Updated: 15 hours ago
BRIGHT FUTURE: Temple College freshman shortstop Seth Stephenson has produced an outstanding season for the No. 12-ranked Leopards (29-7), who lead the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference with a 12-5 record entering Saturday's noon doubleheader against Grayson at Danny Scott Sports Complex. A 5-foot-9, 170-pound Tennessee signee, Stephenson is batting .339 and leads TC with seven home runs, five triples, 19 extra-base hits and 33 runs batted in while stealing 17 bases. He hit three homers and a triple last Saturday as the Leopards swept Cisco. Professional scouts have timed Stephenson at 6.19 seconds in the 60-yard dash, making him the fastest player in the 23-season modern era of TC baseball, according to head coach Craig McMurtry. The Buda Hays graduate is a prospect for Major League Baseball's amateur draft in mid-July. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
During the 23-season modern history of Temple College's baseball program, the Leopards have had plenty of fast players, including a few whose speed could be aptly described as elite.
TC head coach Craig McMurtry has been there for all 23 seasons and assistant head coach Frank Kellner for the last 18, and both say there's no doubt that one player stands alone when it comes to the unofficial title of “fastest Leopard”: Seth Stephenson.
“They haven't mentioned it to me specifically,” the Leopards' second-year freshman shortstop said during practice Wednesday afternoon, “but I've heard them say it a little bit.”
The Tennessee signee has been timed as fast as 6.19 seconds in the 60-yard dash, making the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Stephenson an intriguing prospect for Major League Baseball's amateur draft July 11-13.
“6.7 (seconds in the 60) is pretty fast, 6.6 is fast and 6.5 or 6.4, that's really fast,” McMurtry said. “When you get down to 6.3 and below, that's like off the scale. Seth's definitely got a different speed than everyone else as far as his flat-out running speed.”
Professional scouts grade players' specific skills using a 20-to-80 scale, and former major league pitcher McMurtry said the numerous scouts who've visited TC this school year to observe Stephenson say he possesses 80 speed.
“He's unique from anybody because of his elite speed,” Kellner said. “If there's another athlete in the state of Texas that can do what he can do, I'd like to see him. And I think that's why the scouts are here, because athletically he's showing something they can't find anywhere. He's checking boxes that other guys can't check.”
While Stephenson's 17 stolen bases (without being caught) and five triples in 33 games this season are indicators of how his top-notch speed impacts games, he's much more than just a guy who runs well. Stephenson leads Temple with 43 hits, 19 extra-base hits, seven home runs and 33 runs batted in, ranks second with a .638 slugging percentage, is third with 34 runs and is tied for third with seven doubles.
That's from a player who weighed 145 pounds when he graduated from Buda Hays in 2019 and didn't hit a home run in high school.
“I don't know how I'm hitting all these home runs,” Stephenson, who turned 20 in January, said with a smile.
Stephenson's wildly productive season has coincided with an outstanding spring for the Leopards, who have a 29-7 overall record and lead the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference at 12-5 entering Saturday's home doubleheader against Grayson at noon at Danny Scott Sports Complex.
Although he might have to decide in a few months between relocating to Knoxville, Tennessee, or signing a pro contract, Stephenson is keeping his focus on helping Temple – ranked No. 12 in NJCAA Division I – win the NTJCAC championship and earn its fourth trip to the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado.
“I feel like our team just has a different bond this year than any team I've ever played on. You can ask any of the other guys. It's just different than any other team, the way we get along,” Stephenson said. “This year I feel like everyone's in it together and everyone wants to do the same thing, and that's go to Junction and win it. So that's going to take our team a long way, especially with the talent level we have.”
McMurtry and Kellner said they appreciate not only Stephenson's talent but also his team-first attitude and the positive energy he carries onto the field, particularly this season with pro scouts often attending games to scrutinize his play and assess whether their teams should consider selecting him in July's 20-round draft.
“The biggest thing as far as Seth's personality is that he competes really hard, he's got a high motor, he's always ready to go, bouncing around and obviously he plays hard,” McMurtry said. “He expects a lot out of himself and doesn't settle for mediocrity. He really pushes himself and is kind of hard on himself at times, too.
