PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Starling Marte, for once, got a late jump this spring. It doesn’t happen very often.
Delayed by a sore oblique, Marte didn’t make his Grapefruit League debut until this week. But if there was any concern about the high-motor player the Mets signed to a four-year, $78-million contract this winter, it was gone by the second game, when Marte picked up his first stolen base.
The next game, he swiped another.
For those of us who’ve been around the Mets for a while, seeing the explosive Marte dash around the bases, barreling headfirst into the bag, triggered vivid flashbacks to Jose Reyes, the most prolific thief in franchise history.
Marte stole 47 a year ago, split between the Marlins and A’s. He was caught only five times. Reyes is the last Met to break 40 -- he had 56 in 2008 -- but also had seasons of 78 (club record), 64 and 60 leading up to that. You could power the borough of Queens with the electricity Reyes generated during that high-octane period, and Marte is really the first to bring that degree of sizzle back to Citi Field.
Along with the swagger. Marte seemingly doesn’t operate at the same ridiculous RPMs as Reyes, who pinballed around the clubhouse like a loose electron, but share the common trait of every successful base-stealer: being totally fearless.
Ask Marte what’s the most important thing about this aspect of his game, and he smiles. Built more like an NFL edge rusher, with the wheels to match, Marte suggests the chassis is for protection. The key to clipping all these bases is upstairs, between the ears.
“It’s my confidence,” Marte said.
There’s reason for that. Marte has collected 296 thefts over his 10-year career, three times grabbing 40-plus. He also had 47 in 2016 for the Pirates, separating his career highs by five years. Last season, Marte swiped 23 straight after being traded to the A’s and was finally cut down trying to steal third by the Royals’ Salvador Perez on Sept. 15.
At the time, A’s teammate Mark Canha -- who now is a few lockers down from him in the Mets’ clubhouse -- said Marte stealing second was practically a “given.” Chris Bassitt, also reunited with Marte here, suggested back then it had to be similar to watching Rickey Henderson at work.
As for the streak by the Bay, that begged the question: did Marte ever get to the point where he thought he couldn’t be caught?
“It’s gonna happen,” Marte said, laughing. “But I never think about numbers. I just want to get better every year. That number I put up last year? That’s in the past. I want to be even better this year.”
On the A’s, Marte had an unblinking green light, and it’s expected to be mostly the same under Buck Showalter. And that apparently applies to spring training, too. Showalter admits that stealing bases can be a hazardous activity, but he believes Marte also needs to get his reps in that area, same as hitting or fielding.
The manager will just have to keep his fingers crossed. Reyes, like Marte, was a powerful runner, but creating those speedy bursts can come at a cost, and he suffered from nagging hamstring problems. At this stage of the spring, Showalter says trying to keep Marte locked down on the basepaths, out of safety concerns, wouldn’t make sense for his preparation.
“That’s part of his game,” Showalter said. “And he’s going to do it this season. I don’t want to say he’s a dying breed, but he’s the type of player to take a good look at, because a lot of guys aren’t willing to take the physical pounding of stealing bases. They have that mentality that he has. To say you’re just going to turn this switch on up there, that wouldn’t be very smart.”
Marte agrees with his manager. Ask him about the potential danger, and he shrugs off the risk.
“I just play hard every day,” Marte said. “I think when a guy worries about injuries, that’s when it happens.”
The way Marte looks at it, his job is to make the other team nervous, and that goes beyond putting himself into scoring position. Once Marte reaches first base, pitchers tend to get rattled, and the pressure he applies to the defense manifests itself in myriad ways.
Pitchers missing spots, hurried throws, rushed fielding. Those are all byproducts of the Marte Effect, ramping up anxiety levels that he enjoys inflicting on the opposition.
“I’m always aggressive, keeping my eyes on the pitcher, trying to make him do something crazy,” Marte said. “Make a mistake to one of our guys.”
And Marte literally can’t wait to start. Showalter said that stolen bases had been de-emphasized in recent years because teams greatly refined their efforts at controlling the running game. But elite speedsters like Marte -- who have it in their baseball DNA -- are very difficult to contain. And Showalter likes the attitude Marte helps install with these Mets.
“You’ve got to create that mentality of ‘Go for it,’” Showalter said. “If you’re sitting around being timid, the game will swallow you.”
Marte doesn’t need a green light to go. He never really stops anyway.