Breakthrough Series Notebook: Raw Skills And Baserunners

Raw skills.                  

That was the phrase that floated through the Southern California air on the third day of the Breakthrough Series at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton.

It was on the lips of scouts and coaches. It certainly was evident in the scores of the first two of the day’s three seven-inning games, as the Major League Scouting Bureau team was blown out twice. The MVP (Mentoring Viable Prospects) team dominated MLSB, 12-1, followed by a 10-1 drubbing at the hands of the UYA team.

The third contest of the day, a match-up between MVP and UYA, ended in a 4-4 tie.

To a large extent, the Atlanta-based MVP team and the UYA team from Compton have taken advantage of the pro-caliber coaching support offered by their respective organizations.

The MLSB team, however, was hand-picked by area MLB Scouting Bureau scouts throughout the country and in most cases, the prospects did not have access to anything but the most rudimentary public high school coaching in underserved communities.

Which is where the term “raw skills” enters the picture. MLBSB scouts have highly trained eyes and the ability to project that vision into the future. This enables them to identify which attributes such as physical build, raw strength, eye hand coordination and pure speed will translate into a coachable prospect who will respond at the college level and possibly beyond.

The question is how to hone those raw skills once they have been identified.

MLB and USA Baseball wisely considered that issue in the planning stages of the Breakthrough Series.

As a result, Day 3 continued the previous days’ unique intertwining of clinics, educational programming and guest speakers with the tournament games. The educational aspects of the program address the fine-tuning of the young players’ tools.

First up was a base running clinic by five-time All-Star Maury Wills, who led the National League in stolen bases from 1960-1965.

Matthew Young, a 17-year-old UYA outfielder from Rancho Verde High (Moreno Valley, Calif.) enthusiastically described the lessons he absorbed from Wills about reading a pitcher’s moves when stealing.

“He puts pitchers in three categories, in percentages of 80, 15 and 5. So 80% of right handed pitchers open up their shoulder before they try to pick off. The 15% is the bend of the knee when they bring it up and out. The 5% is the slide step, when righties shift their weight back. Lefties will lean.”

Young said that other tips from Wills include, “Always touch the inside of the bag because it’s the shortest path to the next base. Once you get to first base look for four things: where the outfielders are playing, where the infielders are playing, how many outs there are and pick up your sign from the third base coach."

Wills later addressed all 60 prospects, focusing on the intense passion for the game which catapulted him from the Washington, D.C. projects to the Brooklyn Dodgers, to emulate his idol, Jackie Robinson.

“We’d use a tennis ball instead of a baseball, a broomstick for a bat and made mitts out of paper bags. When there are 13 kids in your family and you’re outside in the summer, playing ball from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., there isn’t much food left when you get home. But we didn’t care, because we just wanted to play baseball.”

He also discussed the importance of knowing your limitations, body type and focusing on your strengths.

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, the only MVP in both leagues, the first African-American manager and 1966 Triple Crown winner, also spoke to the group, emphasizing the importance of desire. “If two prospects were equally skilled, I’d take the one who played with passion, because he’d bring it every day to the ball club.”

He described playing against Wills as, “It wasn’t a pleasure, it was war. When I went into second base to take him out, he aimed that ball right between the eyes.”

Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and creator of the Breakthrough Series, discussed the variety of careers in baseball, including coaching, umpiring and front office operations, as well the importance of fully taking advantage of opportunities such as the Series.

Brian Barrio, an athletic compliance representative from USC, spoke about NCAA eligibility, providing the players with detailed checklists of topics, including SAT and ACT test scores, core courses, G.P.A. and agents.

Finally, Jaeger Throwing Program representatives provided a demonstration of their tubing products designed to work out various muscles groups to increase arm strength and prevent injury.

Donnie Tabb, a shortstop and righthander from Neshoba Central High (Philadelphia, Miss.) who will graduate in 2009, was MLSB’s bright spot on Day 3, hitting two doubles in Game 1 before taking the mound in Game 2.

But if the instruction and motivational speaking produce the intended results, the raw skills on display today may yield the polished players of tomorrow.

–Lorraine Cwelich