When Twins first-base coach Paul Molitor helps outfielder Jordan Schafer watch for signs that the pitcher is about to try a pickoff throw, the Hall of Famer is doing something rare: speaking to a ballplayer with a higher stolen-base success rate than his.
Molitor, one of the most accomplished base-stealers in history, was safe on 79.4 percent of his attempts, and went 32-for-32 over the 1994 and ’95 seasons. Schafer, claimed off waivers from Atlanta two weeks ago, has been successful 81.0 percent of the time during his major league career, is 21-for-23 (91.3 percent) this year, and so far, hasn’t been thrown out in six tries as a Twin.
“He’s probably as powerful a runner as I’ve seen taking off over there,” manager Ron Gardenhire said of the latest, and perhaps fastest, iteration of the Darin Mastroianni/Alex Presley/Sam Fuld utility outfielder. “Even when he doesn’t get a good jump, he’s pretty good. Pretty fun to watch.”
And pretty frustrating, too, at least during his five seasons in Houston and Atlanta.
Schafer is a “tools” player, a superior athlete who excels at everything in baseball except the most important thing: hitting. “I feel like I can play defense very well, I can throw very well, I can steal bases,” the 27-year-old native of central Florida said. “My entire career is dependent on [whether] I can get on base consistently.”
Hasn’t happened yet, which is why he was let go by the Braves, and why he’s not yet anything more than a lottery-ticket gamble as the Twins envision their future. Danny Santana has been a find in center field, Oswaldo Arcia is penciled in long-term, and Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Adam Brett Walker and Aaron Hicks are all candidates to roam Target Field’s outfield at some point.
Yet Schafer clearly intrigues the Twins, and Gardenhire especially, because of his major league experience, his aggressiveness on the bases, and that wideout-class speed.
Think that’s an exaggeration? Schafer works out in the offseason with coach Tom Shaw, who specializes in preparing NFL prospects for the draft. He coached Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, All-Pro speedsters like Santonio Holmes and Chris Johnson, and Steelers rookie Dre Archer, whose 4.26-seconds time was the fastest at this year’s combine.
No wonder Schafer’s supremely confident on the bases.
“It’s not just that I have enough confidence in myself that I can steal a bag. There comes a point where I don’t even pick pitches. I don’t try to wait for a curveball or changeup — I pick a spot and if it’s a fastball, it’s a fastball,” Schafer said. “I feel like if I get a good jump, I’m going to be safe.”
So does Gardenhire, which is why he’s given the outfielder a permanent green light — unless he’s specifically told not to go, he’s encouraged to steal.
Gardenhire treasures his willingness to do so, since a lot of players are hesitant to risk being thrown out. “If anything, he’ll be the reverse. He wants to go. I love it when he gets over there because I know he’s looking for opportunities,” Gardenhire said. “Up to this point, he’s been really good at it. I mean, he flies.”
He wasn’t always this way, though; in the minor leagues, he barely stole 60 percent of the bases he tried for, and went 12-for-22 in 2010. Braves minor league coaches Dave Brundage and Lynn Jones taught him better technique, which is why Shafter is hopeful that his batting skills can improve, too.
He’s a lifetime .223 hitter, and he doesn’t draw many walks. Despite his can’t-catch-him speed, Schafer has never had an on-base percentage above .331. He intends to spend all winter focused on that one missing skill, getting on base, because he can have a long career if he does it.
“If I can get on base regularly, I believe 60 or 70 stolen bases are realistic, and that’s valuable to a team,” Schafer said. Especially this one — the Twins record for stolen bases is 62 by Chuck Knoblauch in 1997.
“That [many] gets you a good job in the majors. That’s what I’m after,” Schafer said.