Commentary | Tampa Bay Rays hope to create an illusion of speed on the base paths

adell@bradenton.comFebruary 28, 2013 

BRADENTON

The Tampa Bay Rays are slower, but run faster.

Rays manager Joe Maddon says running the bases properly can create an illusion of speed. And if the results are similar to what you would expect from a roster of Rickey Hendersons, it's as good as real.

Since 2010, the Rays have lost two of their all-time-best base stealers in Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton. Crawford stole 107 bases in his final two years with Tampa Bay, and Upton tied for the team lead with 31 last year.

But Maddon won't be red-flagging his base runners and has even decided to leave the yellow caution flags in his laundry pile.

The Rays tied for second in the American League last year with 134

stolen bases, one behind Minnesota. On the negative side, they tied for the league lead getting caught 44 times.

Maddon is not that concerned with those numbers. His biggest thing is getting the best mileage out of those guys on the base paths.

"The thing we are looking for is not necessarily stolen bases. It's the ability to make good decisions and get from first to third and second to home. We've already been working on that," Maddon said Wednesday prior to the Rays game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field.

The professorial skipper says it's nice to equate good base running with the number of stolen bases as people often do, but it can be misleading.

In that regard, the Rays have room for improvement. They ranked next to last in the league last year with the number of their runners who went from first to third or scored on a single. They were third from the bottom on the number of times their runners on second scored on a single.

Departed Carlos Pena led the Rays last year in getting to third or scoring from first on a single. Ben Zobrist was the Rays' best at scoring from second on a single.

A lot of things can be factored into that equation, including who is hitting behind you, but Maddon cannot emphasize enough the importance of being aggressive on the base paths, particularly with his younger guys.

"Speedwise, we might have taken a little bit of a hit," Maddon says. "It's going to be hard for us to accumulate the same number of stolen bases as last year, but they can steal some bases, and the big thing is to run the bases well and properly."

The Rays have some new faces Maddon says can maintain their high rate of thievery. He is also looking for Zobrist to get more than the 14 bases he stole last season, which was down from 2010, when he stole 24 in 27 attempts.

"James Loney is a good base runner, though not exactly fast. Kelly Johnson can be a plus who in the past has been a very good base runner and can steal bases," Maddon says. "Yunel Escobar, given the right moments, is your classic situational guy if you give him more opportunities, and I think he will take advantage of that."

Based on his past, Johnson could put up some impressive numbers if given more freedom to run. He stole 14 bases in 16 attempts last year for Toronto and has a career 71-percent success rate.

Maddon also sees base runners getting more aggressive with the new rule that calls it a balk when a pitcher fakes a throw to third and wheels around to pick off a runner at first or second.

The players union initially rejected the new rule, but baseball owners approved it under powers given to them in the labor agreement. It was reported that a large number of managers wanted the rule. Maddon doesn't seem to be one of those who is enthusiastic about the change.

"A lot of people thought it was a worthless move and had no significant meaning because no one was picked off," he says. "That was the furthest thing from the truth. Baseburners love it. I think the whole point was to loosen it up a bit for the offense, and that is exactly what's going to happen."

The success rate of the fake-to-third-throw-to-first pickoff move is low, but successful pickoff attempts in general are not highly successful. A popular conspiracy theory is that the players rejected it because of all the right-handed pitchers in the union.

It should fit into the Maddon's base-running style, though the skipper is not going out of his way to endorse the change. Perhaps he is creating another illusion.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-2112. Follow him on Twitter at @ADellSports.

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