FORT MYERS, FLA -- If there were such a thing as coach hazing, Paul Molitor might be an obvious victim this season. What a great prank: Hire the Hall of Famer as a coach, put him in charge of baserunning — and provide him with virtually no speedy players.
Except Molitor doesn’t think he’s being punked.
“You don’t necessarily have to be fast to be a good baserunner,” the former ballplayer once known as The Ignitor said. “Even for the slowest guy, there’s going to be chances to move up, to pick up extra bases. You just have to be aware out there.”
Molitor made that awareness a specialty during his 21-year major league career, racking up 504 stolen bases and countless first-to-thirds, numbers due to his baseball intellect as much as his speed. The St. Paul native was 37 and hobbled in 1994, after all, yet stole 20 bases without being caught, one of only five players in modern history to achieve that benchmark.
Trouble is, even at 57, Molitor might be one of the best baserunners in a Twins uniform today, because speed on the basepaths, one of manager Ron Gardenhire’s most cherished offensive weapons, largely has been stripped away from his current team. Two years ago, Minnesota led the American League in stolen bases, a title earned by the swift feet of Ben Revere, Alexi Casilla, Denard Span and Darin Mastroianni. But with three of those players sent away to other teams and Mastroianni out because of an injury, the Twins plummeted to 13th in the American League last season with just 52 steals, their fewest since 1984.
Even worse: Their 61.1 percent success rate on steal attempts was worse than every major league team except Arizona.
“We love to put pressure on the defense out there,” Gardenhire grumbled, “but you’ve got to have the horses for it.”
Yes, that’s a problem, because the stable is relatively empty at the moment. With much of their speed traded away, no Twin had more than Pedro Florimon’s 15 stolen bases last season, fewest by a Minnesota leader in 30 years. Brian Dozier contributed 14 steals but was thrown out on half of his attempts. No other player reached double figures, though Aaron Hicks had nine when he was sent to Rochester in early August.
Those three players, along with newcomer Alex Presley, form the core of Molitor’s baserunning bunch, a group that convenes daily during batting practice to work on getting better leads and recognizing when to run. This spring has demonstrated the size of the new coach’s challenge: Through the first three weeks of spring games, only Hicks, Dozier, Presley and Jason Bartlett, among candidates for the major league roster, had successfully stolen a base (and just one apiece).
“We don’t have a ton of guys who can take off consistently and be successful. We don’t have anybody who’s going to steal 50 bases, but we’ve got some guys who can steal 20 or 30,” Molitor said. “Hicksie will probably do a lot more of that as his offensive game becomes more consistent. But first we have to be mechanically sound, we have to develop some recognition of what the pitcher and defense are doing, and we have get over a few hurdles that hold us back.”
Take a chance
The biggest of those hurdles Molitor has encountered? Fear.
For a player trying to make a positive impression and make the team, being thrown out on the bases, he might believe, is the sort of data point that sticks in a manager’s mind when it’s time to cut the roster. The fewer mistakes, the better, right?
“A guy might think, ‘What if I go and [the pitcher] throws a high fastball?’ Well, you know, what if he does?” Molitor said. “I understand guys are trying to win jobs and earn playing time. But guys who are afraid to go on a ball in the dirt, or go first to third on a hit to right, or take advantage of a slow windup — we need to convince some of them that there are situations that call for taking a chance. And if you get thrown out because they make a perfect play, we’ll tell you you did the right thing.”
It’s a tough message to get through sometimes, Gardenhire said. He’s given several players a green light this spring, only to watch them wait for the perfect spot that never comes.
“It’s easy to put a steal sign on and make them go. But that doesn’t really tell me if they can steal a base. That just tells me we told them to run, and in their mind, they had to run,” Gardenhire explained. “I want them to get on base and to pick out a pitch, see a pitch and make a move. Learn to study a pitcher, understand that pitcher and maybe get a jump on his own. That’s what I want to see.”
Presley, for one, says he has tried to put Molitor’s advice into practice. He may be 1-for-4 in base-stealing this spring — though he would have been safe at least twice had he not overslid the bag — but “the process that I’m putting into play, I’m pretty happy with,” he said. “I’ve made some adjustments, and it’s been very positive.”
The Twins believe Presley’s results eventually will be positive, too — he swiped 22 at Class AAA Indianapolis just two years ago, after all. But he hasn’t shown it yet with Minnesota. In fact, the 28-year-old outfielder has been thrown out seven of the past eight times he has run at the big-league level, plus that 1-for-4 this spring.
“There’s just been a hesitancy with Alex, and I think he’d tell you he’s working on that. Sometimes you get caught a couple of times in a row, and you become more tentative the third time,” Molitor said. “I’ve tried to get him to extend his lead a little bit. You know, every field you play on, you should find a spot on the grass in front of you where your normal lead is. We’ve worked on a couple of things to make him more explosive. I think he’s peeling back the layers of hesitancy little by little.”
The first priority
So is Hicks, though the second-year outfielder is blunt about his biggest problem: his .192 batting average last year.
“For me, it’s all about getting on base. I feel like I can steal bases if I give myself the opportunities,” Hicks said. “I believe I should steal 30 a year.”
Dozier would like to reach that neighborhood, too. His steal count and success rate, he said, were dampened by minor knee problems last year. But he’s also got another consideration: Batting in front of Joe Mauer, a former batting champion who hits a lot of doubles, makes Dozier less aggressive.
“You don’t want to run yourself out of innings. I can score on a double,” he said. “I was a little timid at times last year, but I’m learning how to balance the risk and pick my spots. I’ve got to steal more, and I intend to get better at it.”
That’s the attitude Molitor is looking for.
“There have been some balls in the dirt I’ve been disappointed we haven’t gone on, and some deep flies where guys jog to second instead of reading it as a deep catch and tagging up. But overall, I think most guys are showing progress,” Molitor said. “At the very least, we’re trying to experiment a little bit so we learn about better decision-making. As [former manager Tom Kelly] says, the only mistake you can make in spring training is not trying some new things.”