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East Carolina Hall of Famer and
former baseball coach Keith LeClair.
 (Photo: ECU Media Relations)

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Editor's note: This feature
coordinated by Denny O'Brien.


From The Dugout

By Keith LeClair

Baseball Scholarships: How the System Works

One of the biggest challenges a Division-I coach has each year is figuring out how to balance out 11.7 scholarships and put a championship team on the field. The 11.7 is the maximum amount of scholarship the NCAA allows each Division-I baseball team. Itís based on that percentage or equivalency for each institution and not on an overall dollar amount.

For 11 years as a head coach, I had to explain how the system worked to every parent and prospect that stepped into my office. It was by far the most often asked question when I offered a student athlete a scholarship. In fact, this was the part of my job I liked least. At times you often felt like a used car salesman, because Billy Bob was insulted by your offer.

You see, in baseball there are very few full rides. Itís not like basketball and football when you offer a kid a scholarship, where it is a full scholarship. I often wondered how that might feel to be able to offer every kid a full ride. But in baseball, you have to spread the money around and make it all work amongst about 30 guys on 11.7 scholarships. Itís by far the hardest job a baseball coach faces today. Many factors come into play breaking the money down amongst the team, so it all works out. The problem is most folks are not aware of all the stress this puts the coach under.

Here is a typical year of what my coaching staff and I would go through. For starters, letís say we have eight seniors graduating and they take up 3.7 scholarships out of 11.7. So, basically I have that amount of scholarship percentage to go replace those eight seniors. Now I have to look at my junior class and see how many guys will get drafted and most likely sign professional contracts. Letís say I have three guys I am pretty sure will get drafted and sign. Their scholarships add up to 1.5, so I am going to spend their money in the fall. Now I have a total of 5.2 scholarships to spend replacing the 11 guys I am planning on losing. Are you completely lost yet? Pay attention, it gets a lot better.

To make it easy on everyone, we will say in-state tuition and room, board and meals, it is ten grand, and out-of-state tuition is 20 grand for the same thing. This is where it gets really tough, because you are trying to sign the best players available to get you to Omaha. Obviously, itís much cheaper to do all your recruiting in state, but that is very difficult to do. So, anytime you go out of state, itís going to cost you money and a bigger percentage of your total 11.7 scholarships. For example, we can offer an out of state kid 50% and that is equivalent to what a walk-on in state kid would pay. Thatís why in baseball you will see, for the most part, out of state kids on more money. This is just a rule of thumb and does not mean all in-state kids are on a lesser percentage.

Other factors play into this scenario as well, one being if the kid and his parents can afford to pay some money for his sonís education. Other considerations are what other schools are recruiting this kid and will he be an impact player? The more schools recruiting a young man will drive the amount you offer the kid up. One other factor that comes into play is the draft. You have to ask yourself and scouts will this kid be drafted in the professional draft come June. If so, you probably wonít keep him from signing for a 20% scholarship. This holds true for an out-of-state kid who may only be on 40-50% scholarship.

I hope you are starting to see the dilemma baseball coaches are under each and every year. Well, I just spent 5.2 scholarships in the November signing period. I guess recruiting is overÖ sorry itís just beginning. Over fall workouts, two of our juniors that we didnít expect to get drafted have really improved and most likely will be taken in the draft. To make matters worse, two of our high school signees are absolutely tearing it up in showcases and scouts are in their homes every night. Those four kidsí scholarships add up to 1.8 scholarships. I have a huge decision to make. Do I spend their money or hold on and possibly get burned by the draft in June? If I wait and donít do anything, it could significantly hurt the program the following year. After a staff meeting, I decide to go out and offer 1.8 more scholarships to incoming freshmen. Before you get confused and think I have taken a kidís scholarship away, thatís not it all. What I have done is what every Top 40 baseball program in the country does. I have just taken a chance and have gone over the 11.7 scholarships by 1.8 giving me a total of 13.5 scholarships.

Itís time for school to start in August, and to my amazement, I miscalculated and we are at 11.2 scholarships. One of the other high school kids we didnít expect to get drafted did and signed. This is the life of a Division-I baseball coach year in and year out. Now you all know why I was grey headed at an early age. You remember that great second baseman we had named Nick Schnabel? Well, if not for going out on a limb and over-signing, you never would have ever seen him play in a Pirate uniform. I truly hated this aspect of my job, because I never liked being a salesman. Itís too bad baseball coaches are put in this position, but as long as the draft takes high school seniors and college juniors, this is going to be the business aspect of collegiate baseball. I hope you enjoyed just part of what a coach goes through in a season.

First-and-Third Defense

First-and-third defense is an important arsenal in every teamís package. What becomes the important factor in determining which one youíre going to execute depends on many different variables. For instance, your strategy early in the game is to collect outs, unless youíre down three or four runs and can't afford to give up anymore. Secondly, you have a middle innings strategy that may call for more aggressive play to keep runners from scoring, especially if itís a tight game and your opponent has a dominating bullpen. The most common situation is late in the game with two outs and a tight score. This is when your decision-making becomes critical and can either win or lose a game. Basically your opponent is gambling on the notion that they are going to try to force you into a mistake and steal a run. Most times, the score will either be tied or youíre down a run and possibly youíre up a run and want insurance. But, regardless of the situation, you have to execute as a team in tight games in order to give yourself a chance to win.

