JUPITER, FL. (KMOV.com) -- Before the team’s first official spring game, Mike Matheny stood down the right field line of Roger Dean Stadium talking baserunning. In an exhibition against Florida Atlantic University the day prior, speedy minor leaguer Charlie Tilson had pulled off the gas on the base paths, and Matheny took it as a teaching moment.
“He had a ball where he had to hold up between second and third, and then he kind of slowly went into third. A guy that runs like him? He’s going to make somebody absolutely freak out and throw it eight rows deep if he busts his butt around third making it look like he’s going to score,” the manager said.
Just hours after that quote, a guy that runs like Tilson did exactly that.
Tommy Pham, batting leadoff against the Marlins, slapped a ball into the right center gap. He tore around first, then around second, and came screaming toward third like he didn’t own a set of brakes. Relay man Dee Gordon whirled and threw, and Pham jogged home when the ball sailed out of play. Aggression had resulted in a run, and Matheny, who again wants to stress pressure on the base paths, had a working example of his lesson.
Of course, Pham has baserunning aggression hardwired already.
“If I hit a ball to right center, I expect a triple. That’s just me,” he said in his characteristic matter of fact tone. “I messed up because when I rounded first, I picked up the ball too late. I need to pick up the ball sooner to be able to cut second base off more clean. But If I hit a ball to right center, I expect a triple.”
Pham’s speed is a valuable tool, but his psyche on the bases is crucial for a team that aims to improve their running performance.
Last spring, players pitched the idea of being let loose on the bases, and Matheny responded by ramping up the confrontation between his runners and opposing fielders. Two of the fastest players on the team, Peter Bourjos and Kolten Wong, had the freedom to steal bases when they wanted. Unfortunately, the results weren’t what the Cardinals had hoped.
“It couldn’t be any more clear when you look at the stats, as you line us up as a baserunning team, how we lined up last year. I don’t think it’s something we should be satisfied with,” Matheny said.
The Cardinals were caught stealing 38 times for a success rate of 64 percent. Wong and Bourjos combined for 16 of those. The team made 61 outs on the bases (anything that wasn’t a pickoff, a caught stealing or a force out), which was eighth worst in baseball. They had 144 bases taken, which is advancing a base on a fly ball, passed ball/wild pitch, balk, or defensive indifference. That mark was right at the league average, and there were eight teams that took at least 160 bases.
Matheny has said during spring training every player has the freedom to run until told otherwise. They can steal when they want, and are encouraged to test the limits of their leads for research. Beyond base stealing, the team is emphasizing intelligent aggression in hopes of increasing bases taken and decreasing outs. For runners like Pham, who figures to see steady work in several roles including pinch runner, it’s music to their ears.
“I’m all for being more aggressive on the bases. Take the Royals for instance. They won a World Series because Hosmer was aggressive at third,” he said, referring to the play in the ninth inning when Eric Hosmer ran home on a grounder to third and tied the game with two outs as first baseman Lucas Duda’s throw sailed wide. “Duda didn’t even expect that. He caught him basically with his pants down. Aggressiveness is a good thing in baseball, especially baserunning.”
After a pause he added. “Smart aggressiveness. You have to be smart about it. You have to know the score, the team and the players.”
That’s why Matheny and his coaches are dedicated to pushing the envelope in spring training. Not only does it allow players to get to know their limits, it’s a valuable tool for studying opposing teams. Armed with the information that they need to improve, the Cardinals are researching when to redline the engine rather than choosing to drive the speed limit.