SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Cliff Pennington was on first base in an early spring training game when Jason Kubel came to the plate. The pitcher had a slowish delivery to the plate, so second base was there to be stolen. But Pennington did not budge, giving Kubel a wider hole to hit through.
Ten days into his first spring training with his new team, Pennington seemed right at home.
New Diamondbacks’ shortstop Pennington brings speed and a will run, but only when the situation dictates. He had 58 stolen bases in his three full seasons with Oakland, a good number for most and a better number considering that the Moneyball A’s believe the stolen base brings too much downside risk. He would like to do more this season, circumstances permitting.
“The last year or so I didn’t steal as many as I would like,” said Pennington, 28. “It was just the way the team was shaking out. You have to play within the game. I’m not going to be a guy that runs just to run. Who is batting behind you, where you are in the order, dictates a little bit of how often you are going to run. But if the team is needing it and we are struggling to score runs or we need to make something happen, that’s something I want to be able to do.
“I love it. I feel like it makes something happen, puts pressure on the other team. A lot of good things come from it.”
Pennington .hit .250 with six homers, 46 RBIs and 29 stolen bases with Oakland in 2010, his first as a regular, and was .264 with eight homers 58 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 2011. While he had 15 stolen bases last season, he other numbers declined — a .215 averge, six home runs, 28 RBI. He moved to second base after the A’s acquired Stephen Drew from the D-backs in early August. He is hitting .239 with four extra-base hits and three stolen bases this spring, and the Diamondbacks believe he’s a better hitter than last year’s numbers indicate.
“He’s versatile, pretty driven,” manager Kirk Gibson said. “He’s worked hard on his hitting. He is trying to understand and execute things. He is very good in the field, and his bat is better than it was last year. He can run. He’s alert. The other day (Adam) Eaton went (stole third), and he was right behind him. He’s going to get a lot of time. I think he’s kind of a younger version of Willie (Bloomquist).”
As far as running more, Gibson added: “If you can make it, we are all for it. We’re working on that.”
Pennington, a first-round draft pick out of Texas A&M in 2005, has a game built on aggressiveness, and playing 54 games against the go-go Los Angeles Angels the last three seasons only sharpened his appreciation for that style, which the D-backs are working to implement.
The constant pressure can be as difficult to measure as it is to combat.
“For instance, when you are on defense and you play a team that runs a lot, or maybe goes first to third or first to home or stuff like that, it’s something you have to think about,” Pennington said. “You know they are not just going base to base. It’s nice when you are infielder and you have a slow guy at first base and a slow guy at the plate. You can play a little deeper. You can give yourself a little more range. You can turn a double play as long as you run it cleanly.
“You put a runner on first who is fast and you know might be running or doing something, you are having to work on coverage, what pitch the pitcher is throwing so we know who is covering (second base), if the ball gets in the dirt … there is a lot more stuff you can happen if you know you have guys who are going to try to push the envelope a little bit.
“It’s a good thing that I think we are going to have, a positive for us.”
Pennington was part of an Oakland team that made one of the most stunning comebacks in baseball history last season. The A’s caught Texas for the AL West title on the last day of the regular season after trailing by 13 games on June 30 and by five games with nine games left in the regular season.
“It was fun,” he said. “It was a team that jelled together just right. There was no one superstar. It was a bunch of guys who never would quit. Played hard every night. Obviously we had some really good pitching, and those guys did it all year. The bats, it was somebody new each night trying to pick it up. Really, we just took it one game at a time and felt like every game we had a chance to win.
“We were going to play all 27 outs.”
The D-backs have talked about using a platoon at shortstop with Pennington and Bloomquist, although a lot will be determined as the season goes along. Versatile Bloomquist could be needed more in the outfield early in the season, with Eaton expected to miss six to eight weeks with a left elbow injury. Pennington made only nine errors in 93 games at shortstop last season, only two in 32 games at second base.
Former Oakland teammate Trevor Cahill, a ground-ball pitcher, has seen Pennington in action.
“He has good range and a good arm,” Cahill said. “He’ll get to balls which you expect him to, which helps a lot. Coming here to the National League, I think he’ll have a good year with the bat, too. He adds a good component to the team. He is scrappy. He puts together good at-bats. He’ll take his walks.
“I think it will be a good fit for him. He’s not unbelievably fast, but he’s a smart base runner. He knows when he can go, when to take the extra base and when not to.”