TSU baseball reigns supreme in stealing bases
TSU's Johnathon Thomas, the nation leader in stolen bases, seen here on the basepath against PVAMU. Photo by Jimmie Aggison.

It’s not uncommon for Texas Southern designated hitter Gabe Vasquez to have a little friendly banter with the opposing catcher with one of the Tigers’ base runners at first and threatening to steal second.

Said catcher: “What you want to bet I can get your guy out?”

Vasquez: “I bet you can’t.”

Vasquez almost always wins that friendly bet.

“I will never bet against my guys,” said a smiling Vasquez. “The catchers always have to be ready with our guys. With the speed, it makes their job that much harder.”

Try nearly impossible.

The one thing you know about any Michael Robertson-coached team is stealing bases is going to happen. But this season, the Tigers have done it at an unbelievable rate. It’s how they move runners and manufacture runs. It’s the Tigers’ formula for success.

Heading into this week’s SWAC Championship in Birmingham, TSU finished third in the West Division with a 28-23 overall and 19-11 conference record.

The Tigers lead all of Division I baseball by a wide margin in the stolen bases department with 220 stolen bags on the season and average 4.31 stolen bases a game. For context, West Virginia is the second-best team in the nation in stealing bases with 154 on the season and average 2.91 a game.

So to make a long story short, the Tigers steal bases and they don’t stop.

“It’s an enormous amount of pressure on defenses,” said Robertson, who is in his 20th season coaching the Tigers. “Some games I walk away from here and I don’t even understand. I’m like `Gosh, that was a lot of stuff we were doing out there: fake bunt, steal; fake swing, steal; hit and run; run and hit; rip and run; sacrifice squeeze; squeeze and double squeeze; double steal; delay steal; fake steal; steal-stop, fall down; force balk run down. It’s only effective with precise timing, execution, instincts, anticipation and knowledge of baseball.”

The Tigers have four players who rank in the top 23 in the country in steals with Johnathon Thomas leading the nation at a TSU record-setting pace with 1.22 per game and a total of 62 stolen bases, while being caught just eight times in 51 games so far this season.

Tyrese Clayborne ranks eighth in the nation (0.71, 34 total bases), Justin Cooper is 15th in the country (0.63, 32 total bases) and Jeremy Gaines currently ranks 23rd (0.57, 27 stolen bases).

“We knew we had the capability of doing this,” Thomas said. “But when we look at the numbers we are like, `Wow, we are actually doing this.’ It is a surprise, but also we knew we had the capability of doing this.”

Stealing bases has become a lost art in baseball, but it’s a style of play Robertson has embraced since his playing days at Forest Brook High School and watching some of the greats like Rickey Henderson steal at a record-setting clip.

Robertson has brought back this exciting brand of baseball, which he refers to as West Coast offense, partly because it’s what he knows and believes in as a philosophy, but also out of necessity. The Tigers aren’t blessed with a lot of long-ball hitters, but they do have athletic players who are great at getting on base and then stealing second, third and even home given the smallest of openings.

“We keep saying we are going back to the athleticism of baseball, but I don’t see it,” Robertson said. “Everybody is still into launching angles and what they are doing with analytics and sabermetrics. But the swing is different. Everybody likes the long ball. That’s not going to be us. We are not built around East Coast. We are West Coast.”

But Robertson is quick to point out that his team’s success has been about more than just stealing bases. The Tigers also lead the nation in on base percentage (0.440), scoring (9.7 runs per game), triples (0.57) and are fourth in the country in batting (.320).

“We are that team that’s exciting,” Robertson said. “If you like stealing bases, you like bunting…we’ve even stolen home like four times this year. We are going to crash and burn, because I told them at the beginning of the season, ‘I know we are going to get thrown out on the bases but let’s not get too concerned with that because that’s our offense, that’s the way we have to play.’”

That is perfectly fine for a power hitter like Vasquez, who has benefited from the Tigers’ stealing habits with a SWAC-best 67 RBI this season.

“We have guys getting on first base and then stealing second,” said Vasquez, who also ranks second in the country in triples with eight. “That makes my job that much easier making them score.

“It’s a lot easier getting a hit and having them score from second than it is from first. So that makes the job a lot more easier when you have guys who can run around the bases and stealing bags like we do.”