Two other factors that come into a coachís decision making: One, how well does your catcher throw and what kind of speed is on first and third? If you have a speed burner at first this will almost always alter your decision-making process, compared to an average runner. If your catcher has an above-average arm, you can be much more aggressive with your plan of attack.

The second part of your decision making will depend who is on the mound. Does the pitcher hold runners well and is he quick to the plate, enabling your catcher to have a chance to throw the guy out at second? For example, with a guy like Sam Narron, who has a great move, we would be much more aggressive in throwing through to second and getting the out, compared to a guy who is much slower to the plate and has no move. Then our focus of attack becomes the guy at third base in trying to get the out.

Enough said, letís talk about plays to use and the responsibility of our infielders. Basically, I used to run six first-and-third defensive plays throughout the course of the year. Which one I ran depended on what I discussed earlier as far as how important that runner on third meant to the score of the game. Obviously, if your team is not very productive offensively, you become much more concerned about giving up these kinds of runs, as well as facing a dominant pitcher where you know runs will be hard to come by. Here are the six plays we would run:

  1. This play we throw straight through and do not pay any attention to guy on third. Basically, we are conceding a run. In this situation we are up in the game and outs are more important than runs. The catcherís job is to come up out of the shoot and check the runner at third and throw a strike to second base (the catcher checks the runner out of the corner of his left eye; what this does is freeze the runner at third base a step). The first basemanís job is to let everyone know the runner is going and then, after the pitch is controlled by the catcher, he trails the runner half way to second in case the runner pulls up and there is a run down. Especially with two outs, because if the third out is recorded before the runner at third crosses home plate, the run does not count. The shortstop and second basemanís job is to apply the tag or execute a rundown if the runner pulls up. Whose responsibility it is to take the bag will be determined by the bag. The middle infielder who does not have the bag will back up and become third man in the rundown. The third basemanís job is to read the pitched ball and, once secured by the catcher, break to third base reading the runner. This will cause the runner at third to cut his secondary lead back. The third baseman always has the option to give the catcher palms up if he sees the runner way off third. This allows the catcher to have the option to throw behind the runner at third. The pitcherís job on this play is to peel back to first base in case of rundown between first and second.

  2. This play is basically the same as play one, except the second baseman has the option of coming and getting the ball from the catcher and making the relay to the plate. This gives our guys two options and we run this play when we feel cutting the run down at the plate is important, but not critical. You also run this if the guy on third is an average runner. Itís still important to get an out when this play is on. The only responsibilities that change will be the middle infielders'. On this play, I always wanted our second baseman to cover the bag, because he has the best view of reading the runner at third and making the decision to stay back and collect an out or come get ball and make the relay to the plate. Our own Nick Schnabel was the best I ever saw at executing this play. The shortstop has to break hard to third if the second baseman relays the ball to the plate in case of a rundown. It is important that the catcher elevates ball at least waist high so the second baseman can handle the ball, and itís also important that the pitcher fakes catching the ball from the catcher to freeze the runner at third.

  3. This play is to defense the delayed steal used when the runner breaks for second as the ball enters the strike zone. Itís used to catch the defense off guard and force the catcher into making a poor decision. I would use this play with a slow runner on first and we know it is coming. The catcherís responsibility is to again do a good job checking the runner and not to panic. He will throw a strike to the second baseman who will receive the ball about ten feet up the bag from second. The second baseman again reads the runner at third and if the runner breaks on the catcherís throw, he will cut the ball and relay it home. If the runner does not break from third, the second baseman will catch the ball and go hard at the runner coming from first to record the third out before the runner scores. In this case, we won't even pay attention to the runner at third, because we feel confident we can get the third out before he scores.

  4. We use this play when we canít afford to give up a run or the guy on first is a burner and we notice the guy being really aggressive on third. All we do here is throw a ball head high to the pitcher and he cuts the throw off. Immediately he will turn to third looking for the out. If the runner holds and reads the play, the pitcher will turn and look for the out at second. Itís important that the catcher doesnít slow his arm down on his throw back to the pitcher ó he has to sell play. If the runner breaks on the catcherís throw and is hung up in the baseline, itís important that the pitcher stays under control and walks at the runner, giving the ball up to the catcher or third baseman. Yes, I said walk, or you will have a pitcher doing the Ickey Woods shuffle trying to tag the runner.

  5. This is simply a pump fake to second by the catcher and looking backdoor to catch the runner off third. Again, we will use this when we have speed on the bases and they are really aggressive in making things happen. The score will most likely be tight and the run is critical. This play only works if the catcher uses a great fake to second. Itís also important that the third baseman stays on the inside of the bag to give the catcher a throwing lane.

  6. The last and final play will be a direct throw from the catcher to third. This play works with an aggressive runner at third and his run is important to keep from scoring. The third baseman again has to stay inside the base for a throwing lane. His job is applying a good tag directly to the base and not up high where the runnerís foot can get under the tag.

Well folks, I am worn out and I hope you all learned a thing or two about first and third defense. Have a Merry Christmas and I will be back after the New Year with a Conference USA preseason breakdown of each team. God bless you all this holiday.

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02.23.07 10:27 AM


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