CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Red Sox offense likely will return one very important aspect to its repertoire this season: the running game.
In 2014, a season without Jacoby Ellsbury, the running game was virtually nonexistent. Now, with the advent of Mookie Betts in the leadoff spot, the return of Shane Victorino, and the possibility of Rusney Castillo making a mark during the season means the Red Sox are ready to steal some bases and do a lot of first-to-thirds.
"I think we're going to be very active on the basepaths, not only stealing basis but going first to third," Victorino said before Sunday's 11-4 exhibition loss to the Phillies. "I think we have some guys like myself and Mookie and [Dustin] Pedroia and a guy like Pablo [Sandoval], who is quicker than people think. We have Hanley [Ramirez], who's a lot bigger now but he's stolen 50 bags in a year before, so we have guys who can do it."
The Red Sox were fourth in MLB in stolen bases in 2013 with 123 and were caught 19 times, enhanced by Ellsbury's 52 steals and only four caught-stealings.
Last season, they were 25th overall with 63 steals and were caught 25 times.
Even catcher Christian Vazquez wants to get into the act.
"I love stealing bases," Vazquez said. "I know being a catcher that a lot of things have to go right to throw somebody out. I usually steal off the pitcher. I look for certain movements from the pitcher and I get the time."
Vazquez studies baserunning from both sides. He's at 1.7 seconds throwing to second, which is excellent, but his pitcher might be slow to the plate and that could negate his arm.
Every first base coach in MLB uses a stopwatch on the catcher and the pitcher. If the pitcher's move to the plate is 1.3 seconds or worse, it's a sign he can be run on. If a catcher's throw to second is more than 2.0 seconds, there's a good chance a base can be stolen.
First base coach Arnie Beyeler is the Red Sox' baserunning guy. He's the one who feeds Sox players all of the times and goes over pitchers' pickoff moves.
Betts, who stole 40 bases between Double A, Triple A, and the majors last season, will likely be Boston's leadoff man and center fielder. Is he Ellsbury? Not quite. Can he be close to it? That's what the Red Sox will find out. Betts spent time with Tommy Harper last spring training and then in Pawtucket.
Harper was one of the best base-stealers of his day. He was tremendous in reading the pitcher and getting great leads and jumps. Harper may work with Betts again when he comes to camp soon.
"He's taught me a lot about keys to think about," Betts said.
"But some of it is natural. Some of it is getting good jumps and timing up the pitcher, knowing the catcher and his times. There's a lot that goes into it. There's a lot more to stealing bases than just running. For me, being a good baserunner is more important than stealing bases, especially with this lineup. I'm glad to be able to do it, but it's not something I have to do."
The big theme is be a good baserunner first and a base-stealer second. The Red Sox have guys who can steal into the teens or more. A look at their base-stealing history:
■ Pedroia stole 26 bases in 2011. He has 125 career steals and 37 caught-stealings. Last year, he stole six bases and was caught six times. He’s stolen 20 or more bases four times.
■ Victorino has 224 career steals and 46 caught-stealings. He stole 39 bases in 2012 and has more than 30 steals four times and more than 20 seven times.
■ Ramirez stole 51 bases in 2006 and 2007 for the Marlins. He’s stolen more than 20 bases seven times. But that was then. He’s much bigger now and many injuries later those numbers have diminished. He stole 14 bases for the Dodgers last season and at this stage that’s about as much as you can hope for.
■ Sandoval has never stolen more than five bases in a season, but Victorino insists there will be places for the Panda to pick his spots.
■ Castillo has good speed, so stealing bases should be one of his assets when he eventually takes the field.
■ Xander Bogaerts could be a surprise in this category. The shortstop has said one of his goals this season is to steal more because he feels faster than he’s ever felt. He was never a base-stealer in the minors, either. Now, he says, it’s a matter of confidence and technique.
The Red Sox believe there's a rhythm to running. If it can start with a guy like Betts or Victorino, then it will spread as the confidence grows.
Victorino likely will see more time in the No. 7 spot in the order. He believes "where we hit will depend a lot on how many opportunities we get. With [manager] John [Farrell], if we see an opportunity he's not gonna hold me back. Pedey is probably hitting in [the] two hole. He needs to trust what he sees."
"The running game will be more relevant this year," Victorino added. "Mookie is an athletic player, so there is no ceiling for him. He's been fun to watch. The way he goes about his business, his confidence is relevant out there."
Victorino even thinks someone such as David Ortiz can steal a base here and there.
"If a [pitcher] is 1.7, why not take advantage of that?" Victorino said. "If it's 1.35 or above you should be taking a bag. When you run, you put pressure on the catcher to make a mistake. He has to catch and deliver. A guy like [Matt] Wieters is an accurate thrower and his percentages are good. You might go into that game a little different."
With stealing bases comes risk, but the reward is also great. Taking a base on a clean steal often brings energy to a team. It can allow a team to manufacture a run. The Red Sox offense should be fairly potent without the steal. But with it? Well, that may add a little more spice.