TCU's Extreme Hustle Pays Off
By LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
FORT WORTH, Tex. — Hustle is one of the most important elements in the game of baseball.
However, way too many players walk or slowly jog to their positions defensively and do the same coming back to the dugout.
This lack of respect for the game causes the blood to boil with coaches who strive for hustle.
If you were paying attention to games at the College World Series last June, one of the most refreshing sights in the 64-year history of the CWS took place when Texas Christian University took the field. Their nickname is the Horned Frogs. But it really should be High Intensity Hustlers with the show they put on.
They hustled at the level that had never been seen before in CWS history.
For baseball purists, it was a thing of beauty to watch.
Let’s say a fly ball was hit down the right field line with the rightfielder, second baseman and first baseman chasing the ball to catch it.
After the play, each of these fielders sprinted back to their normal defensive positions when the play was over if it was less than three outs.
On every ground ball to an infielder, TCU’s hard-nosed, All-American catcher Bryan Holaday would sprint from home plate to back up first. Once the play was over, with less than three outs, he would take off for home in an all-out race.
And that includes games in Omaha that were in the searing heat of June when temperatures were close to 100 and 80 percent humidity.
TCU also hustled on the off the field with tremendous intensity.
None of this was for show.
It simply is the way baseball is played at TCU under Head Coach Jim Schlossnagle, one of the top skippers in the business who has seen the value of hustle up close.
“If you see us play a game, then you have also seen us practice because that’s the way we do it every day,” said Schlossnagle.
“That’s been a staple of our program during the seven years I have been with TCU. We believe that the two things you can control are your attitude and effort. One thing I tell my players is that I refuse to coach your effort. That better be a given to play the game with energy.
“We believe whether you are winning or losing, you can always play hard. Sometimes when things aren’t going well for you, you can create something positive by just playing the game with energy. That’s part of hustling on and off the field. We don’t allow our pitchers to walk on and off the field whether they are coming in the game or out of the game. They are expected to sprint to the mound and back to the dugout after the inning is over.”
Schlossnagle said that every throw must be backed up by defensive players.
“When a play is to be made, everybody has a responsibility for backing up. So our guys sprint to those positions. Then we sprint back to our positions and throw the ball around after outs. I don’t think that’s too much to ask during the course of a baseball game when there normally is a lot of standing around.”
It is ironic that the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee has made it mandatory for colleges to use a clock during games this upcoming season that must be monitored by an umpire all in the quest to move lengthy games along.
Current rules require pitchers to start their delivery in no more than 20 seconds without runners on base.
In non-televised games, umpires will enforce a 90 second limit between innings.
The committee recommended a time limit for televised games of 108 seconds, which the Southeastern Conference used experimentally during the 2010 season.
However, the committee acknowledged that the time between innings will continue to be a negotiable point in television agreements.
In the proposal, conferences may choose to use a visible clock and assign a qualified operator (e.g., back-up umpire) to administer these rules.
Not Enough Hustle
Schlossnagle was asked if he has ever seen another college baseball team hustle the way his ball club does every game.
“To be honest, no…not really. We take a lot of pride in winning the energy game. We feel like when the talent level is equal then that side of the game from an energy level will push us over the top most days. If we are on the field with a team that might be a bit more talented than we are, then we feel we have to play that way to have a chance.
“Hustle is what we want to be defined by. We have been doing that for a long time. Being at the College World Series last June really showcased it.”
Schlossnagle was asked how he came up with the concept of extreme hustle.
“When I was the head coach at UNLV prior to coming to TCU, we didn’t do as good of a job with hustle as we probably should have. But this whole concept has kind of evolved as I have coached through the last seven years at TCU. With Bryan Holaday catching and a guy named Matt Carpenter who was with us in 2009 who is now in AA with the Cardinal organization, those guys are the ultimate energy players.
“Any time I had my back turned or I was in the cages while other players were doing work in the infield, you could hear those guys yelling at the rest of the team about playing with energy and hustling back and forth. To answer your question, we have always done it. But we have definitely done a better job with it the last couple of years because the players have begun to police themselves in practice, and they also take a lot of pride in it.
