Stingers: (Marcus) Still Waters Run Fast
Whether digging his spikes into the right-handed batter’s box, thieving base hits away from opposing hitters in center field or dashing toward records on the basepaths, whenever Willmar Stingers center fielder Marcus Still steps on the diamond, it’s a bad idea to take your eyes off of him.
That’s because Still, with a rare electricity to his credit, can at any moment impact the game in just about every facet possible.. Shift your focus away from the game for five seconds, and Still might just add another ridiculous grab in the outfield to his already-extensive highlight reel, or he could go out and steal the base that breaks the Stingers single-season record.
“As far as him on the bases, at bat and in the field, there’s so many ways that he can contribute,” Stingers shortstop Josh Bissonette said. “It makes him a complete player and one of the best center fielders I’ve ever played with.”
Still, a junior with New Mexico State, is a true multi-tool player that has been at the center of the Stingers 31-23 start to the season -- including a second-half surge that currently has them alone in first place in the North Division.
How do you neutralize that type of talent?
“You don’t,” Willmar manager Eric Vasquez said. “You kind of just cross your fingers.”
Major League teams have even seen the potential in Still’s profile as an athletic, plus-glove, plus-speed outfield prospect.
The Toronto Blue Jays selected Still in the 31st round in the 2016 MLB Draft, but, in the process of a transfer from Scottsdale Community College to the Aggies, he did not sign. With a signing bonus slot in the range of $50,000 turned down, a year of improvement at the Division I level would improve both Still’s draft stock and money potentially coming his way.
According to a Stingers team source, the Blue Jays informed Still that they would pick him in the 2017 Draft in June, but all 40 rounds went by without his name being called -- even though he hit .298 with a .766 OPS with the Aggies.
Now, Still will enter his senior campaign with a year of experience in both the Western Athletic Conference and one of the nation’s premier summer collegiate leagues under his belt.
So what exactly is it that makes Still the player he is? This is the question we posed to Stingers players and managers.
“He does pretty much everything on a baseball field that you can do, and does it well,” Willmar assistant coach Bo Henning said. “Marcus is a really unique player when you take everything into account.”The Bat
There are very few questions to be asked of Still’s speed and defense -- so if there is something he is especially set out to prove, it’s that he can haul some lumber at the dish.
Still has shown Vasquez enough with the bat to make him a steady presence in the top of the lineup. Before a slight dip in production over the past handful of games, Still, a Northwoods League All-Star, has posted a 103 wRC+ this season (meaning he is three percent above league average in run generation, adjsuted for park factors).
With all hitters, any way to reach base is a good way to reach base. That’s the case even more so with Still, and his improvement in plate discipline just over the course of the summer is a good sign.
After striking out 44 times and walking 21 with New Mexico State this past spring, Still has drawn 17 walks while cutting down his strikeouts to 28 in slightly fewer plate appearances with the Stingers.
Vasquez: “You have to go after him with your best pitch. You really do. If I was pitching to him, it would be a case of having my pitcher throw his best pitch at him because he’s such an explosive player.
“He will go long ball on you, but he also will bounce one in the dirt and take off.”
Bissonette: “Anything he hits on the ground slowly, he’s beating it out. He’s always a good hustler. You can’t ask for much more.”
Outfielder Brady Shockey: “He’s a fun guy to hit behind because he’s always finding a way to get on base. He’s getting lots of hits, he’s walking and getting hit by a lot of pitches. He also seems to force a lot of errors with that speed.”Still-ing Bases
As soon as he reaches first base, Still just looks like he has calculated every last move down to a science.
While the pitcher has the ball, before he is on the rubber looking in for the sign from the catcher, there goes Still going about his craft. He walks away from the base, sweeping his feet multiple times through the infield dirt, created a miniature dust cloud to create a level launching pad for his quest to second base.
It comes across as a daring move by Still, but in reality it is all part of the process. And given the 21-year-old’s 32 stolen bases this season, it’s a process that can be trusted.
As soon as Still gets on base with an empty bag in front of him, everyone in the stadium knows what’s about to happen: he’s taking off. Even with all the attention paid to Still on the bags, he has still swiped the most bags in the league while only being thrown out six times. Willmar’s franchise record for steals in a season is 34, set by Sean Beesley in 2015.
If you add Still’s baserunning ability to his offensive production, measured by wRC+, Still’s run-generating ability to over 25 percent above Northwoods League average.
Still: “Being a leadoff man, I want to get on base any time that I can for my team. When I’m out there on first, I want to get to second in two pitches or less. That way, my hitter can have more pitches to look at in the count. Just being aggressive is my role on the team.”
Henning: “Whenever he gets on base, the whole outlook of the entire inning changes with him just being on first base. It kind of magnifies it a little bit.”
Vasquez: “If we had to try to neutralize him on the bases, a lot of it is we would probably control [the running game] a little bit more. And say, ‘Hey we need lots of holds on the mound, step-offs and moves to first.’ But the hardest thing about it is that, all of a sudden, you’re throwing fastballs to that two hitter and we have two hitters like [Luke] Becker that will whack.”
