Ventura, California —— Calling all pitchers at the colleges that make up California’s Western State Conference: it’s time we talk about Chris McKee.
You’ve probably heard the name of the Ventura College sophomore outfielder before. Many of you have already had the misfortune of allowing him to steal second base—and then third—in a game this year, just as Cuesta College‘s poor pitching staff suffered through in mid-March. McKee has done it 19 times now and been caught just once, so if you’re in this fraternity of stolen base victims, you’re not alone. Maybe we’ll start a support group: Speed Kills: The victims of Chris McKee.
If you have yet to pitch against Ventura, maybe you’re here because McKee’s reputation as a bag-swiping speedster precedes him. You haven’t seen him in action but, like Cuesta in that March game at Ventura, you know exactly who Chris McKee is and what he’s trying to do before he ever gets to first base.
If that’s the case, you should take a good, long look at this picture:
That’s the best view you’ll get of Chris McKee when you let him on base.
When he gets on, you know what comes next. Your coach knows what comes next. Your poor catcher really knows what comes next, and yet nobody’s been able to stop Chris McKee.
So don’t let him on base.
“When I get on base, I’m trying to score as quickly as possible to get our team the most runs we can get,” McKee told me in an interview earlier this month. “Stealing bags is just a way to get closer to that. I don’t know, I guess I’ve just always been really fast.”
There’s the understatement of the year.
“I can read the pitcher very well, and I can tell what he’s doing and exploit it,” McKee continued. “And I expect to be on second base immediately. Between the first and third pitch, I’m gone. But with everybody now knowing what I can do on the bases, I expect pitchers will try to pick me off, so I have to be smart about it. But if I’m smart, I can still pick the right time and just go.”
There’s a universal truth for any good base stealer, be it Ventura’s leadoff whiz kid here or Rickey Henderson: you must be comfortable in your audacity. As your reputation grows because of your base-stealing proclivities, all the focus zooms in on you, pitchers set longer holds, catchers prep quicker pop times, and coaches game plan specifically to prevent you from beating them.
And you still have to steal bases.
McKee has that audacity simmering beneath the surface. You can see it in his face the way his eyes light up when he talks about how he reads pitchers’ mannerisms and pick-off moves. He’s playing chess out there, with that coy I know something you don’t know look about him.
“Everybody has a tell, everybody has something that you can exploit to throw them off,” McKee said, admitting it usually takes him just two pitches to get a full read on a pitcher. “You just have to find it. It might be a little bit harder, but you have to find it and exploit it any way you can. It’s just body language for me, and I can read it pretty easily. And my coaches have kind of said, ‘when you get on base, get to third base as quickly as possible.'”
Ventura’s top assistant coach Steven Hardesty confirmed as much, noting McKee’s speed is exceptional across all the years he’s been coaching the Pirates.
“He’s the only kid I’ve ever seen steal second base three times standing up, with the catcher catching the ball,” Hardesty offered. “Not with a ball in the dirt, but on balls that have hit the catcher in the glove, and Chris goes into second base standing up. His jumps are that good.”
To steal a base is weirdly akin to being one of those apex predators hunting gazelle on Animal Planet. Vision matters. Speed, essential. Every split second counts. And yeah, everybody knows what you’re trying to do, everybody’s there to prevent it, and yet you still have to do it.
Do you remember that moment in the 2004 American League Championship Series where literally everyone in the world knew Dave Roberts was going to have to steal second base off Mariano Rivera if the Boston Red Sox had any hope of tying the New York Yankees in the bottom of the ninth inning on Game Four?
Yeah, that moment.
That’s sort of what it’s like every single time Chris McKee gets on base. (You know, without a World Series trip at stake.) That inevitable dread from the pitcher, that here we go again feeling you can physically see well up in him when he looks over and says to himself damn it, Chris McKee is on base again. And if McKee is the predator in this equation, two weeks ago, poor Cody Luther was the gazelle.