“As far as maturity, that's probably one of the things he needs to continue to work on. If he isn't successful in a couple of at-bats, just being able to turn the page and get to the next pitch or the next at-bat. But he expects to make every play and expects to get a hit every at-bat.”
Said Kellner: “Seth loves the game. He loves to practice. He gets frustrated like anyone else, but he's got some joy out there when he's playing. Success brings that, of course, but he loves to work and he's all about team. Mentally he's learning to deal with the noise. That can be very difficult. He's under a microscope right now, and there's been some adjustments this year in dealing with that.”
Stephenson produced a career day last Saturday in TC's home doubleheader sweep of Cisco. On a rare day when the wind blew out at the Leopards' ballpark, he slugged three homers and a triple while going 6-for-10 overall with five RBI and seven runs as Temple won 19-9 and 16-6.
“It was definitely the best day hitting in my life. I hit another one that got caught on top of the wall, so it could have been an even better day,” said Stephenson, who has a .339 batting average and a .397 on-base percentage.
Even on a hitter-friendly afternoon when Stephenson bashed three baseballs over the fence, McMurtry said the shortstop's game-changing speed came into play.
“That triple against Cisco, he hit the ball to right field and he was flying around first to second to third,” McMurtry said. “They threw the ball away coming into the infield and had no chance to get him at the plate.”
MORE POP AT THE PLATE: Temple College freshman shortstop Seth Stephenson, shown tracking a pitch during a March 13 home win over Weatherford, hit six triples but zero home runs in 23 games in the shortened 2020 season. In 33 games played this season for the 12th-ranked Leopards, the Tennessee-signed Stephenson has slugged a team-leading seven homers to go with seven doubles and five triples. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
"Speed never slumps" is an old baseball adage that certainly fits Stephenson, who shined during Temple's 2020 season that stopped in March after 24 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He batted .318 with six triples (two in his first college game), three doubles and seven RBI, scored 24 runs and stole eight bases.
His level of speed puts the heat on opposing defenders, including on so-called routine ground balls that are anything but routine outs.
“He puts a ton of pressure on the defense. Any time he comes up to bat, it's, 'Hey, good speed at the plate,'” McMurtry said. “When hits a ground ball, even if it's right at somebody, they've got to catch it and get rid of it immediately or it's a base hit.”
Said Stephenson: “You can't teach speed, and it just changes the game because I don't have to hit the ball far or real hard to make an impact. I'll always have a chance to beat out a ground ball or just walk or get hit by a pitch.”
The fact that the solidly built Stephenson also has significant extra-base power puts him in something of a quandary. Baseball's "old school" might say he should concentrate on hitting line drives and grounders and also utilizing bunts to maximize his rare speed, whereas the "new school" would urge him to punish the ball into the gaps and over the fence as much as possible.
“I'm kind of in between both, because when I pop up or get out on a fly ball, somebody's usually mad because I'm so fast that why am I putting the ball in the air?” Stephenson said. “But then when I'm putting it in the gap and hitting it out, they're not so mad. I try to stay out of the air because I know that's just not my game, but I have a natural lift in my swing and I'll run into some balls.”
Besides, Stephenson is a very aggressive hitter who's more inclined to swing away than to try to draw walks. His 25 strikeouts this season are five more than any other Leopard, and he's walked only 10 times.
“He doesn't walk much, that's for sure. He's going up there to hit,” McMurtry said. “I think his maturity level hopefully will get better and he'll be more selective with figuring out which pitches he's more capable of putting in play hard. Right now he swings at some pitches out of the zone at times, but you've got to take the bad with the good.”
Stephenson mans the second spot in TC's batting order. His increasingly dangerous presence as a run-producing hitter has benefited freshman second baseman and speedy leadoff man Travis Chestnut, who's batting .360 and paces the Leopards with 26 steals.
“When Chestnut gets on, Seth's probably going to get some off-speed pitches, which gives Chestnut a chance to steal a little bit more,” McMurtry explained.