“They stick their chests out when they look on the other side of the field and see a team not hustling or playing hard.
“There were many times during the past season when our catcher Bryan Holaday would beat the batter running to first base when he was backing up the throw to first. What is amazing is that he would run just as hard back to home plate as he would to first base. I can’t take credit for Holaday that way. That’s his parents and his will to hustle. From a leadership and catching position, he set a precedent here that is very high.”
Schlossnagle said when infielders threw balls to first base, Holaday wasn’t the only one backing up first base. The rightfielder would sprint as hard as he could to back up first on throws from the third base side of the infield. This would prevent the runner from advancing to second on wild throws to first.
“All of our outfielders hustle to back up bases to prevent runners from advancing on wild throws. As coaches, we simply don’t have any tolerance for non-hustle. If you were to come to one of our first few fall practices, you would see me either stop practice, end practice or kick a guy out of practice the first time he didn’t do what he was told.
“We have a fungo drill where we throw to bases. And I tell the person who is receiving the throw at any time to simply let the ball go. For instance, if a rightfielder is throwing to third base, at any time I want the third baseman to purposely miss the ball even if it is a great throw. The leftfielder and pitcher had better be standing in back of third base to back up the play. Those are things that are worked on from the first day of fall practice. For the most part, players police it.
“If you were to ask any of our guys what it means to be a TCU baseball player, they would talk about their energy, playing hard, hustling on and off and all the things we are discussing.”
Clearly Defining Jobs
Schlossnagle said the NCAA has restricted the time baseball players and coaches can be together in the fall.
“In the individual four on one, two hour a week skill development sessions the NCAA allows during the fall, Coach Randy Mazey will do a chalk talk with all of our outfielders that on every ball hit, they have a responsibility. You never know if you back the throw up how vital that may be in a game. When it actually works, and the runner doesn’t advance a base as the force is kept in order and the next guy hits into a double play, that previous hustle play becomes huge.
“That hustle play could be the difference in winning or losing a tight game. And that might be the difference in qualifying for a regional or hosting a regional or getting to the College World Series. We talk about those things from day one.”
Schlossnagle was asked what he does to new players in his program who don’t hustle at the outset of fall practice.
“If he is new to the program, he might be given a break early in the fall. We will tell them they have a job to do and get on them a bit. But it all depends on the attitude of the kid as well. We may make him run back to his position and then run to the backup position behind a base they are expected to be at so he fully understands where he must be.
“If it’s a recurring problem, and I think it’s a team issue, then I might not be so nice. Now we have gotten our program to the point where I might call out a veteran player and say, ‘It’s your fault.’ If you are a veteran leftfielder and have a rookie leftfielder next to you, and he has done it wrong once, I will take care of that. But if he does it wrong twice, I expect the veteran player to police that. But like I said earlier, I refuse to coach effort. That better be a given every day. I have no problem sending a guy home. I might tell him, ‘We’ll call you when we need you.’ If it is an extreme case, we will simply end practice that day.”
Schlossnagle said since his ball club came back from the College World Series, he has received close to 200 e-mails from high school and college coaches across the nation who noticed TCU’s extreme hustle.
“We feel pretty good about that. That is stuff we do all the time, and it is great when people compliment us on that. I think there should be more of that in baseball. That’s the right way to play the game. There is so much inactivity in baseball. When the game is being played, everyone should go about their business with their greatest effort.”
Pickoff Plays By Pitchers
Because of all the players being highly aware of backing up bases on every play, TCU pitchers are ultra aggressive when it comes to making pickoff attempts with runners on base.
The Horned Frogs take the opposite stance of most teams which step off to keep runners close or toss the ball slowly to a bag to prevent errors from occurring.
It is no coincidence that TCU pitchers and catchers have picked off 29 runners over the last two seasons.
“I am not a big believer in gadget plays at all,” said Schlossnagle.
