System seeing results of aggressive philosophy on basepaths
Sam Hilliard has 99 professional stolen bases, including 20 before the Eastern League All-Star break. (Kevin Pataky/MiLB.com)
By Gerard Gilberto / MiLB.com | July 13, 2018 12:30 PM
HARTFORD, Conn. -- After watching the final round of batting practice before a Monday night tilt against Richmond in the end of June, Double-A Hartford manager Warren Schaeffer strolled toward the third base dugout wearing a wide grin and a pullover that featured the most prominently displayed Rockies logo in Dunkin' Donuts Park.
Schaeffer is on his way to becoming an organization lifer. To this day, he carries a philosophy that's been engrained in his view of professional baseball since Colorado selected him in the 38th round of the 2007 Draft.
"Stolen bases?" he said with apparent delight. "It's one of my favorite things."
The 32-year-old skipper retired from playing in 2012 after six years in the Colorado system. He spent the next two seasons as the hitting coach for Class A Short Season Tri-City before taking the helm at Class A Asheville. In three seasons under Schaeffer, the Tourists twice led the South Atlantic League in stolen bases and finished second to Hickory in 2016.
"It's really hard to speed [Minor League players] up when they haven't done it in their career," he said. "It's a way to learn the game better, and you've just got to go out there and do it in the Minor Leagues. If you don't do it, you never get better at it."
At the All-Star break of his first season with the Yard Goats, Schaeffer again has his team at the top of the stolen base charts, and by a wide margin. Entering Thursday's games, Hartford's 112 steals were 21 more than the next best team, Akron. The Yard Goats' 152 attempts rank above the New Hampshire Fisher Cats' 136 tries for tops on the circuit.
"It's been years and years in the making," Schaeffer said. "We love being aggressive and it's something that's not new. That's just the way we play, man. We hit and run a lot, too. We just try to push the issue and put the pressure on the defense and make them try to change their game plan."
That aggressiveness on the basepaths has in recent years become a hallmark for Rockies affiliates in an era when other clubs are prioritizing speed to a lesser and lesser extent. This season is a perfect illustration of Colorado's organizational emphasis -- in addition to Hartford pacing the Eastern League, Class A Advanced Lancaster leads the California League in steals (108) while Asheville finished Thursday two shy of Lexington's mark (96) for tops in the South Atlantic League.
The results are not a surprise to Rockies senior director of player development Zach Wilson. In addition to preaching the importance of taking extra bases, Colorado has been mindful of finding players, coaches and instructors who can adapt to that approach to the running game.
"The aggressive mentality is certainly something that we talk about organizationally. You combine all those factors and it equals what you're seeing on paper," Wilson said. "I think it's less about trying to hire an aggressive type [than] trying to hire the right guys that have a willingness and an openness to this style of baseball and can be taught how we run the bases and how we teach stolen bases, among other things."
Like Schaeffer, Lancaster manager Fred Ocasio has a history with Colorado. In fact, his experience with the franchise goes back even longer. Ocasio played for Asheville from 1994-1995 and began coaching in the organization in 1998. He earned his first managerial job in 2006, and he spent six seasons as the skipper of Tri-City before taking over in Asheville for two years. He landed with the club's California League affiliate -- then the Modesto Nuts -- in 2015. Nine of Ocasio's 13 teams as a manager were among the top two in the league steals leaderboards, with four of his clubs finishing first. Through 91 games this year, his JetHawks have 17 more thefts than any other team in the league.
"We've got a great baserunning coordinator in Anthony Sanders," Wilson said. "Marv Foley, who's our supervisor of development in Asheville, is another great baserunning guy. These guys have really been able to institute who we are and what we do on the basepaths.
"It's not just the stolen bases, it's being aggressive first to third ... first to home ... with our turns and all that we do. We've got great guys that are able to teach it. We've got other great staff members that are able to take it in and then apply it wholeheartedly."
