DUNEDIN, Fla. – The Toronto Blue Jays are ready to play fearlessly.
The havoc on the bases was part of the club’s style a season ago, but with a full year of John Schneider at the helm, the aggressiveness will only ramp up.
“[Schneider is] just encouraging guys to not be scared to go out and make a play,” said Whit Merrifield, who stole 16 bases last season. “Running the bases, the biggest thing is you can’t be scared to get thrown out. You’ve got to have, not a reckless mentality, but a confident mentality.”
Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates was a good – perhaps extreme – example of what Schneider was looking for. After reaching first base, Merrifield made a calculation. He drew a throw-over from Mitch Keller. Perfect. Now he could set a trap.
Merrifield took a short lead the next time, then suddenly crossed his feet and took a few hard steps. The Pirates defence screamed at Keller to step off, so he disengaged. Merrifield scampered back to the bag, satisfied his plan had worked.
Here’s a look at Whit Merrifield just taking off after two mound disengagements from Mitch Keller. pic.twitter.com/CWcgNGHD0C
— Frank Stampfl (@Roto_Frank) March 7, 2023
Because of the new rules governing pace of play, a pitcher is allowed to step off the rubber twice per at-bat. If he wants a third disengagement, he must get the runner out, otherwise the opposing team gets a free base. That’s exactly what Merrifield was playing into – he knew Keller would be hesitant about another pick-off attempt.
The 34-year-old shuffled and got a great jump, dashing to second so quickly the catcher didn’t even bother throwing it down. Not a moment later, Merrifield tried to catch the Pirates slacking by sprinting to third while the pitcher held the ball, but he got nabbed on a close play.
“I probably won't be as crazy on the bases as I am right now,” Merrifield said of his regular-season approach. “But this is what spring training is for. Try things and see what works.”
Blue Jays veterans like Merrifield and Kevin Kiermaier figure to benefit from the club’s baserunning mentality, but nobody on the roster fits the mould quite like Daulton Varsho. Acquired this offseason from the Arizona Diamondbacks, the 26-year-old is a wild man on the diamond.
Varsho said he dabbled in many sports growing up, including tennis, basketball, and football, where he played free safety. Unsurprisingly, he settled on baseball – Gary Varsho, Daulton’s dad, played eight years in the big leagues. When Gary served as the Philadelphia Phillies bench coach from 2002 to 2006, Daulton got a close look at how a hard-nosed baseball team operates.
“Guys like Kenny Lofton, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins,” Varsho said, “they kind of showed me the way of being the player who I am.”
Varsho’s gritty style of play gives off shades of Mike Trout. Obviously the Los Angeles Angels star is elite at what he does, but Varsho, like a younger Trout, is compact, powerful, and full speed, full-time.
“It’s a lot more fun,” Varsho said of his high-flying style of play.
Part of that enjoyment stems from causing chaos on the bases.
“I'm trying to take every 90 [feet] I can try to be really aggressive,” he said. “But smart-aggressive.”
As the adage goes, speed never slumps. Varsho is prone to streakiness – for example, he hit for a .904 OPS in May last season, then for a ghastly .488 OPS in June – but he’s gung-ho between the white lines, slump or no slump. Over the years, though, he’s learned to rein in that intensity, opting to use it in spurts instead of flaming out or pulling up lame with injury. So Varsho makes exceptions.
“You also have to be smart,” he said. “Can't go full throttle in the outfield every single day and expect your body to feel good for when you get to postseason time.”
Timeliness is key, meaning some roll-overs or bloopers on defence might not always warrant the rabid hustle. That said, the Varshos and Merrifields of the world know where their value lies. While these two grinders aren’t quite as impactful as A-graders like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Bo Bichette, they have a sneaky-crucial role to play in Toronto this season.
The Blue Jays need that vicious intensity – it’ll help them win games. Because come October, one play could make all the difference.