Stephenson grew up as a switch-hitter, but he's batted almost exclusively right-handed – his natural side – while playing for Temple. Even though most pitchers are right-handed and batting lefty also would get him a step or two closer to first base, Stephenson said he's put switch-hitting on the proverbial shelf for now “just because I'm feeling good on the right side.”
“I just don't see a need. If I want to pick it up next year, sure,” he said. “I've been switch-hitting for a long time. I've always done it as a feel thing. I feel confident on both sides. Nothing's wrong with anything.”
Kellner, who played Triple-A ball as a switch-hitting infielder, said he won't be surprised if Tennessee or a pro organization that drafts Stephenson wants him to resume hitting from both sides.
Stephenson attributes much of his increased production this season to his offseason work with Alex Simone of Simone Baseball Performance in Austin. Stephenson began to train with Simone after Temple's 2020 season ended prematurely and said he's noticed major gains in various aspects.
“I'd never hit a home run in a real season before, honestly. I think I hit one home run in the fall (of 2019 at TC), and then I hit four or five last summer in a wood bat league in Austin,” Stephenson said. “I'd worked out with Alex Simone and he just really helped develop me. We worked hard all summer – explosive work and everything like that. I came back in the fall and felt a little more pop and I hit a few home runs.”
Stephenson has added approximately 25 pounds since he graduated high school almost two years ago, making him a more effective all-around player with improved power at the plate and, of course, enhancing his already exceptional speed.
“I think it's just natural growth. I've always worked out hard, but I really did hit it harder starting with Christmas break (in 2019). I focused on eating right and getting more calories,” he said. “It's everything, really – arm strength and speed especially. I feel more explosive when I run now. I've always been fast, but I feel I have a little bit more explosiveness to my running.”
Stephenson said he'd been able to run the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds since he was 15. The combination of training with Simone and in TC's strength and conditioning program helped him lower his 60 time to an eye-popping 6.19 this past fall, attracting pro scouts in droves.
“He's gotten a lot stronger. He's that body type that they don't look real big, but they're really strong. He's got strong legs, obviously, to be able to run like that,” McMurtry said. “He's got a strong upper body. He works hard in the weight room. All these guys do, and (assistant) Coach (Nathan) Train really has these guys lifting. It helps a lot for power and recovery.”
Stephenson's defense at shortstop can be inconsistent and he's made a team-high 12 errors, but he possesses a strong throwing arm and his quickness and athleticism help him get to balls that others can't. In TC's March 29 home game against Blinn, he darted behind the mound to field a slow chopper with his bare hand and, on a full sprint, threw the runner out.
Kellner took notice of Stephenson's talent while coaching summer ball early in Stephenson's high school career. Stephenson's team was coached by Chad Miles, who played for Temple's Junior College World Series team in 2010. Stephenson and current Leopards freshman outfielder Andre Jackson also traveled for workouts with Kellner.
“Coach Kellner was really impressed with Stephenson's speed, obviously, and his get-after-it attitude,” McMurtry said. “He said, 'Hey, this kid's the first one on the field when the last out's made when they're hitting and he's always in the game.'”
Stephenson said he loved playing football and also dabbled in basketball and soccer at Hays, but he decided to concentrate on baseball following his sophomore year. He declined an offer from NCAA Division I Texas A&M-Corpus Christi because “my dream was always to play in the College World Series” and he didn't envision the Islanders competing in Omaha, Nebraska.
“I also knew that Coach Kellner is a great infield coach and I had been told to go work with him for a few years,” he said.
Stephenson committed to play for Temple, but then his life changed just before he was scheduled to report to campus. His father, John Stephenson, died unexpectedly on Aug. 8, 2019, of a heart attack. He was 59.
“He just truly loved watching me play. It was his favorite thing in the world, to come watch me play,” Seth Stephenson said about his father. “He'd always be the one walking around. He didn't sit down the whole game. It was a dream of his to see me go fulfill my dreams, so I'm just going to keep doing that until the day I can't.”
McMurtry and Kellner attended John Stephenson's funeral in Buda, although Seth didn't realize they were there. That made a big impression on the 18-year-old when he found out.
