Jays turn into crazed base thieves

Blue Jays outfielder Rajai Davis has six of the team's 33 stolen bases this season....

Blue Jays outfielder Rajai Davis has six of the team's 33 stolen bases this season. (Abelimages/Getty Images/AFP)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:37 PM ET

Numbers guys will tell you the stolen base is irrelevant, that there is no mathematical relationship between stolen bases and the scoring of runs.

If true, what’s the deal with the Blue Jays, who have transformed themselves from a homer-happy, station-to-station team into a theft-crazed — some might say theft-obsessed — outfit in the early going of the 2011 season?

Are they just wasting their time? Or worse, are they running into unnecessary outs? Yes they’ve stolen 33 bases, second-most in the league, but they’ve already been caught 10 times. In all of 2010, they were caught only 20 times.

The Jays in 2010 were dead last in steals in the American League and 28th in all of baseball with 58 stolen bases and had a successful steal percentage of 74%. This year they’ve stolen more than half that many in the first 31 days of the season and their success rate is marginally better at 77%.

As far as manager John Farrell is concerned, the Jays’ aggressive approach on the bases isn’t about numbers. Obviously the intent is to turn baserunners into runs but sometimes just the threat of aggression can have a dramatic effect on the defence.

“It’s something we have been talking about since the start of spring training and we, as players, are really seeing and feeling that it’s making a difference,” said John McDonald. “It can be a game-changer when the defence feels that tension, that pressure. It’s distracting.

“Tampa Bay is a team that uses pressure to its advantage and I know that we, as a team, have felt that pressure. So it really feels good to be able to put that same tension into play for our own benefit.”

This should be an interesting three games in Tampa this week, given that the Rays lead the AL in steals and the Jays are second. The Rays have more speed but stealing bases isn’t all about speed. It’s about predicting pitch selection in various counts, understanding how quickly a given pitcher gets the ball to the plate, pickoff moves and catcher response times. Even the fastest runner can get nailed when he runs in the wrong situation. And even the slowest runner can steal a base when he times it right.

“We know that we are going to get thrown out but that’s not going to deter us,” says Farrell. “We don’t want to run scared because we get a guy thrown out at third base or if we get a guy thrown out after an aggressive move on the basepaths. We want to force the issue.”

Last Friday against the Yankees, aggressive baserunning off first by Jose Bautista put New York reliever David Robertson into such a panic that he threw a ball into centre field and allowed Rajai Davis to score from third.

Often times, infielders get a little twitchy trying to keep a runner close and that can open up holes on the infield for a hitter to hit the ball through.

“Anytime you create holes on the infield, either through movement or the threat of movement, you’re creating opportunities not only for the guy at the plate but you’re probably creeping into the thought patterns of the guy on the mound,” said Farrell. “More times than not when you see pitchers get relaxed and into their rhythm and their groove, they become more difficult. But if you can keep that from happening, maybe it lends to a mistake or two on the plate at some point in the game.”

With this aggressive approach, you now see infielders calling time to consult with the pitcher. You also see catchers, and sometimes coaches, making more trips to the mound. All of this tends to distract the pitcher from his priority, which is the hitter.

“Any time you get multiple trips to the mound, whether it’s infielders or catchers, it’s pretty obvious you’ve taken the pitcher’s attention away from the hitter,” said Farrell.

The addition of Davis was an important part of this strategy, but you don’t have to be a whippet to steal a base as long as you pick the right spot.

On Saturday, Juan Rivera and Edwin Encarnacion combined on a double steal early in the game. Later, with the Yanks leading by one, Rivera was thrown out on a straight steal of third. On that play, the Jays were banking on A.J. Burnett’s tendency to throw a curve in the dirt on a two-strike count. Rivera had a good lead but Burnett and catcher Russell Martin crossed Toronto up by throwing a fastball.

“I love this stuff,” said third base coach Brian Butterfield. “Being aggressive has its downside. You have to be ready to live with the results, but the unseen upside is just how agitated it makes the defence. I’ve been wanting to play this type of ball for a long time.”


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