Fordham Baseball’s Jake MacKenzie Swipes His Way Through the Atlantic 10

By Jack McLoone

“The slowest guy in the world can be safe if he goes on a curveball in the dirt.”

Fordham Baseball’s sophomore shortstop Jake MacKenzie is, by no stretch of the imagination, the slowest guy in the world. In fact, he has the kind of speed and base stealing acumen that would make you upset if the guy behind him hit a home run while he was on base. To drive him in is to deprive yourself of one of the more exciting plays in baseball: the stolen base.

Fordham’s baseball program is relatively new to this whole “stealing” thing. For years, their offensive production lagged well behind their pitching, despite having the occasional good bat like Joey Runco or Luke Stampfl. This was thanks in large part to Houlihan Park’s deep outfield, a pitcher’s dream but a batter’s nightmare. The offensive struggles finally changed last season, and for a simple reason: The Rams started stealing bases.

Last season, the Rams finished first in stolen bases in the entire country, swiping 169 bags. That season, they finished 35-19-1, their most wins since 2007.

“Not only did they buy in last year, but they really saw the results of it,” said Fordham head coach Kevin Leighton of the team’s new style. “It led to wins, so it’s a much easier pitch to new guys. There’s no real kickback on it. That’s our style, that’s how we want to play.”

Leading the way for the Rams was then-freshman shortstop MacKenzie, who stole 34 bases in 42 attempts.

“I think Jake has been a key part of our success on stealing bases,” said Leighton. “I think he is a guy that probably didn’t need too much of our help in coaching him to steal bases, but I do think [assistant coach Rob] DiToma has coached him into an elite base stealer capable of 35-plus [stolen bases].”
MacKenzie also managed to hit eight home runs to lead the team, finished second with a .291 batting average and used to his speed to leg out six triples. All of this is to say he was very deserving of his Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year honors.

“I expected Jake to play as a freshman,” Leighton said. “But I didn’t really expect him to put up some of the numbers that he did, especially the home runs.”

“Coming in, I was just hoping I could crack the starting lineup,” said MacKenzie. “I wasn’t expecting much, and I think that was part of the reason I was so successful. You don’t really have many expectations; you’re not really pressing. You’re just going out and hey, whatever happens, happens. It was honestly a surprise to me to do as well as I did, but it was awesome.”

For MacKenzie, this success was rather surprising, and not just because he was a freshman. He didn’t have a huge amount of high school success, being recruited just by Fordham and one other school, Quinnipiac, which is right near his home in Wallingford, Connecticut.

“I was not really highly-recruited out of high school,” he said. “I don’t think I was that good in high school at all.”

But for Leighton, there was a lot about MacKenzie that he liked. Especially, as you can note by omission above, Leighton didn’t mention being surprised by the stolen bases.

“We thought Jake was the perfect type of guy for our program,” said Leighton. “He was an above-average runner, barrelled balls consistently, and showed good defensive skills in the infield. I thought he was a gamer and the type of kid that would drive the other team crazy.”

Part of the reason MacKenzie may not have drawn a lot of looks was he didn’t have any eye-popping stolen base stats, in part because he hadn’t been taught the technique. He learned it at Fordham from Leighton and DiToma.

“The main thing is just not psyching yourself out. You don’t want to try to have it in your head that you’re going automatically,” he said. “You’ve just got to kind of read the pitcher and pick a good count to steal on. And that’s just the basis of it.”

That’s the thing about stealing a base: it is, on the whole, pretty straightforward.

“It’s not really about moves; it’s about how fast he is to the plate,” MacKenzie explained. “If he’s a little slower to the plate, we’ll say, ‘Oh, we don’t need that big of a lead today. We can go a little shorter and just read the pitcher.’”

With still a month left in the season, MacKenzie has already reached the same 34 steals mark that he hit last season. And while his power and on-base percentage have unsurprisingly sagged a bit in his second season, he already has more overall hits than he did as a freshman and is hitting a robust .333, easily leading the team.

Besides just leading to more runs, there’s a palpable energy when someone steals a base, not unlike that after a large home run.

“When you see a guy steal second, steal third and get a run out of it, that hypes everyone up because he didn’t really do much, but he stole,” said MacKenzie.

The energy change isn’t just from the stealing team side.

“It rattles the other team too, that’s a part of it,” laughed MacKenzie. “They get really upset when we’re stealing on them.”

Like Leighton said: Driving the other team crazy.

It had been five games since MacKenzie stole a base, before he stole two against Albany yesterday. It’s his longest steal-less streak this season. But after spending his offseason doing more than just working on his swing and stealing bases, MacKenzie shouldn’t let that bother him.

“It’s also a lot of mentality things, because going in you can set all these high expectations for yourself but after doing some mental coaching, stuff like that, I can view the season as an opportunity for increased success as opposed to an opportunity to fail.”