The Reds are speeding past the rest of MLB

August 30th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Mark Sheldon’s Reds Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

PHOENIX -- Through steals, taking extra bases and hustling, the Reds have often worn out opponents throughout 2023 by running and running some more.

Teams have to plan for the Reds’ aggressiveness and defend against it. It’s one more thing opponents have to think about.

Manager David Bell set the expectation in Spring Training that the Reds should be more aggressive on the bases. One of the people who helped put the plan into action was first-base coach Collin Cowgill.

"Anything we can do to create an advantage with our legs, we’re going to try to do," Cowgill said. "What’s been the most impressive thing to me about our team is I don’t have to say anything about it. That’s our culture. That’s our identity. [Bell] talked about it starting in Spring Training. All I really have to do is give them information, and they’re already wound up and ready to go at first base anyway."

Cincinnati leads the Major Leagues with 153 stolen bases entering Wednesday, after stealing only 58 bases in 2022.

In Statcast rankings, the Reds lead MLB in adding extra runs on the bases. In 2022, they were tied for the league's worst.

A big reason for the improvement is the presence of more athletic players. Led by Elly De La Cruz, along with Matt McLain, TJ Friedl, Jake Fraley and more, the Reds lead MLB in average sprint speed. In 2022, they were tied for 22nd.

Cowgill joined Bell's coaching staff in November after serving as the manager for the Mariners' Double-A affiliate in Arkansas the previous two seasons. A former outfielder, he played six seasons in the big leagues from 2011-16.

On Sunday in Arizona, I spoke with Cowgill about the club's success on the basepaths this season. Obviously, there are more athletic players on the team this year. But there is also a lot of study and technique involved in taking bases. What’s your role in the success?

Cowgill: It’s 99 percent on them. We’ve got a group of really fast, really athletic players. What’s shocked me the most about this group is they’re all hungry to steal bases. They all have an aggressive mindset. It makes my job really easy. We have a couple of drills we’ll do on form stuff. But [strength and conditioning director Rob Fumagalli] has done a fantastic job of holding them accountable with their sprint and pregame work. He’ll bring cones out, get them in a straight line, work on their first step and all that. As far as my role goes, I try to do all the work I would do if I was stealing a base. I try to do it for them and present the information. That way, when they get to first, they only have a small amount of time to get any information or message. What kind of pregame work do you do? Do you look at videos and study scouting reports?

Cowgill: I watch video after video, try to see what I can see. I have all the [pitchers’] times, counts when they throw offspeed. They don’t have to think. They can just go out there, react and play their game. They have enough to worry about defending and hitting and whatnot. If I can help them have a little peace of mind when they get to first, knowing all they have to do is listen and run, it makes it all work pretty well. What makes the skill of going from first base to third base -- and taking an extra base anywhere -- to overwhelm opponents with running so important?

Cowgill: There’s a number of ways to steal bases. It’s not just stealing a base off a pitcher. An extra base taken is the same as a stolen base. It’s just not credited the same. Since Spring Training, it’s kind of been our rallying cry. We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to use our speed to our advantage and create some chaos, put the pressure on the defense as many ways as we can. We have a unique skillset a lot of other teams don’t have the luxury to have. We have a lot of green runners. First to third is really important, first to home, second to home, tagging on balls we shouldn’t be tagging on from first to second and second to third. Your team is not afraid to make outs on the bases by being aggressive. They keep running.

Cowgill: Absolutely. We’re going to encourage them to continue to run. If there’s an opportunity or a situation where we shouldn’t have, that’s my job to come in and teach and coach. For the most part, these guys do such an incredible job. They’re locked in. They know what they want to do and what they’re going to do. When they’re at first, they’re ready to be baserunners, which is really special. When did the practice of banging helmets with your baserunners like football players begin?

Cowgill: Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes were doing it in Boston in 2013 when they won the World Series. They’d get to first base and smash the coach’s helmet. I always thought it was great. So I casually said something about it in one of the meetings at Spring Training. [Tyler Stephenson] was the first one to say he wanted to get in on this headbutt thing. It started with Stevo and a couple of guys jumped on board.