PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Through a lifetime in the majors — as the son of a player, as a player himself, as an executive, as a coach — Ruben Amaro Jr. has accumulated untold knowledge about the game. And this season, as a member of the Mets’ new-look coaching staff, he is tasked with applying that knowledge to improve one of the team’s greatest weaknesses from a year ago: baserunning.
The good news, Amaro said, is that there is more to baserunning than pure talent.
“More than anything else, it’s about effort and awareness,” he said. “Our job is to push the envelope as much as we can with what we have as far as talent is concerned. We want to put as much pressure on the defense as we can. You don’t have to have great speed to be a great baserunner.”
The idea is to counteract the Mets’ overall lack of speed with smart, efficient, fundamentally sound baserunning, manager Mickey Callaway said.
The Mets can’t make runners significantly faster in six weeks of spring training. But with the right technique and mindset, they can pick up a step here and a step there, improvement in the margins.
Baseball games are won in the margins.
“When you’re talking about 60 feet, a step and a half makes a big difference,” Callaway said.
The Mets were not a good baserunning team in 2017. FanGraphs, the baseball analytics site, has an all-encompassing baserunning metric known as BsR that rated the Mets 26th in the game at 11 runs below average. The Twins, the top team, were 14.2 runs above average.
Similarly but separately, Baseball Reference lists the 2017 Mets as taking an extra base (more than one on a single or more than two on a double) on only 35 percent of their chances, 27th in baseball. The top teams were at 45 percent.
Last year, Jose Reyes had a top-10 BsR in the game at 5.4. Michael Conforto (2.9) and Juan Lagares (2.7) also were Mets standouts, but on the whole, there was major room for improvement.
Despite minimal change in personnel, Amaro believes the Mets can turn it around.
“It’s really about making sure the guys stay engaged,” he said.
Just ask outfielder Jay Bruce, cited by Amaro as one of the team’s smartest baserunners.
“It’s anticipating, it’s thinking, it’s paying attention,” Bruce said. “Paying attention out there is kind of an underrated attribute. You have to get out there and pay attention, know the situation and know what you want to do and be ready for whatever happens.”
There is a lot to pay attention to. In addition to knowing the strength of the opposing outfielders’ arms, runners must be aware of defensive shifts — in the outfield, which is increasingly common, as well as the infield, which is more normal but could throw out of whack the relay-throw sequence.
That’s seven bodies to monitor, plus an eighth — third-base coach Glenn Sherlock — when the ball is put in play.
The technique Amaro teaches is routine, stuff any major-leaguer has known for years: take healthy primary and secondary leads, step on the inside of the bag, take tight turns and so on.
The rest of the instruction is about philosophy and instilling a culture. The short version: run hard.
Third baseman Todd Frazier, another of the savviest Mets baserunners in Amaro’s eyes, will let you know if you aren’t running hard enough.
“It doesn’t take much effort to hustle,” Frazier said. “You’re running 90 feet. If you have to go 90 feet and you’re jogging, then there’s problems.
“Teams understand. You put pressure on them, next thing you know, [they know] this guy will go a hard 90. Now in the back of the fielder’s mind, it’s like, ‘OK, maybe I have to rush a little bit.’ Bobble, bobble — next thing you know, that can win a game.”
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