A small tweak gets Xavier Edwards' wheels rolling again

Photo credit: Lance Brozdowski

Photo credit: Lance Brozdowski

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: The Sac Bunt Newsletter

Xavier Edwards is fast. Very fast. He is one of five players FanGraphs has given an 80 speed grade to, signifying a 60-yard run time around 6.3 seconds and a sub 4-second home-to-first time from the left-handed batter’s box. If he qualified for Statcast’s sprint speed leaderboard, he would land near names like Adalberto Mondesi and Trea Turner. But over a 13-game stretch between April 14 and May 3, Edwards was caught stealing seven times. For Edwards to fail so often at his premiere skill raised questions.

Anthony Contreras, the Fort Wayne TinCaps manager, noticed something during the speedster’s poor stretch. For the entirety of Edwards’ career, when he stole second base, he slid feet first, popping up once he hit the bag. “Never really liked it,” Edwards says when asked why he avoided headfirst slides.

On May 4, at Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, Ind., Edwards changed his stripes. He dove headfirst on a successful steal of second base, beating the tag by fractions of a second. He has been successful stealing on each of his last six attempts since the adjustment, tying him for third in the Midwest League with 14 steals. The adjustment is one of many the 19-year-old will have to make in his career, but this one in particular showcases the minutiae of stealing bases and the top-down feedback process the Padres have in place to help their minor leaguers develop.

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After Contreras had noticed the feet first tendency in Edwards’ game, he found a video of Edwards’ being nabbed at second base. He quickly sent it to the Padres baserunning authority at the major-league level, Skip Schumaker. The video Contreras sent to Schumaker looked something like the gif below:

Credit: MiLB

Credit: MiLB

Schumaker sent his thoughts back to Contreras, citing how some of the best base-stealers in baseball—Javier Baez, Billy Hamilton, and Mike Trout, for example—slide headfirst.

“Even if the ball beats you there you have a chance to move your arm out of the way, more control of it,” Edwards says now about his new method.

Contreras digested Schumaker’s feedback and incorporated his thoughts into a meeting with Edwards before a Saturday game against the Quad Cities River Bandits (Astros Class A affiliate). Contreras and Edwards reviewed the video frame by frame, picking it apart, while Contreras used his own insight and Schumaker’s feedback to construct the rationale behind the change.

“You have to decelerate to slide feet first because you’re trying to stop and then come up on the bag,” Contreras says. “But when you’re trying to steal a bag you want to accelerate through your slide and to do that you need to slide headfirst.”

Edwards took the meeting to heart and made the adjustment the same day. Below is his May 4 stolen base, the first of his career diving headfirst into second base:

Credit: MiLB

Credit: MiLB

Sliding, however, is not the only factor in stealing bases. Edwards admits other components have become a learning process for him. Of his six times caught stealing second base, three have come against left-handed pitchers. To put this in perspective, Edwards has more than three times as many plate appearances versus right handers than left handers this season.

“You either go first move and they don’t pick off,” Edwards says. “Or they pick off quick and you’ll be out anyways.”

Contreras considers stealing against left handers a “gamble,” one that is necessary for a player like Edwards to repeatedly take in order to become an elite base-stealer at higher levels. To help both baserunners and pitchers, the TinCaps often have baserunning sessions before batting practice. The team’s left-handed pitchers work on their moves to first base while baserunners try to read a pitcher’s motions. This practice comes on top of the attention Edwards pays to an opposing pitcher’s motion towards home when the TinCaps watch tape of their opponents before a given series. During games, when a teammate like the speedy Tucupita Marcano gets on base, he’s also watching a pitcher’s tendencies to file away for future use.

Edwards is still learning to optimize his jumps off pitchers as well. He has even become more conscious of his lead size off first base.

“Sometimes when you’re out there you don’t feel how far you actually are,” Edwards says. “Or you feel like you’re farther than you actually are.”

All of these factors have only come into focus recently because of the elevated level of Edwards’ opponents in the Midwest league. Catchers are quicker, with better pop times and stronger, more accurate arms than Low A or Rookie Ball backstops. Pitchers alter the speed of their delivery to the plate and are able to retain their command.

“[Edwards] was probably just outrunning baseballs back at the lower levels,” Contreras says.

Contreras has experience working with base-stealers in prior years as the TinCaps manager. In 2018, Esteury Ruiz stole 49 bases, most in the Midwest League. Ruiz’s 82 percent success rate was also well over the 70-75 percent break-even point for stolen bases (it varies based on the number of outs).

“Ruiz last year is a good example of a guy that knew how to slide hard into second headfirst,” Contreras says.

To show how much beyond pure speed goes into base stealing, consider that FanGraphs gives Ruiz a present 60 grade on his speed. That’s above average, but it’s two full grades lower than Edwards’ 80. Through only 39 games, Edwards' efficiency is nearly 20 percent lower than Ruiz’s full-season mark.

Contreras considers Edwards a more “strategic” runner than Ruiz. He admits he had to rein Ruiz in at times last season, teaching him the opportune times to steal. But for Edwards to grow, making mistakes are developmental stepping stones.

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For the last 12 days of the 2018 regular season, Contreras joined the big-league team and absorbed as much information as he could from Schumaker, who joined the Padres as a coach during the 2017 offseason. Contreras and Schumaker first met through the development side of the Padres organization and immediately bonded due to similarities in their personal lives—both played California high school baseball and are separated by only four years in age.

Contreras has developed a direct line of communication to Schumaker and even Padres manager Andy Green, along with bench coach Rod Barajas. He knows he can go to them with any questions and receive a prompt, insightful answer even with the major-league demand on a coach’s time.

“If they’re telling me how they want it at the big-league level, it helps these guys out tremendously,” Contreras says.

With strong relationships between field staffs at different levels, Padres coaches at lower levels are able to understand what the major-league staff is looking for. Edwards benefited from this one instance of Contreras taking initiative and fielding support from Schumaker. With more adjustments inevitable, knowing the correction is endorsed by a higher power is invaluable to player development at all levels of the minor leagues.