Pettis' teaching spurs Rangers on basepaths
Texas reaps benefits of first-base coach's aggressive mentality
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- One of the great exhibitions of Rangers team baserunning came in Game 5 of the 2010 American League Division Series against the Rays when they had a runner score from second base three times without the ball leaving the infield.That memorable victory sent the Rangers off to the next round of the playoffs, but what happened last season might be even more remarkable. There were 257 times where the Rangers tried to take an extra base on a hit: either going first to third, second to home or first to home. They were thrown out just three times in those particular situations, the lowest in the AL. "That goes back to the confidence we have in our players," first-base coach Gary Pettis said. "We trust them to be aggressive on the bases. They know that if they make a mistake, we're not going to jump on them. We're going to talk about it and fix it, maybe say you did the right thing, but not at the right time at the right situation.
"You're not going to learn by not doing things. That's the way we play the game. That works for us. It may not work for other teams, but we think it works for us. That's the way the Texas Rangers play. Sometimes it might cost us an opportunity, but over the long haul it pays off."The Rangers have always been admired for their offensive prowess, and the significant improvements made with their pitching staff have been dissected and applauded over and over again. But baserunning remains another significant reason why the Rangers have won two straight AL West titles. The Rangers run the bases aggressively, and the experience they have gained from that is showing. "One thing is aggressiveness is in our DNA," infielder Michael Young said. "Another is good baserunning is something we've learned. It's a skill developed over time, and the last four or five years we've tried to become a good baserunning team. The last two years you've seen it." Pettis is the catalyst. He played 11 years in the Major Leagues -- mainly with the Angels -- and stole 354 bases. He went into coaching after his playing days were over and was one of the first calls manager Ron Washington made after being hired as manager in 2006. "He has done everything he teaches," Washington said. "There's not anything he's teaching that he didn't do very well as a Major Leaguer. He loves to teach and he has a passion for the game. That's why he's so good." Pettis is probably the first coach ever hired by the Rangers who specializes in baserunning and stealing bases. The five-year results have been dramatic. From 2002-06, the Rangers stole 316 bases and were successful on 70.2 percent of their attempts. In a five-year period from 1995-99, when the Rangers won three division titles, they stole 438 bases and were successful 67.5 percent of the time. Over the past five years, the Rangers have stolen 584 bases, and their success rate of 76.5 percent is the second highest in the AL in that period. They are successful because Pettis studies videos of the opponent just like pitching coach Mike Maddux, bullpen coach Andy Hawkins or hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh. Pettis studies pitchers -- their pickoff moves, their times to the plate, anything that can give a baserunner an advantage. It may be something almost imperceptible, like a pitcher holding his glove a little high or lower when he's planning to throw to first base. It could be a pitcher drops his shoulder slightly when delivering to the plate, or his footwork reveals something about his intentions. "He is really good at picking up little things about a pitcher," said outfielder Craig Gentry, who was 18-for-18 stealing bases last year. Basestealing is measured in fractions of seconds. Pettis clocks all pitchers and knows their times to the plate. The cutoff point is 1.3 seconds from the time the pitcher goes into his motion to deliver the baseball. A pitcher quicker than 1.3 seconds is generally tough to steal on. Anything slower and the Rangers are looking to run. "But it's like hitting," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "A guy could be 1.28 and you're comfortable running because his move is not good or he doesn't do something with his feet. Or you get a guy who is 1.33 and you don't feel good because he mixes up his moves or his time between pitches." If it's hard to imagine micro-fractions deciding a stolen base, just go back to Kinsler's game-changing steal of second in the ninth inning of Game 2 of last year's World Series. That was one of two baserunning plays that allowed the Rangers to score twice and rally for a 2-1 victory. The other was Elvis Andrus, after a single to center that moved Kinsler to third, going to second when the Cardinals let the throw to the plate go through. That's the kind of aggressive baserunning that Pettis has instilled in the Rangers over the year and why they were back at it again on Sunday morning in Surprise. "Gary is really smart and has so much knowledge of the game," Andrus said. "He always keeps us ahead of the opponent, telling us to anticipate and read the play and be aggressive. This is a guy who was successful in his career -- there's no way you don't want to follow what he says."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.