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Cleveland Indians

Tribe's Francisco plans basepaths heists

By Sheldon Published: April 7, 2009

It was a simple expression of aspiration. Or maybe it was more: a statement of an achievable goal.

''I want to steal bases,'' Ben Francisco said. ''I did it my whole career in the minors, but it got away from me.''

Maybe Francisco forgot he plays for the Indians, a team that seems to have a firm policy of running hard but rarely getting anywhere quickly. That excludes Grady Sizemore, of course. He stole 38 bases last year, almost half the club's total.

Otherwise, the next upward plateau the Tribe reaches will be that of a tortoise. Two years ago, when Trot Nixon was on the roster, manager Eric Wedge at times could field perhaps the slowest lineup in major-league history, or at least recent history.

In addition to Nixon, on any given day, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, Jhonny Peralta, Kelly Shoppach and Ryan Garko might populate the batting order. As a result, the Tribe managed 72 steals and succeeded only 63.7 percent of the time. Forty-seven of those steals belonged to two players: Sizemore and Josh Barfield.

At least last year, Indians runners had a respectable 72.6 percent success rate, though most baseball people maintain that anything lower than 75 percent is counterproductive. Maybe that's why the Tribe ranked 12th in the American League in thievery.

Many fans believe the Indians' reluctance to steal is a guiding principle of Wedge, that he just doesn't think running is a legitimate strategy. But anyone who has watched the Tribe play quickly realizes that Wedge is merely playing the hand he has been dealt.

After all, the manager has no qualms about giving Sizemore the green light. Sizemore has the speed and, more important, the knowledge to make base stealing pay off. That's what Francisco wants to learn, and during the offseason and spring training, he took steps to make himself a better runner.

Becoming an efficient base runner doesn't necessarily include stealing bases. Francisco believes he has the speed to steal, but he also wants to become as proficient as he can to go from first to third and second to the plate on a single, among other base-running skills.

''I did a lot of work in the offseason on my lower body strength and speed,'' he said. ''I'm getting to have a comfort level taking leads and knowing when to break'' for the next base.''

When Francisco was a minor-leaguer, he routinely stole bases. As a Triple-A outfielder at Buffalo, he stole 25 bases in 30 tries (83.3 percent) in 2006 and 22-of-30 (73.3 percent) in 2007. In all, Francisco stole 124 bases and was successful 78.5 percent of the time.

But last year in the big leagues, Francisco had only four steals and was thrown out on three occasions, getting to the next base only 57.1 percent of the time.

Francisco is vague about why he stopped running.

''I don't know,'' he said. ''I got in the habit of getting to first base and not focusing on getting to second. Maybe it had to do with who was behind me in the lineup.''

Francisco has the speed to steal (he says he ran a 6.6-second 60-yard dash before the draft), but he hasn't mastered all of the techniques.

Wedge is more interested in making effective base runners of his players than emphasizing stolen bases. On the other hand, if a player becomes adept at the art and science of stealing, the manager is all for it.

''Ben has worked hard to become a complete player,'' Wedge said. ''I've been very proud of the way he worked in training camp. We asked this guy to do a lot of extra work, and he's done it without complaint. We want him to run more, and he wants to do it.''

Now that Wedge has more speed on the roster — bench players Barfield and Trevor Crowe — he has talked about pinch running for players late in games. Moreover, Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo — at least an average runner or better — will play every day.

''I think we're more athletic, both the top and bottom of the lineup,'' Wedge said, referring to Sizemore in the leadoff spot and Asdrubal Cabrera in the ninth slot. ''I think stolen bases can be part of our game.''

That's exactly what Francisco wants to hear.


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