(Eds: With AP Photos.)By KRISTIE RIEKENAP Sports Writer
Last season, the Houston Astros had the fewest walks in the majors on their way to baseball’s worst record.
Maybe the Astros have turned a corner: Entering Thursday, they were seventh in the National League in walks and sixth in on-base percentage, a change that suggests one of baseball’s youngest teams is maturing and has them believing they are much, much better than last season.
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Manager Brad Mills decided to focus on improving this area at the start of spring training.
”I think you hoped it would work. You never knew if it would,” he said. ”(It’s about) how these guys are fitting in and what they do and realizing what they can do.”
Patience at the plate isn’t something players gain overnight and it’s a constant battle for Mills to keep players from backsliding.
Left fielder J.D. Martinez walked just 13 times in 208 at-bats last season. This year, he already has a team-leading 19 walks in just 100 plate appearances. That has helped increase his on-base percentage from .319 last year to .353 now, despite a significantly lower batting average.
The 24-year-old insists he wasn’t actively trying to walk more. The walks are simply a product of a better approach at the plate.
”It wasn’t something that I really worked on, I just really try to pick my pitches and if it’s not there, it’s not there and I’m not going to swing at it,” he said.
Center fielder Jordan Schafer, who is in his first full season in Houston after a July trade from Atlanta, immediately reaped the benefits of embracing Mills’ philosophy. He tied a franchise record by reaching safely in his first 25 straight games to start the season.
He’s second to Martinez in walks with 14 and is already halfway to his walk total from last season when he played 82 games, which has significantly increased his on-base percentage.
Schafer is still adjusting to the change despite the positive results.
”I just try to go deeper in counts and take pitches,” he said. ”It’s helped me walk more, but it’s also got me in a lot more two-strike counts where I’ve been behind a lot. Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable taking so many pitches, but sometimes I need to, especially if the pitcher gets out in front of me.”
Schafer prefers to be a more aggressive hitter, but knows that as the leadoff hitter and Houston’s best base stealer, getting on base is more important than being overly aggressive.
”Anytime I can get on base it’s going to help us because the guys behind me are going to get better pitches to hit,” said Schafer, who leads the Astros with 11 stolen bases. ”There’s a number of ways I can score once I get on base. It helps us all around.”
Houston’s increased walks are one part of a plan by Mills to help his team focus on the ”little things” that can help a team win. The Astros head to Pittsburgh on Friday with a 14-17 record after wrapping up a nine-game homestand 6-3.
”They want to improve and there’s no doubt they want to prove that they belong,” Mills said. ”But also in doing that, they’re not just focusing on themselves. When guys start doing things for the ballclub, they start coming around personally because they feel good about themselves because they’re helping the ballclub win games.”
They’re in fourth place in the six-team NL-Central, an encouraging spot for a team that lost a franchise-record 106 games last season.
”When I came here last year we were in a downward spiral, a little bit,” Schafer said. ”Going into spring training and playing good baseball and then starting the season and competing and being in every game just kind of proved not only to everybody else, but to ourselves, that we belong and we can play with anybody. It’s been fun to play so far.”