Whenever a Tacoma baserunner steals a base at Cheney Stadium, he earns every fan in attendance a free fast food meal, announced on the scoreboard along with a chippy thanks over the public address system.
Rainiers fans have been walking home with free food coupons much more often than not in 2019.
This season, the Rainiers have swiped 90 bags in 79 games, breaking down to a bit over a steal and a half per game. Projecting out to a full season, Tacoma is on pace for over 158 steals, its most in a year since 2003 and fifth-most in franchise history.
“I said that coming out of spring training, that it’s probably the most guys I’ve had on one club that can run,” Rainiers manager Daren Brown said.
Last season, Tacoma was fourth in the PCL with 101 swipes. This year the Rainiers are approaching that number with over a week to go to the All-Star break; going at their current pace, they’ll eclipse their 2018 mark in Fresno next weekend.
And the Rainiers aren’t only stealing more bases, they’re currently running more efficiently than ever before. With 26 would-be base-stealers caught so far, Tacoma has a stolen-base percentage of 77.59%. If that holds to the end of the year, it would be the best season in franchise history, narrowly eeking out the 1978 Tacoma Yankees’ 77.37% and beating last year’s pace by over 5%.
“That’s something that we take a lot of pride in,” infielder Tim Lopes said.
Ask the players, and a large part of that success can be pinned on Brown. In between his stints in Tacoma, Brown spent three years working with some of the current Rainiers in Double-A Jackson and Arkansas, and before that, two as the Mariners’ baserunning coordinator.
“He’s got a huge background on running,” outfielder Ian Miller said. “He’s got a green light signal, he knows when it’s time to go. He won’t force you to go, but he’ll nudge you when he thinks it’s a good time to go. Pretty much every year I’ve had him, I’ve had good success on the bases percentage-wise. He’s got a lot to do with it. He makes everybody a lot more comfortable on the bases.”
At the top, Lopes and Miller share the team — and the PCL — lead with 20 steals. Miller is the more prototypical speedster. Last season he finished with 33 swipes, with 70 of his 114 appearances coming in the leadoff slot. This year, Brown has dropped him more to the bottom of the order, and while Miller is stealing bases at nearly an identical rate — just over one every four games — his hitting numbers are all up.
“Getting back to the bottom of the order, it’s not a breath of fresh air, but it lets me see things from a different point of view,” Miller said. “Baseball’s so mental, it’s a mental thing. It lets me see seven, eight at-bats before me, paint kind of a clear picture of what I want to do in my head.”
Miller has reached 40 steals in a season twice in his career, and with a could second half, could get back there again.
“Over the years, he’s stolen enough bags that he’s got a pretty good feel for it, and it’s getting better,” Brown said.
Meanwhile, Lopes has spent most of the season in the heart of the order, with 13 of his 20 steals coming in either the second or third slot in the batting order.
“He’s just a good baseball player,” Miller said. “He can hit for pop, he can run, he can do anything. It’s cool to have guys like that in the lineup.”
But beyond the two 20-steal guys leading the charge, the speed revolution in Tacoma has come in bits and pieces from the rest of the team. Last year, 16 Rainiers logged stolen bases over the course of the season. This season, it’s up to 21 already. Kristopher Negron has 10. Mallex Smith helped the total with seven of his own before he got called back up to the Mariners. Then they come in dribs and drabs from the rest of the supporting cast, coming more on instinct and reads than pure speed.
“We have a lot of guys on this team that can really run, and even some guys who aren’t the best runners are good baserunners,” Lopes said. “There’s no excuse to not be a good baserunner, and that’s something we take a lot of pride in as a club, for sure.”
With 16 of their 34 wins so far coming by either one run or two, Brown and the Rainiers are counting on their speed to be a wild card down the stretch, both in individual games and the season.
“I think it has been a factor in us winning some games that probably we shouldn’t have won,” Brown said. “We can put pressure on teams on the bases as long as we can keep the game close.”