Larry Stone writes: Yes, we’ve heard this one before. It’s one of the rites of spring to say a team is going to be aggressive on the basepaths. Yet manager Scott Servais insists he is committed to raising the havoc level.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The Mariners want to be an irritant this season. A nuisance. A pain in the posterior.
The technical term they’re using is “uncomfortable.” As in, when opponents look at the schedule and see the Mariners are coming up, they want them to feel more than a little unsettled, because they don’t quite know what the Mariners will throw at them.
Stealing bases. Taking the extra base. Pushing the action. Forcing the other team to make a play and make a throw.
Yes, we’ve heard this one before. It’s one of the rites of spring to say a team is going to step up its running game and be aggressive on the basepaths. Everyone is Reckless Kelly in Arizona and Florida in March, only to regress into timidity once the season starts.
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Yet manager Scott Servais insists he is committed to raising the havoc level. General manager Jerry Dipoto rebuilt the Mariners’ roster partly with that very idea in mind.
They added guys with speed in Leonys Martin, bat control in Chris Iannetta and both in Nori Aoki. They want to better utilize the speed they already had, most notably shortstop Ketel Marte.
You saw a glimpse of that Sunday in Surprise, Ariz., when the Mariners stole six bases against the Rangers. And if you’re watching closely this spring, you’ll see it in subtle ways on a daily basis, Servais promises. A Mariners rally won’t be predicated on waiting for their sluggers to unload, even though they hope that remains a part of the equation.
“We talked all offseason about how this team is built,’’ Servais said. “It’s a different team, and we certainly want fans in Seattle to recognize that. Believe me, I love three-run homers. I love home runs; everybody does. But there are other ways to score runs, and we have to do things a little differently to be consistent, because you can’t rely on the home run every night.”
Servais has a hunch the Mariners will be among the leaders in playing one-run games, based on their ballpark and the kind of team they have. It’s a reasonable assumption; last year the Mariners had 57 of them, more than any club but the White Sox, and went 28-29.
Success in one-run games doesn’t necessarily translate to contention — the Blue Jays were 15-28 and nearly won the pennant — but it bodes well for the Mariners if they could raise their winning percentage significantly in those tight games.
“To win those games late, it’s not usually a home run or double off the wall,’’ Servais said. “It’s getting a leadoff guy on, getting him over, creating some havoc. We take advantage of maybe a mistake, and now all of a sudden you’ve got a guy on third with one out and you have a good at-bat and get him in. We have to create other opportunities to win ballgames.”
Again, it sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t always work out in reality. There’s lots of room for growth in this department, however. The Mariners finished 22nd among 30 teams in stolen bases last year with 69. More alarming, they had the sixth-most runners caught stealing (45), which meant their stolen-base percentage of 60.53 ranked 29th — just barely ahead of the Angels (60.47).
Yes, the same Angels team that employed both Dipoto (as general manager, until resigning July 1) and Servais (as one of his top advisers). Under longtime manager Mike Scioscia, the Angels have been regarded as one of the more-aggressive teams in baseball — but not one that utilizes the sort of metric-based analysis that Dipoto and Servais favor.
In an ideal world, Servais would like to see the Mariners raise their stolen-base rate to 80 percent. No team reached that mark last year (the Blue Jays were tops at 79.28), but two years ago, five teams went over 80 percent, and three of those were in the playoffs.
“To be good, I think an 80 percent success rate is kind of what you’re shooting for,’’ Servais said. “Some guys won’t be that high, others will be higher. But again, it’s a feel. It’s knowing when to anticipate a breaking ball, who is up to the plate, how is that guy getting pitched, to being into the game. That’s what great base-stealers do. Obviously it helps to be fast, but to have feel on the bases is really important.”
Servais wants to send the message now that the Mariners aren’t what they used to be. He preaches it to his players and even has given the entire roster the green light, for now, to assess how they perform on the bases. On Monday, he even displayed an actual green light he had on his desk with a picture of Kyle Seager affixed to the bottom. Seager’s speed, or lack thereof, has been an inside joke within the clubhouse all spring.
Everyone in his office laughed, but to Servais, the Rangers game sent a serious message.
“We’ve talked a lot about it, and it was actually talked about in the dugout (Sunday) when we got it going a little bit,’’ he said. “A couple of our coaches said, ‘Let’s be uncomfortable.’ Let’s make them uncomfortable. Let’s be uncomfortable to play against.
“It’s not going to happen every day, but when it does present itself, to take advantage of it. But that is a feeling we want the other team to know, that there is more than just make a good pitch, get them out and you’re fine. When guys do get on base, there is a focus on guys on the base and not just the hitter.”
And yes, those seeds are being planted in the hot desert sun.
“It’s in the dirt, and it’s being watered, and we’re putting a little sun on it,’’ Servais said. “And it will continue to grow.”