Philosophy and coaching are important, but every successful heist needs a good wheel man. The Rockies have an abundance of players that jibe well with an aggressive style of baserunning. Colorado's sixth-ranked prospectGarrett Hampson led the organization with 31 steals as of Thursday, while No. 13 Forrest Wall had 28 -- the first 20 of which he compiled with Lancaster. Max George had a share of the Lancaster lead with 20, with teammate and No. 26 prospect Willie Abreu hot on his tail with 19.
"Obviously, anybody that can steal bases, or has the wherewithal to be able to do it and it's part of their package moving forward, that only increases their value," Wilson said.
Hampson, Wall, Abreu and Triple-A Albuquerque outfielder Raimel Tapia (18 stolen bases) fit the profile of players with plus speed who thrive in this system. For them, the idea is simple: use your natural gifts. But for those who didn't necessarily have that tool as an amateur, the philosophy unlocks a word of possibilities.
Rockies' Minor League steals leaders by affiliate
Class A Advanced Lancaster
Class A Asheville
* Total across two levels.
With a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame, Sam Hilliard commands a presence on a baseball field. But selected in the 15th round of the 2015 Draft, he did not profile as a tremendous basestealer, having swiped 15 bags over his final two college seasons between Crowder Junior College and Wichita State University. That perception quickly changed after two months in the Rockies system. In his first crack at pro ball, he stole 12 bases in 60 games for Rookie-level Grand Junction.
Over the next three seasons, Colorado's No. 10 prospect would steal 87 total bases, including a career-high 37 for Lancaster last year and 20 entering the 2018 Eastern League All-Star break.
"I really didn't even know how fast I truly was in college," Hilliard said. "I kind of just started to tap into that with the Rockies and they just kind of told me to go. I kind of realized that I had a little bit of speed and that's kind of been working from there."
The 24-year-old outfielder, who also set a personal best with 21 homers a year ago, entered Thursday with seven long balls for Hartford, and he finished as a runner up to Reading's Deivi Grullon in the Eastern League Home Run Derby this week.
"Regardless of the running speed or the quickness of our players, I think there's a time and a place where everybody can run," Wilson said while praising Hilliard's foot speed. "I don't really care how fast you are … how big … how small … I don't care about any of that stuff.
"If you have the ability to read pitchers, to read moments in the game, to understand the game and what's going on, and then to always be anticipating, to take the next base, I don't think it matters who you are."
Hilliard's situation draws similar comparisons to the club's 24th-ranked prospect, Chad Spanberger.
The Asheville first baseman has always been a bopper, rounding out his 20-homer junior season at the University of Arkansas in 2017 with 19 long balls for Grand Junction. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder has gotten his 2018 total up to 21 roundtrippers and entered last month's South Atlantic League All-Star break with 17 before claiming that circuit's Home Run Derby crown.
Spanberger's power obviously plays in most any ballpark -- and will be a boon in Coors Field, should he ever make it that far -- but coming into the Rockies system has helped him add a speed tool seemingly uncharacteristic of his initial profile. After stealing only three bases on four attempts during three seasons at Arkansas, Spanberger is 16-for-20 when trying to swipe a base in his first full season.
"[Stealing] helps us produce runs and runs help us win games," Spanberger said. "Any tool that you can add to your arsenal is just another positive. You help the guy behind you if you can get in scoring position and then you give them a chance to hit you in."
As the head of a player development system that likes to run often, Wilson leans on the phrase "aggressively smart" and stresses the idea that there isn't much value in thoughtless running. He pointed out that without a balance of aggression and intellect, some players turn into an easy out at a higher level.
Schaeffer teaches his players that developing this balance requires constant alertness and frequent communication.
"We talk about it all the time. We talk about situations. When one situation doesn't go right, we talk about it. So, hopefully, next time we think about it better," he said. "The err is always on the aggressive. We're trying to go first to third all the time. And if we get thrown out, we get thrown out. It's no big deal. We're just trying to not ever make passive mistakes."
Gerard Gilberto is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @GerardGilberto4.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.