No guarantees for Braves’ biggest base-stealing threat

Jordan Schafer's 22 steals tied for the major league lead for stolen bases among players with fewer than 286 plate appearances.

Dale Zanine/Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — On a Braves team that rarely stole bases last season, Jordan Schafer’s role was simple — and it’s a value Fredi Gonzales can’t help but marvel at.

"He’s one of those guys that can steal a bag when everybody in the ballpark knows you need a steal," the Atlanta manager said.

Speed has become Schafer’s biggest weapon, highlighting the reinvention of a player who five years ago was the Braves’ Opening Day center fielder.

After a rocky road that included a trade to the Astros, injuries and being waived, he returned to Atlanta only to be pushed into the shadows as the franchise retooled its outfield, putting B.J. and Justin Upton along side Jason Heyward.

But opportunity presented itself as B.J. Upton struggled and Schafer feasted on it, leading the team with 22 stolen bases.

He worked to refine that speed this winter under the guidance of Tom Shaw, the speed coach who largely works with NFL players and boasts a clientele that includes 10 Super Bowl MVPs AND 122 first-round draft picks.

"I take pride in the speed stuff," Schafer said. "I work on speed stuff a lot in the offseason with Tom Shaw and it’s something I’ve gotten better and better at and something feel comfortable doing."

So much so that Schafer had five less steals than the career-best 27 he had in 2012 with the Astros, and in 95 fewer plate appearances. Dig a little deeper and Schafer tied for the most stolen bases of any player with less than 286 PAs. He was also one of only 20 players with three or more steals in a game, which Schafer did on Sept. 2 vs. the Mets.

"He can play all three positions way above average, he can run off the bench; can pinch-hit, obviously," Gonzalez said. "He’s a great commodity."

Especially for a ball club that, be it circumstantial or philosophical, didn’t show much aggression on the base paths last season.

The Braves were 24th in the majors and 12th in the NL with 64 stolen bases — a figure that was 20 off the league average — but it’s not as if they were a bad base-running team as Atlanta had 147 bases taken (second in NL).

What simply plagued this team was in an inability to take advantage of its chances.

Sixth in baseball with 2,259 stolen base opportunities, the Braves attempted just 95 steals. Now, that could have everything to do with the facts that the players with over 200 SBO included Freddie Freeman (one attempt in 274 SBO) and Chris Johnson (zero in 215) and the team had a 22.6 strikeout rate (third in MLB).

However, the flip side is that the other two players in that 200-plus threshold were Justin Upton, who had 77 steals from 2009-12, but registered nine tries in 271 SBO and Andrelton Simmons (11 in 240) after swiping 54 bags from ’10-12 in the minors.

It’s an approach that likely had everything to do with Atlanta playing in only 26 games in which they had two more runs without a home run, 15th in the league

It also likely led to a change in the coaching staff, with Doug Dascenzo hired as third-base coach and base-running instructor. He replaced Brian Snitker, who was put in charge at Triple-A Gwinnett.

So far, the Braves have seemed a bigger threat on the base paths, stealing eight times through 10 Grapefruit League games, a figure that’s tied for sixth overall.

Schafer has yet to add to that total, though it’s simply a matter of time and a matter of opportunity.

"It’s just keeping with my approach and using my speed and getting on base," Schafer said. "Usually when I’m on base we can score runs."

But just how much we see Schafer this season is one of the biggest question marks surrounding the Braves as his playing time is directly tied to how B.J. Upton performs in his Year 2.

As Upton struck out a career-high 33.9 percent of the time and hit .184/.268/.289, he was benched at times for Schafer, who wound up making 51 starts.

Schafer showed progress against right-handed pitchers, hitting a career-best .265/.355/.380 line (though he continued to have trouble with lefties at .129/.156/.129) and was an above-average fielder with a 2.5 UZR/150 and three defensive runs saved in 493 2/3 innings.

If Upton rebounds, it is unlikely Schafer serves as anything more than a role player, picking up for the Uptons and Heyward on off days or serving as a pinch hitter of pinch runner.

But a year ago, no one would have expected Schafer to have been a key contributor in a Braves NL East title run, so he’ll bide his time, though he readily admits he has his sights on something more.

"I just want to be aggressive from Day 1," he said. "Obviously I want to come to a point where I can play everyday."