THIBODAUX, La. ó The running game in baseball can take the shape of a bolt of lightning as it puts intense pressure on the defense.
One of the top base stealing coaches in the history of college baseball was Mike Knight, former head coach at Nicholls State University from 1980 to 1996.
Under his guidance, the Bayou Bandits swiped, and this is not a misprint, 1,597 bases in 2,008 attempts over a 9-year span. This averages out to 3.14 stolen bases per game.
During the 1989 season, Nicholls State set an NCAA record for stolen bases during a 60-game season with 280 in 348 attempts. That averages out to a whopping 4.67 stolen bases per game.
In addition, the stolen base percentage was .805.
The running game was so potent at Nicholls State that the team swiped seven bases in one inning against Belhaven during the 1992 season and swiped six bases in one inning on three occasions during the 1990 season against Belhaven, Southwest Missouri State and Tulane, plus six in one inning in another game during the 1989 season against Southern University.
During the 1989 season, the Colonels executed 31 double steals, including the three thefts of home.
Of Nichollsí 280 stolen bases, 141 led to runs. Eleven base runners swiped 10 or more bases.
In addition to leading the nation in team stolen bases during the 1989 season, Nicholls State also captured the stolen base championship in 1992 with 203 in 253 attempts over 54 games.
What are the techniques that Knight used to turn his teams into base pirates?
"Prior to the 1980 season, I talked to track coaches trying to learn how runners go faster. I was a pre-med major, so I understood the scientific approaches to this skill," said Knight.
"But I didnít quite understand why track sprinters used blocks and some had their left foot back while others put their right foot back. I asked track coaches why these sprinters had either one foot or the other back. I never got a good answer.
"The best answer I got was that this is the way these sprinters run faster. The coaches would stand five yards in front of them and clock them. The sprinter would have his left foot back and explode from the blocks. Then he would be timed with the right foot back and explode from the blocks. Which ever way the sprinter was the fastest, the coach would tell the runner to put that foot back."
Knight said he started thinking seriously at that time about implementing such a theory in base running.
"That was the seed of the idea. Here I am at Nicholls State with all these big baseball powers such as LSU, Tulane, New Orleans and others all around us. I wasnít getting the same recruits, so I had to come up with something as an equalizer. I decided it should be the running game. We would create havoc on the bases."
And have they ever.
In 1986 when the Colonels stole 222 bases, opponents threw 68 balls away trying to pick NSU players off base. The most astounding statistic is even though Nicholls State swiped 222 bases in 1986, the team nearly doubled that total with opponent pick off miscues and errors caused by the aggressive Colonel base runners.
High Success Rate
Knightís philosophy is that a base runner must be 80 percent successful stealing second base and 90 percent successful stealing third. It has produced a .795 stolen base percentage during the last nine years. And his teams employ the unique practice of using the athletesí dominant legs to their full advantage.
"After coming up with the idea after watching track sprinters, I developed this concept for use in baseball. The 1981 season was the first season we used it in game situations. The whole concept has mushroomed since then."
Knight calls the dominant leg a baseball player possesses his thrust foot.
"During fall practice every ball player learns what their thrust foot is," said Knight.
How do you logically find your thrust foot?
"Thatís fairly easy. I can spot a dominant leg easily now after doing this for the past nine years. But for the inexperienced person, this is how you find it. First, a player puts his right heel on the edge of the base. He picks up his other foot and more or less broad jumps as far as he can. Then he does the same thing only with is left heel on the edge of the base. He broad jumps with his other foot off the ground. Whatever distance is greater is the dominant leg. Sometimes the difference in distance may be only six inches if both legs are close in dominance. But normally one leg will allow the athlete to jump much further."
Working On Thrust Foot
Knight said that once the thrust foot is established then the base runnerís "jump" is the next area on which to work.
"Most baseball coaches today either borrow from the Lou Brock or Maury Wills theory of base stealing where you take a cross overstep with the left leg and punch with the left hand and throw the right elbow back. A coach who teaches this is wrong mechanically, especially if he uses the wrong thrust foot.
"As far as what I teach, we have two different jumps for the right thrust foot runner and left thrust foot runner.
"The left thrust foot guy should open up on his first step. His first step should be with his right foot. What we do with the arms to get the proper arm action is to reach high with the right arm at that point toward second base. What you are striving for is having the thrust foot under you on the second step.
"Then you have a massive explosion toward the next base. So if I am a left thrust foot person, then I should open up with my right foot. Then my second step I will sink a little bit, and that foot will be under my chest. From that point on there is the explosion you are looking for to the next base. It is boom, and you are off.
"We do a totally different arm action. What we do is scissors cuts. Everybody else seems to jab with the left arm and hurls the right arm back.
"If you are right thrust foot person, it is slightly different. First reach with the right arm low and toward second base. Then you cross over with your left leg, and you will have the left leg and right arm in perfect synchronization."
Opposites Work Together
Knight said you always want the opposite arm and leg to work in conjunction to gain top speed.
"I firmly believe in having running opposites on the very first step. You donít waste any time by having the opposite arm and leg work in synchronization by doing this. We donít waste any motion or any time in stealing with our system."
As I was talking to him on the phone it dawned on me that the left thrust foot principle of starting with the right leg and right arm reaching high didnít exactly mesh as far as the opposite arm and leg theory. So I asked for a clarification.
"You must stand up to feel what I am talking about in this movement," said Knight.
"It sounds as if the right arm and left leg wonít be in sync, but when you show people, it works out perfectly. Again, stand up and open with the right foot. Reach above your shoulder toward second base with your right arm and take the next step and boom, now youíre opposites."
It worked exactly as Knight said because as you reach above your shoulder the right foot step is fairly short and the left foot is moving forward extremely quickly. Within this short burst, the right arm and left leg synchronize.
"Everybody at clinics scratches their heads when you talk about the left thrust foot concept because it is totally different," said Knight.
"The interesting things I have found is that 75 percent of kids are left thrust foots. I would think it would be reverse. Itís strange because so many right-handed baseball players are left thrust foot people."
How Many True Southpaws?
Knight wondered how many true lefthanders were changed to right-handers in their youth with these findings.
"Weíve grown up in a society where a left-handed kid was a freak. My younger brother would eat with his left hand when he was young, and my dad would inevitably pick up the spoon and put it in his right hand.
"We have a lot of left thrust people out there which makes me wonder how many natural lefthanders were never allowed to develop."
Knight was asked if he found that either left or right thrust foot players are more proficient at stealing bases.
"We havenít found much of a difference.
"A base stealer can be just as proficient either way. But what we have found is that right-handed hitters who are left thrust foot people are singles hitters. They are not power hitters.
"The right thrust foot hitters who bat right handed are your power hitters."
Knight also said pitchers have been looked at with the thrust foot theory.
"We have found that if you have a right-handed pitcher who is a left thrust foot guy, he is not a power pitcher. But if he is right-handed and right thrust foot, he will usually dominate other teams with his power. We have noticed that the dominant guys are right-right or left-left. In other words, their thrust foot was synchronized with their throwing arm.
"It all boils down to one simple thing. Itís which foot you want on the ground the longest. If you think about hitting and staying on the back foot to drive a baseball, thatís what power hitters do.
"Another key is that you canít allow the runner to false step with the right foot if you are a left thrust foot person. You must gain ground."
Knight, who said teaching the thrust foot concept to all his players probably added another 60 stolen bases per season, said another vital area for players to learn is the maximum lead concept.
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