Bissonette: “Obviously, if he’s at first he’s a threat. He’s trying to get to the next base as much and as quick as he can. He’s a guy that can steal a lot of bags. They’ll be a lot more cautious with him.”
Still: “I’m getting the green light out there every time. Coach is giving me the green light”
Shockey: “There’s a lot of times where he steals on the first pitch, even if it’s a fastball, so there’s maybe an advantage of having him there and knowing he’s going to get to second, be in scoring position and allow you to do your job. That is always helpful.”
Still: “At college, I didn’t steal as many bases as I’d like. So I came into this summer with a plan: I’m going to try and get as many bags as I can. Trying to improve on that number that I did in the spring.”
Vasquez: “It really becomes a hassle for the other team. You really just have to trust your catcher. You go into it and try to hold, try to slow [Still’s] tempo and stuff like that.
“The one that would scare me the most is when he gets to second. He’s so active out there. He can read inside a pitch and read the ball’s getting down. He’s scoring on any type of bloop base hit, so it is tough.”Range-Maker
The saying around baseball goes that defense never slumps. Perhaps no player in the league embodies that more than Still, who glides around his wide domain in center field with remarkable ease.
Vasquez: “What makes him special, too, is that he can have a night where he doesn’t hit well and it takes nothing away from his defense. So there’s another couple of runs he saves.
“He runs down balls so well and so easily. You take that, and now he’s taking runs away from the opponent and he’s adding runs in every other way.”
Henning: “He’s saved 20-to-30 runs, probably. We have some flyball pitchers, so knowing they have him back there helps so much. Then as a right and left fielder, you know you can play now more toward the lines, because the gaps are going to be covered by him.”
Bissonette: “With that speed, the impact that he has in center field is remarkable. Any ball that’s hit in the air, you know for sure it’s going to get caught. He’s one of the fastest guys I’ve ever played with.”
Shockey: “Just his amount of range is ridiculous. He can get anywhere.”
Henning: “Once he gets to that second, third step and the ball hangs in the air, it’s caught 99 percent of the time. We have a little bit bigger of a ballpark compared to most of these places. But when you see him in St. Cloud, where we were the first two games before break -- oh my goodness-- there were probably four or five balls hit off the bat where I’m like, ‘Ah, double.’
“Then after that second, third step you realize he’s catching that on the run. Not even a full sprint. He gets to that second, third step, it’s just that stride takes over and he’s catching it chest-high.”The Still Effect
Even the most numbers-focused people in the game have to admit it: there are countless ways in which Still impacts a game that just can’t quite be quantified.
Henning: “It changes the whole outlook of that inning, that game, that at-bat just because of one guy on base. To be honest it changes everything. You can see it on the pitchers’ faces and with the coaches up.”
Third baseman Nolan Bumstead: “It’s always nice to hit with guys in scoring position, and you get that opportunity more with a guy like Marcus at the top of the order.”
Still: “It puts a bunch of pressure on the other team, especially that pitcher. Having that threat that you can steal is in the back of the pitcher’s head, so that’s a lot of pressure.”
Bissonette: “Yeah, I’m definitely getting more fastballs if he’s on. They’re trying to throw him out on a pitch that the catcher can handle, so there’s more fastballs and some pitch outs.”
Henning: “If you’re an opposing pitcher and you don’t have a great [pickoff] move or you’re not quick to the plate, you’re going to have that ‘oh-crap’ feeling. If I know that I’m only 1.4, 1.5 seconds to the plate [in my delivery], I have to do something to hold him on. I’m going to pick over three or four times when I haven’t picked over all game or I’m not used to picking over and I don’t have a great move.
“So basically you’ve wasted some of your energy that you don’t get back to make a good pitch. Then, in that two-hole, there are some good hitters. They’re kind of sitting back, knowing they’re in a good spot to hit.”
Bumstead: “If I’m at third base [defensively] and I know a guy is trying to steal from second, I’m kind of on my toes and leaning toward third. That will probably open up a hole in the five-six hole. So the infielders are probably pinching and it opens up more holes for our hitters.”
Bissonette: “He puts pressure on the defense. If he hits the ball to me at short and it’s a slow roller, I’m trying to get rid of it as quick as I can because he’s going to beat it out.”Mental Approach
In speaking with a handful of Stingers, including Still himself, it becomes clear that his aggressive mentality on the field sets him apart.
Vasquez: “He’s thinking that he’s already on second base when he’s on deck or when he’s on the hole ready to hit. It’s a scary perspective for the other team to see him in the batter’s box. You don’t want him up with people on base, to get RBIs because he’ll drive the ball. He’s a special person in that regard with the way he approaches the game.”
Shockey: “One night he really wanted a stolen bag and he got caught, so he came out in the outfield to Caleb [Ledbetter] and me. He’s like, ‘Anything close to you, I’m just going to call you off. I don’t care where it is. Because I’m pissed, I’m just going to run it down.’”
Still: “The key to my success is just being confident and aggressive, and trusting my instincts.”
Henning: “He has it in his mind, ‘Alright, I’m going to get on first and I’m going to steal.’ So that’s part of it and that’s his mindset. He’s a step ahead before the pitcher even realizes he’s on deck.”