SEATTLE — Turning for third with two outs last week in Oakland, Seattle Mariners outfielder Abraham Almonte did not have the proper grasp of two things.
First, he didn’t understand that Oakland A’s outfielder Sam Fuld has a strong throwing arm. Though Fuld has been a part-time player for his seven Major League seasons, he has produced 13 outfield assists, including five in one season. Not Ichiro-level numbers, but still representative of an arm worth consideration.
Second, Almonte didn’t grasp how hard shortstop Brad Miller had hit the ball at Fuld. That was likely the downfall for the speedy rookie from the Dominican Republic during his pursuit of going from first to third base.
Among baseball’s baserunning bylaws is never make the third out at third base. Beyond that elementary point, is having a deeper understanding of the situation. Almonte’s ambitious attempt resulted in Robinson Cano leading off the next inning. Had he halted at second, Cano would be coming up with two men on in what was already a two-run inning for the Mariners.
Those mistakes will be made this season. Then, hopefully, rectified. Almonte’s played just 33 Major League games, yet is the Mariners’ starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. New manager Lloyd McClendon has turned Almonte loose despite his inexperience and is living with the consequences, good and bad.
“It’s a necessary evil,” McClendon said. “The only way he’s going to be an instinctive player is to rely on his own talents. I liken it a lot to when I used to go see my son play high school baseball. There’s two outs and there’s (a) 3-0 (count) on the hitter, and the coach is giving signs and there’s nobody on base. I’m like, ‘What the hell? Let the kids play.’
“Sometimes we become too instructive as coaches and we actually get in the players’ way. I’m just trying to stay out of their way. Let them play. If they’re good, they’ll figure it out.”
Almonte has erred in the outfield, too. He dove for a sinking line drive and missed. The ball rolled to the wall.
But, there has also been times the square-shaped rookie has burned into second, able to take an extra base. He’s run down fly balls in the outfield. He also adds spunk to the top of the Mariners’ lineup this season after being acquired from the New York Yankees in a trade for reliever Shawn Kelley in February 2013.
The freedom from McClendon is surprising and welcome.
“The player that I am, it’s big,” Almonte, 24, said. “Sometimes, I don’t know what to do. Am I supposed to run or no? When you’ve got a guy that tells you, ‘Be you. If you do something that we think you’ve got to be a different way, we’ll tell you. But don’t be afraid to do something because we’re going to say something. Just play your game. Be you.’”
The tell-you part followed Almonte’s error in judgment when he headed to third in Oakland.
Andy Van Slyke was a three-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winning center fielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates following a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1987. He played with McClendon in Pittsburgh and now coaches first base on the Mariners staff.
He greeted Almonte at the top of the dugouts steps following the out.
“He’s teaching me the right way to play the game and we had a good talk,” Almonte said, shifting into a smile when labeling the talk a good one.
Van Slyke is stern and appears fit enough to still play, despite being 53 years old. He wanted to relay several points to Almonte, whom he thinks can become an excellent instinctual player.
“Be aware of the speed of the ball when it’s hit,” Van Slyke said. “Stay aggressive. Understand the situation will dictate when you go to third, based on the speed of the ball. Not necessarily that Robinson’s on deck. You still can go to third.
“(Almonte) wants to be able to use his ability to run to its max, and I’m all for that, under the conditions where it’s dictated to run. The arm of the outfielder is not as imperative as knowing the speed of the ball and how it’s hit.”
The other aspect to Van Slyke’s responsibilities is teaching Almonte how to become a good center fielder. Asked if that can happen through watching video, Van Slyke scoffed.
“Video teaches you very, very little in this game,” Van Slyke said. “Only experience teaches you how to play this game.”
Which circles back to McClendon’s issue. He said since his first stint as manager in Pittsburgh from 2001-05, he’s backed off players some.
“I was a young manager in Pittsburgh and one the things I probably didn’t realize is it’s the players’ game,” McClendon said. “My days of playing the game were over. I was fairly young, probably still thought I could play. I wasn’t worth a damn to start with, but I probably still thought I could play. I probably got in their way a little bit.”
McClendon doesn’t want his voice to become a droning sound in his players’ heads. He’s willing to let experience – Van Slyke’s preferred teaching tool – clarify things for players, while making players know “you’ll pull the rope a little bit.”
Asked why he was comfortable with an unrestricted approach for such young players, McClendon laughed.
“I never said I was comfortable.”
It’s just the way it is, for now.