“I didn't know they showed up, but my mom (Melissa Stephenson) saw them. And at that moment we knew I was in the right place, because what coaches would do that for their player when I hadn't even set foot on campus yet?” Seth said. “That was real good character of them.
“I had to come to Temple like five days later, which was hard but it turned me into the player I am because baseball was an outlet for me. It was the only thing I had to do. I didn't really want to talk to anyone here about (my father's passing). I got to come work every day and get my mind off things. That fall was non-stop work. That's what got me really good at the game. They just helped me out and always kept me busy and working. They didn't give me a chance to sit around thinking about it.”
For Stephenson and his family, two special things happened in Venice, Louisiana on May 13, 2020, which would have been his father's 60th birthday.
“I always felt like I didn't really have much closure about it, just coming to Temple so soon. But we went to Louisiana on his birthday to spread his ashes at his favorite place in the world to fish for redfish,” Seth said. “The first time I ever talked to Coach (Tony) Vitello at Tennessee was on my dad's birthday in Louisiana, so we just knew that was the spot for me. That was a closure weekend for our whole family.”
Stephenson credited his mother, who regularly attends TC's home games, for helping him handle not only the death of his dad but also the demands of playing college baseball and the attention he's receiving as an NCAA Division I signee and an emerging pro prospect.
“My mom's just so faithful. She's a person I'd like to be like when I'm older. She's full of joy and happiness,” Seth said. “She constantly teaches me the word of God, whether I want to hear it or not. I'm very thankful for her. We're really close.”
Said Kellner: “Personally, I've been probably more protective of him coming in knowing that and trying to meet some of those psychological needs that he has. But he's got a tremendous mother and a brother and some close friends around him that really rallied the wagons and helped him get through.”
Programs such as Houston and Louisiana-Lafayette recruited Stephenson after his stellar-but-shortened 2020 season, but the call he'd been waiting on came last May 13 from Tennessee's Vitello, whose Volunteers compete in the Southeastern Conference, college baseball's premier league. And when Vitello called him with a scholarship offer last July 13, Stephenson committed to Tennessee the same day. He made it official by signing in November.
“Tennessee was the biggest school that came and gave me a chance, and it was always my dream to play in a conference like that, so I took it,” said Stephenson, who hasn't yet been able to visit the Vols' Knoxville campus because of COVID-19 restrictions. “When I was a young kid, a pastor said he had a dream that I was playing middle infield for UT, and we always thought it was UT of Austin. But it worked out cool because Tennessee is UT too, so I guess that's what he meant.”
However, there is a distinct possibility that Stephenson might never suit up for the Volunteers, who currently are ranked fifth in the nation. If he's selected high enough in July's MLB draft and offered a worthwhile signing bonus, Stephenson could choose to forgo the remainder of his college eligibility and enter the pro baseball ranks at 20½ years old.
McMurtry, the Troy product who signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1980 after pitching two junior college seasons at McLennan, said Stephenson could have a difficult decision to make a few months from now.
“The big thing with any of these guys who have these opportunities is it's a family decision on what they feel like is their best opportunity, whether it's financially or getting into a minor league system,” McMurtry said. “There's factors where sometimes it's not just how much (money) you're going to get. To me, if somebody gets an opportunity to go play pro ball and the money they're offered is life-changing money, then sometimes it's tough to turn that down.
“To be honest, it's kind of a crapshoot on what the best scenario is. It's really a family decision on what they think is best. My advice is to do what's best for you. If it's going to Tennessee and playing, then that's what you do. If you feel like, 'Hey, I want to get into pro ball and start my career and get my name in the organization,' then that's what you do.”
With pro scouts descending on TC games with stopwatches and video cameras throughout this school year, Stephenson certainly has felt and had to adjust to the extra attention on him. Considering the highlight-filled season that the leading speed demon of the Leopards' modern era is producing, Stephenson is handling it extremely well.
“I try to ignore it,” he said. “At first I let it get to me. But my dream is to play major league baseball, so I'm getting used to it."