“The two or three pickoff plays we run, we try to be really good at it. So we practice them a lot. Our philosophy is that we don’t have any halfhearted pickoff plays. If we put one on, the intent is to get an out. We understand that you will not always get an out. The secondary effect of not getting an out is to shorten the runner’s lead or preventing a great jump.
“When we practice and talk to the players and pitchers about it, the intent is to get an out. We want them to be aggressive. But we also practice it all the time to the point where I’m sure the players get tired of it. But when you are in need of an out with the bases loaded or a runner on third with nobody out, it can be an awfully big play if you can get a pickoff.
“You can really take the wind out of the sails of the other team if they have runners on first and second and you pick off the runner at second.
“With pickoffs at second, the centerfielder must know what is going on because we want the pitcher throwing aggressively knowing that the centerfielder will be there to catch a wild throw so the runner won’t advance unless it hits the runner in the helmet or kicks off in another direction. Our outfielders definitely have a role in pickoffs as well.
“Coach Mazey works with our outfielders and our pitchers. He is in charge of putting in the pickoff stuff. He has been with us for the last four years, and he is as good of a baseball mind as I have ever been around. He has had a big impact on our program.”
Schlossnagle didn’t want to divulge every detail of how TCU’s pickoff plays are done since they have been so successful against opponents. But he discussed several techniques that pitchers use at second base.
“The pickoff plays we use at second base have worked extremely well. One is prior to the pitcher coming into the set position just as he is getting his signal from the catcher. The others are when the pitcher comes into the set position. It’s all about timing and how many times he looks at second base, how many times he looks home. Practicing the timing off that with the middle infielders is crucial to getting outs on those plays.
“The best time to pick off a runner is when he is feeling good about himself. After a big hit or a big stolen base, it is a great time to run a pickoff play when the runner isn’t paying attention.
“The runner doesn’t have to be that far off the base to be picked off. You can get them when they aren’t paying attention, are too relaxed or not in a good, athletic position. We are constantly looking for these things from runners. It might be one thing or all of the above. Once we see that, if we run it correctly, we feel that we will get an out.
“There are signs in the dugout and on the field that let everybody know what is going on. Our pitcher is 100 percent picking to a base or 100 percent throwing a pitch. That way our pitchers are totally committed one way or the other.”
Great Catcher Essential
Schlossnagle said having an All-American catcher in Bryan Holaday last season helped with catcher pickoffs as well. He personally picked off seven runners last season and threw out 23 more trying to steal.
“When Holaday came to TCU, I had to change my philosophy when it came to catchers trying to pick off runners on base. I have always been a coach who was very aggressive on offense but very conservative on defense. I didn’t want the ball being tossed around the field, which could lead to errors, unless we knew we could get an out.
“In the summer of 2006, I coached with Team USA which was a year or so before Holaday came here. We had two remarkable catchers on that team in J.P Arencibia and Preston Clark. Those guys were really aggressive with their arms during the summer.
“I asked J.P. if his coach at Tennessee let him be so aggressive during spring games. And he said yes because he did it all the time in practice. I came back that fall and told our catchers that I didn’t care how many balls they threw away in the fall. I wanted them to be aggressive with their arms. So it started then. Once Holaday came, he won me over because he knew when to do it and was very, very accurate.
“Last season we were playing Texas Tech at home in a 1-run ball game in the top of the ninth with two outs. They have a kid who was really fast that hit a ball to the top of the fence for a triple. He was on third with two outs. With a lefthanded hitter up, our pitcher throws strike one, and we watch the base runner walk back to third with his head down.
“We put the play on. Our closer then throws strike two. We now have two strikes and two outs with our closer on the mound.
“Every rule of baseball says you don’t try to pick with two outs and two strikes at third. You throw it away, and they tie the game. With a lefthanded batter, there is no way you are going to pick off a runner at third.
“But Holaday picks the runner off to end the game at third base. When you have a great player like him, you have to adjust as a coach. The worst thing you can do is limit him when he has a great tool.”