Osprey running smart early in 2018 campaign
Smarter running has been key to improving the Missoula Osprey’s on-base success for the 2018 campaign.
After stealing just 47 bases in 2017 – second-to-last in the Pioneer League – Missoula is already well ahead of pace with 20 steals in 27 games, just over a third of the way into the season.
More importantly, Osprey runners have been caught only five times – the fewest in the league. That’s been good for league-best 80 percent success rate compared to just 63.5 percent in 2017.
“Last year we had guys that would just take off,” said second-year manager Mike Benjamin. “A lot of the time, they’d be real late. Other times, they’d be early and the pitcher just steps off and gets them. So I think this year overall, the guys have a better idea of what a good jump is and, obviously, what a bad jump is, and they’ll shut it down (if it’s not good).”
Leading the charge is first-year outfielder Jesus Marriaga.
With eight to his name, Marriaga is on his way to becoming Missoula’s most prolific basestealer since Matt McPhearson swiped 30 in 2015. For comparison, last year’s leader, outfielder Eduardo Diaz, logged just 11.
“That’s part of what (I am), and I’m always looking to get an extra base – obviously looking to get every fly ball out there – and that will make a difference in the game,” Marriaga said through a translator. “That’s what (I’m) good at; one of (my) best strengths.”
Marriaga’s aggressive style — he had to sit out a game early in the season after banging his chin on the ground during a slide into third — has been tempered with common sense, which Benjamin lauded.
“I think I had guys that were faster last year, but his jumps are better,” Benjamin said about Marriaga. “He understands when he has a good jump, when he needs a good jump, and if he doesn’t get it, he’ll just shut it down, which has been a plus for him. But the other thing with him is, he’s looking to run. We tell the guys that have the ability to steal, you’ve got to look for it, and he’s always looking.”
That balance has been difficult to find for the other Osprey.
Although eight other Missoula players have stolen at least one base, none have swiped more than three.
Of course that’s likely to change as the season settles in, especially in the case of catcher Nick Dalesandro, the rare backstop who can run. The converted outfielder stole 27 bases in 30 tries his junior season at Purdue before being drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks and landing in Missoula.
So far, despite hitting a team-high .349, Dalesandro has just one stolen base to his name – a swipe of third in his debut June 24.
“It was different in college because I was able to steal at any point I wanted with (Purdue coach Mark Wasikowski). He just implemented the green light with me,” Dalesandro said. “With the professional atmosphere, you’ve got to listen to what your coaches say. I’m looking forward to implementing it more into my game, but I’m just getting adjusted right now to the professional catchers and how professional pitchers hold on runners.”
No player on the Osprey holds an automatic green light.
In Missoula, it’s Benjamin who makes the calls on when to run – which leaves him, more than any other member of the roster, accountable for the tightrope between caution and abandon on the base path.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, Missoula’s parent organization, wants its players to learn an aggressive style and gain experience running the bases.
Benjamin agreed a lost steal can be a positive if the player uses the experience to gain better jumps down the road. But in the more offensive environment of the Pioneer League – especially at the home run-friendly Ogren Park – a fail can hurt a great deal more than a stolen base helps, he said.
“We try to teach these guys we want to be aggressive but we also want to be smart,” Benjamin said. “We have to understand the score, the outs, and try to get them to take that into consideration and make the best possible decision they can.”
-Story by Andrew Houghton