How an Olympian is helping Royals runners unlock speed

February 17th, 2024
Maurice Greene, who owns two Olympic gold medals, works with Bobby Witt Jr., who stole 49 bases in 2023.(Jason Hanna/Royals)

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Royals position players who showed up early to Spring Training have gone through hitting drills, defensive drills and, on Friday, sprinting drills. For the final third of their workout, they got to learn from someone who was once the fastest man in the world.

Former Olympic gold medalist, world record holder and Kansas City native Maurice Greene was at the Royals’ complex on Friday to work with hitters on their form and explosiveness in hopes of gaining an edge on the bases in 2024.

“If we can get a tenth faster, that’s a tenth they don’t have to worry about getting thrown out,” Greene said.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Greene competed in the 60, 100 and 200 meters and won four Olympic medals, including two golds in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In 1999, he set the 100-meter dash world record with a time of 9.79 seconds, which stood for a little over three years. That year, he won three gold medals at the 1999 World Championships.

Nowadays, Greene is coaching high school football and track in nearby Gilbert, Ariz., but he’s always had an eye on his hometown team in Kansas City. Over the offseason, the Royals contacted him to see if he could work with some of their players in Arizona. Greene has been coming to the facility twice a week for the last three months, working with players like Kyle Isbel and Bobby Witt Jr. when they’ve been in town.

“Trying to teach them how to run correctly, move more efficiently,” Greene said. “As a baseball player, they don’t think about the running part as much as they think about the hitting and catching and all those other things. They give very little time to really think about sprinting. So just give them a little bit of how to do it correctly and make their bodies move more efficiently. And with that, you can have [fewer] injuries, too.”

Maurice Greene briefly held the world record in the 100-meter dash with a time of 9.79 seconds in 1999, holding the record until 2002.(Jason Hanna/Royals)

Witt stole 49 bases last year and is looking for more in 2024, but he was also caught stealing 15 times, leading the Majors. He’s hoping the work with Greene -- who has corrected form and overseen sprints -- will help give him an edge on the close calls.

“How many of those were very little margins that I can overcome and get better at?” Witt said. “It’s just those little things to get you better. You would never think to position your arms a certain way to get faster, but those are the little things that make you better.”

As for his impressions of Witt, one of the fastest players in baseball, Greene said: “I want [him] to have like 15 extra stolen bases than he had last year.”

Veneziano’s new breaking ball

Anthony Veneziano may have only gotten 2 1/3 innings in the big leagues at the end of last season, but that small taste motivated him throughout the entire offseason, which he spent at his home in New Jersey. Veneziano texted Royals pitching coach Brian Sweeney two-to-three times a week and talked frequently with assistant pitching coach Zach Bove and bullpen coach Mitch Stetter, formulating a plan to introduce a new breaking ball to his arsenal over the winter.

He showed it for the first time against hitters in his live BP on Thursday and saw some success.

Veneziano is calling it a slurve, and the point is to pair it with his slider and cover both sides of the plate. There have been times in the past where Veneziano has shown a different slider, but it’s always been the same grip. He worked on a distinct grip for his slurve this offseason and focused on slowing the pitch down to the low-80s, rather than his 85-87 mph slider.

“Talking in the offseason, and getting to be around Sweeney and Bove, we bounced ideas back and forth about what we could do,” Veneziano said Friday. “And we kind of came up with the new grip, something I’m somewhat comfortable with, and we started working from there. So I started throwing it middle of December, early January, and I’ve had good feel for it. It’s been a good addition to have. Two different sliders to give a look to a righty and lefty.”

Veneziano -- ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Royals' No. 16 prospect -- is building up as a starter this spring, but the Royals have told him to be ready for any role if he makes the team. He could see time in a middle-inning or long-relief role, as well as starting depth.

“It’s good to know that,” Veneziano said. “And those three games I didn’t pitch in when I was up there was a good experience just to be around the guys and see what it takes to be in the bullpen and talking to Stet a lot. I’m treating this like I’m a starter, I’m building up as one, and then whatever happens, happens. I’m good with whatever.”