Starling Marte creeps away from first base, keeping his eyes fixated on the opposing pitcher.
Then, when the moment is right and the sign is given, Marte takes off for second base.
On this first spring training game at the newly named LECOM Park, Marte is safe on his stolen base attempt.
It’s part of Marte’s five tools, and an important skill for the past few seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“Stealing bases is something that I love,” Marte said prior to his departure to play for his native Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.
Growing up in Santo Domingo, Marte recognized his speed at an early age. Teammate Gregory Polanco, who swiped two bases before he left for the WBC, also is from Santo Domingo.
In 2016, Marte swiped 47 bags and he’s never had fewer than 30 steals in any of his four full MLB seasons. Polanco had 27 in 2015.
The two are the latest crop of Dominican stars in Major League Baseball who possess speed.
“In our culture and on our island, this is definitely something that’s key to us,” Marte said through Pirates team translator Mike Gonzalez. “From an early age, we’re not only trained but we’re educated and physically prepared as well. And how to run these bases, how to steal bases, how to read pitchers, etc.”
The two, in addition to Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen and whomever earns a bench spot this spring, are vital to Pittsburgh’s running game getting back on track in 2017.
In 2016, the Pirates were stymied on the bases. They were picked off 17 times, which was tied for second-most in MLB, while tying for sixth-most in MLB with 62 outs on the bases. Aside from Marte’s 47 stolen bases, no other Pirate recorded 20 or more steals.
Subsequently, the Buccos didn’t rack up enough wins to qualify for the postseason, snapping their playoff streak at three straight seasons.
That’s where Kimera Bartee enters the picture.
He was promoted from Pittsburgh’s minor league system to become the Pirates’ first base coach. He’s in charge of base running and the team’s outfield, which comprises of Marte, Polanco and McCutchen.
“Our theme is to play fast, think faster,” said Bartee, who is in his 10th year with the organization.
An aggressive art
Marte gets an energetic jolt when he’s on base. It keeps with the aggressive approach Bartee wants on the base paths.
“I look at that base ahead of me, and I want it,” Marte said.
The art of the stolen base became a waning skill as home runs skyrocketed during the “Steroid Era” of baseball, and moneyball tactics became prevalent.
Between 1965-93, there were 69 occurrences of a player stealing at least 60 bases in a season. That’s about 23.3 percent of the total number of top 10 leaders during that span.
By comparison, excluding the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, just 24 times has someone stolen at least 60 bases in a season since 1995. That’s about 9.9 percent.
Bradenton resident and former Pirates catcher Mike LaValliere, who is a special instructor with Pittsburgh this spring, said he thinks it’s due to newer ballparks being smaller.
“Managers are looking more for, ‘Here, I don’t want to cost my team a run or a runner by stealing a base, where I can leave him at first base and I’ve got a guy at the plate that hits 40 homers,’” LaValliere said.
Holding runners close to first base is incumbent on pitchers, but there’s also a plethora of catchers that are gunning attempted base thieves more times than naught.
“We really focus on, especially this year, is controlling the running game, trying to keep guys from even going,” said Pittsburgh catcher Chris Stewart, who has picked off three runners in three games this spring.
Bartee, though, is with Pittsburgh’s big league club to change the base running woes from ’16. The approach is aggressive, and it’s not just limited to stolen bases. It’s a strategy that encompasses all facets of base running, whether it’s moving into scoring position off a wild pitch, passed ball or stretching singles into doubles.
“It just constantly puts pressure on the defense and the pitcher to make a quick decision,” Bartee said. “The defenders have to make a quick decision. They have to get rid of the ball quicker, and then on the pitching side, they have to do things to not allow us on base. Because they know if we get on base, we’re going to be a threat and we’re going to take a little bit of their attention away from making a quality pitch.”
Bartee isn’t stuck trying to convince players he has zero experience with to buy into the aggressive base running philosophy.
Rather, he’s already built that relationship with players that moved through the farm system to Pittsburgh.
That includes Marte and Polanco.
“With any trusting relationship, if we believe in each other, confident in what we’re talking about (then) the buy-in is a little bit better,” Bartee said.
Pirates base running under Clint Hurdle
Team outs on bases MLB rank (most to least), season result
2016: 6th, 78-83 and missed playoffs
2015: T-7th, 98-64 and reached NLWC
2014: T-15th, 88-74 and reached NLWC
2013: T-5th, 94-68 and reached NLDS
2012: 29th, 79-83 and missed playoffs
2011: 14th, 72-90 and missed playoffs
Source: Baseball Reference