capital City Bombers, with 295, have more steals than Wilmington is on pace to record. Both those feats came before the widespread popularity of sabermetrics, which has called into question the efficacy of the stolen base.
But the Blue Rocks are contradicting that trend. Despite hitting a league-worst .251 with a meager 39 home runs -- 75 fewer than first-place Myrtle Beach and just five more than both Dallas McPherson and Nelson Cruz of the Pacific Coast League -- the Blue Rocks have spent the entire season lingering around the .500 mark.
They showed how June 27 against Salem. Trailing in the bottom of the first, 1-0, Derrick Robinson led off with a single to center. With shortstop Chris McConnell at the plate, Robinson swiped second. McConnell then walked, and the two combined for a double steal. The throw from home went into the outfield, Robinson trotted home and McConnell made his way to third.
Two batters, one single, a run and a runner on third. It was the start of a six-run frame for Wilmington and the end of their five-game losing streak.
"I got a lot of guys with speed, and we don't hit many home runs," Wilmington manager Darryl Kennedy said. "So we've got to manufacture stuff on the bases and be aggressive. And I've got the perfect team to be aggressive with."
It all begins with Robinson, the 20-year-old center fielder who leads the league with 47 stolen bases -- 18 of which have come in the first inning. Right behind him in the standings are the Blue Rocks' corner outfielders, Jarrod Dyson with 33 and Joe Dickerson with 24. Rounding out the league's top five are two more Blue Rocks: McConnell and second baseman Kurt Mertins with 21 apiece.
"We basically just take bags and see how many we can get in a game as a team," Dyson said. "If we get five or six in one game, we'd be like, 'Hey, we can get seven or eight, go for 10.' We just keep going and going. It's amazing."
It's the kind of attack Kennedy envisioned when he saw the shape of his team early in the year. With a serious lack of power, the former Minor League catcher knew that speed and an aggressive mentality could help compensate offensively.
With baserunners as constant threats to go, batters at the plate benefit from more fastballs and a pitcher whose focus is distracted.
"It's tough for a team to be able to control the running game," Kennedy said. "The biggest side of it is the pitching part. They know we're gonna run. They've got to be quick to the plate. A lot of times if they get too quick to the plate, then their pitches are gonna suffer, their location is gonna suffer, and we get better balls to hit in the strike zone."
Once the ball is put in play, the defense has to be quick but not hurry. The added pressure of speed often leads to errors and misplays.
Having a lineup replete with speed -- five of the nine regulars have over 20 thefts -- makes it easier for everyone to get an early read on the pitcher. Getting a read is the first job of a baserunner, and it includes gauging the pickoff move, the height of the leg kick and the time to home plate.
By the time Dyson, the No. 9 hitter, reaches first, he already has the pitcher's timing down. So how much time does he need?
"Not that much," he chuckles. "I just need a leg kick. First move, I'm gone."
Now in July, even leadoff hitter Robinson doesn't need to time the pitcher early in the game. Chances are, he's seen him before in the eight-team league.
"Since there's not many teams, I know most of the pitchers," he said. "I know ahead of time if they're quick or not, so I might go first pitch."
The players have responded well to the freedom Kennedy's approach allows them. The manager uses a plethora of steal signs -- some team, some individual -- and only puts on the red light in common-sense situations when he wants to leave a hole open on the infield or if the team needs several runs to rally.
"For a coach to tell you we're gonna be aggressive on the bases, I really love that," Dyson said. "That means if I go without him putting [the sign] on, I'm good because he wants me to be aggressive on the bases."
On the flip side, Wilmington has also been caught stealing 80 times -- far and away the league leader -- but the Blue Rocks understand outs on the basepaths are a necessary downside to their style of play.
"It's bad, but it's going to happen when you're that aggressive," said McConnell, who along with Dickerson has been caught stealing a league-high 14 times. "You're gonna get thrown out a lot, you're gonna get picked off a lot, and we have. But that comes with the territory."
Wilmington is starting to occupy some rarefied air when it comes to swiping bags. Earlier in the season, the team had a clubhouse competition to see who could steal the most bases. Robinson, who had 28 steals over the first two months, made that contest moot quickly.
But now, Wilmington is concentrating more on the team total, with the number 293 planted firmly in their heads. And once these Blue Rocks start rolling, it's near impossible to stop them.
"We get on base, we're aggressive on the bases, and we're gonna take the base until you show us you can shut us down," Dyson said. "And if you can't shut us down, we're gonna keep going."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.