Luther, a big, strong right-handed pitcher for Cuesta, let McKee on first base to lead off the bottom of the first inning. Sure enough, three pitches later, McKee was standing on third. By the end of the at-bat, McKee had scored Ventura’s first run of the game. He did the whole thing all over again a few innings later, too—in a game the Pirates would go on to win by two runs. And try as poor Cody Luther might—hold as long as he could, vary tempos to the plate, quicken his delivery and eliminate his balance point—it didn’t matter to the predator stalking around at first base waiting for the slightest tick upon which to pounce.
Related: Read our 2017 scouting report on Chris McKee
In fact, forcing Luther to change everything about his presence on the mound was McKee’s game plan from the start.
“I’ve seen different pitchers do different things, but you can pick out generalizations a lot of times,” McKee said, joking that he wasn’t going to give away all his secrets to the media. “Like if a lefty is coming forward and leaning to you, you already know he’s thinking about you and he’s most likely going to come over. But it’s a bunch of different things, and it’s all little stuff. You have to pay attention to the little things the most because that’s what is going to give the most away. And that’s the tricky part.”
There’s a maturity here far more important to McKee’s success at swiping bags than his speed alone. Yeah, he’s fast, and there’s no question about that. But fast guys get thrown out all the time if they don’t know what they’re doing. McKee? He’s been thrown out once.
“We’ve never given him a steal sign,” Hardesty said about McKee’s unending green light at first base. “All those stolen bases are on his own. He has this innate ability to read pitchers and figure out something that’ll give him a tell to get a good jump. So very rarely does he take a massive lead, but he’s got this ability where he can just get great jumps. He’s not 13 or 14 feet off the base, he’s just ten feet off, but he gets these jumps that make it impossible to pick him off.”
Yeah, if you’re a pitcher set to go up against McKee and the Pirates, this is bad. But you know what they say about speedy guys: they can’t steal first base. Maybe McKee’s skills at the plate are so weak that he can’t get on first base in the first place, right?
Keep telling yourself that.
“He wasn’t getting on the field as a freshman last year because he just didn’t walk,” Hardesty revealed, noting the biggest year-to-year improvement in McKee’s game hasn’t been speed as much as an improved ability at the plate. “He swung at everything. He was hacking at the first pitch, whether it was a good pitch to hit or not. He was just up there to hit. But he made an adjustment over the summer, and while he’s still an aggressive hitter now, he’s starting to understand the difference between swinging at a pitch, and swinging at his pitch.”
At 150 lbs. and a few inches under six feet, McKee will never be confused for a power hitter, here in the Western State Conference or anywhere else. But damn it if he isn’t starting to become a true lead-off man.
“He led our team in walks this fall, and so we started to realize, ‘OK, this kid is walking, he’s getting hit by pitches, he’s putting the ball in play, and once he gets on, he’ll turn a walk into a double very quickly,'” Hardesty remembered about the moment the light bulb went on for the Pirates coaching staff.
“That puts so much pressure on pitchers, it creates wild pitches and passed balls, and especially late in the game, it gives our other guys fastballs to hit. Other teams don’t want to throw a breaking ball with him on, because it’s going to be an automatic stolen base. We preach ‘hit fastball, fastball, fastball’ at the plate, and when he gets on, our guys know they are going to get that fastball to hit because opponents don’t want him stealing second and third.”
That’s maybe the most underrated part of McKee’s value here in Ventura, not only as a spark plug to get on base in the first place, but as the ultimate distraction once he’s there. Sure, he’s always a pitch away from second base if he wants—but if he does it right, the Pirates’ next hitter is just a pitch from a mistake fastball grooved right down the middle from a pitcher far too focused on the base paths.
“If I can distract, if I can give jab steps to get the pitcher to look at me, that takes him away from the plate,” McKee said. “I know that’ll give my guy something to hit. And then I’m just gonna score anyways. Once I get on base, I know it won’t be very long until I score.”
McKee paused, and shrugged.
“You have to know who you are, and what your place is,” he offered after a beat. “Once you realize that, you can start to work to get better at what it is you do.”
Hopefully he knows who he is by now, because the rest of the Western State Conference is very well aware of Chris McKee.
In this Chris McKee / Ventura College feature:
Western State Conference | Ventura College | Cuesta College | Chris McKee
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