03/08/08 3:45 PM ET
DeJesus looking to improve his OBP
Hillman wants leadoff hitter to be on base as often as possible
By Dick Kaegel / MLB.com
"The baserunning quiz? Oh, yeah! I'm ready to get running," DeJesus said.
Well, let's slow down just a moment. DeJesus can take an extra base all right, but he's never been the Lou Brock or Rickey Henderson prince-of-thieves type. When he stole 10 bases last season, it was his first visit to double figures in the category.
So let's concede he won't be breaking any basestealing records, except perhaps his own this year.
But DeJesus is the Royals' leadoff batter so let's look at another category dear to the heart of new manager Trey Hillman -- on-base percentage.
Last season DeJesus' OBP was .351, tied for third on the club with Esteban German. Joey Gathright was first at .371 and Mark Teahen second at .353.
"I always set high, lofty OBPs for leadoff hitters and No. 2s. I'd like to go between .370 and .380 -- that's high. It's really high," Hillman said. "But if you have the ability to take as many walks as you can get, it sure does help. I think he can get there, if not to .370 or .380, then hopefully .365 to .370."
DeJesus, completely unaware of Hillman's comment, was asked what his goal would be.
"Let's go!" he exclaimed. ".380!"
There you are -- great minds ...
And what do you know -- as of Saturday, DeJesus was the American League leader in on-base percentage with .684. Not only was he hitting .500 (6-for-12), but he'd coaxed six bases on balls and was hit by a pitch once.
Working the count and getting more bases on balls is part of the Hillman mantra. On Friday against the Rockies, for example, DeJesus walked in his first two plate appearances and scored each time.
"So far, he's done a very good job of seeing a lot of pitches and giving other guys in the lineup the opportunity to see what kind of repertoire the pitcher is going to bring to the plate," Hillman said. "He's done a great job of getting on base, taking his walks even on full counts."
As the leadoff batter, DeJesus is an integral player in Hillman's aggressive approach to healing the Royals' run-scoring woes. The new manager has made bunt, slash and steal part of the Spring Training routine. He's not about to sit back and wait for the three-run homer.
"That's how they used to play baseball, that's how the game is supposed to be played," DeJesus said. "And if we get back to doing things like that, we're going to score more runs because we're making the defense make plays. We're putting more pressure on them and it speeds up their throws and they might throw it away, just things like that. And overall it'll help us jell as a team."
Every spring, it's a ritual to ask DeJesus if he's going to steal more bases in the coming season. His heart's always willing and yet last year he had a modest 10.
And this year?
"Going for 70!" he said joyfully.
If you get the idea that DeJesus approaches the game with unbridled enthusiasm, you're right.
Although he hasn't stolen a base yet this spring, he's definitely leaning in that direction, which pitchers have duly noted with pickoff throws to first base. Last year DeJesus got his 10 steals in 14 attempts. He has good speed, but he's no supersonic burner.
"I think he's a pick-a-pitch guy," Hillman said. "I think he has the ability to steal more than 20 bases. He just has to pick his spots."
Which is what Kuntz, the first-base coach, is teaching DeJesus, Gathright and others this spring. In fact, Kuntz administers a written baserunning test to players who want to take it.
On his first try, DeJesus missed just four of the 45 questions -- best score Kuntz ever remembers.
"His chest was pumping out, he looked like a banty rooster strutting around the locker room," Kuntz said. "He's one of those special guys. He not only wants to be a good baseball player, he wants to be a smart baseball player."
What DeJesus also wants to be smart about this year is conditioning and eating. Last year he avoided the disabled list for the first time, played 157 games, went to the plate a whopping 703 times and wore down in August and September. He hit .212 in the last two months and his season average dipped to .260.
It's also a big chore covering all that ground in Kauffman Stadium's spacious center field.
Admittedly, he was dragging.
With that in mind, he underwent a rigorous conditioning program this winter in Kansas City with strength coach Ty Hill. Because he had a virus, possibly from contaminated food, which shelved him for 11 days a year ago, DeJesus is having specially-prepared nutritious meals delivered to his doorstep every day. He just pops them in the microwave.
Beyond that, Hillman is likely to give DeJesus a day off now and then plus some DH duty.
"I don't want to say I want any days off. I want to be in there, obviously, but if I start feeling those legs getting a little tired this year I have the ability to go up to a coach and say, 'Hey, I'm feeling a little rundown.' And Trey will take that into consideration and that will help," DeJesus said.
Despite his lower average last season, DeJesus' everyday presence led to career highs in virtually every offensive category including, ouch, being hit by a pitch 23 times. He's been zinged 54 times in five years.
It's an old habit.
"In college [at Rutgers] we were taught if it's coming in, hey, just give it a little shoulder and you're on base. So it helps the team out overall, but it definitely takes a toll on the body getting hit by those pitches. Hopefully, I'll get out of the way more."
OK, but don't forget, it helps the old OBP.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.