Peterson’s improvement could be key to Braves increasing steals

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — This offseason, Jace Peterson went over tapes of all his stolen base attempts from his rookie year, and it wasn’t always pretty.

While the Braves second baseman finished with 12 as a rookie, he was also caught 10 times, a 54.5 percent rate that — per baseball-reference.com — was the worst in the majors among players with 10 or more steals.

But what Peterson noticed was how thin the line was between success and failure at the major league level.

"A lot of the ones that I got thrown out on were all close, so it’s a difference between half a second and you’re safe," he said ahead of Saturday’s practice.

A defensive back at McNeese State, where he was clocked at 4.4 in the 40-yard dash — a time that, if he were taking part in this week’s NFL draft combine would put him in the same class as Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott (4.47), an expected first-round pick — Peterson put that speed to good work at the minor league level.

In four seasons as a prospect with the Padres (who dealt him to the Braves in December 2014 in the Justin Upton deal), Peterson stole 148 bases, and attempted an average of one every two games. In 179 MLB games, 152 of which came with Atlanta last season, he’s gone just 24 times or once every seven games.

"You go through the minor leagues and you have success and when you get to the big league level, it’s not the place the learn," Peterson said. "If you’re trying to learn something at the big league level you’re going to struggle. You’re going to have your failures and you have to eventually move past it and get it done."

Having a .381 on-base percentage in the minors compared to .300 in the majors played its part in the lack of attempts since he broke in. From Opening Day through June 7, Peterson racked up seven of his steals — along with being caught six times — as he posted a .356 OBP; the rest of 2015, he tried 11 more times (with six steals) behind a .302 OBP.

He stresses that the injury he suffered in late May against the Dodgers, which had him playing the remainder of the year with a partially torn thumb, didn’t play a part in his aggressiveness. The bigger issue for the now 23-year-old was simply his confidence.

"I didn’t get it going," Peterson said. "(Stolen) bases are like a thing where you get going, you get confident on it and you take them. I just never got into that, never got into a good rhythm taking them and hopefully this year looking to change that."

Peterson spent this offseason focusing on speed training, and this spring he’s picking the brain of veteran Michael Bourn, who has 326 career steals and is 50th all time with a career 78.5 stolen base percentage.

"Look, I have one year in the big leagues, so I still want to be an open book," Peterson said. "I’m trying to learn from the guys. Mike B. is an All-Star … he’s a guy that stole a lot of bases, so he’s a guy I talk to. We talk about it and try to get different first steps and different reads on what the pitcher’s doing, what the catcher’s doing and try to continue to expand my knowledge of that and hopefully get more bags."

The Braves are certainly hoping that becomes a bigger part of Peterson’s game and their own.

They’ve added shortstop Erick Aybar (141 steals in 10 seasons) and outfielder Ender Inciarte (21 steals in ’15 with the Diamondbacks), and have a full season of an aging Bourn and a speedster in waiting in outfielder Mallex Smith (226 steals in the minors) to aid an offense that was 21st in MLB with 69 steals last year.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez considers himself a "big aggressive guy on the basepaths," but admits there are inherent limitations with this lineup.

"You have to get guys that can run the bases," he said. "Inciarte and Aybar and a couple of guys, that’s what you preach. But then all of a sudden you’ve got (Freddie) Freeman, (A.J.) Pierzynski, (Nick) Markakis, (Hector) Olivera, (Adonis) Garcia, you’ve got a philosophy, but if you don’t have the players to carry on that philosophy, it’s pretty difficult to do."

Case in point: during Gonzalez’s tenure, the Braves have just one 100-steal season, swiping 101 bases in ’12. But Peterson, at least, expects to see improvement, especially if he can bolster those numbers himself.

"I think with the moves we made we got faster, so definitely on the bases look for us to be more aggressive, take more bags and definitely make things happen," he said.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His book, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ comes out April 5, 2016.