San Francisco Giants

A’s speedsters tempt strategy to stealing bases

With a display of speed, the A’s manufactured their first run in a 3-2 loss Tuesday to the Houston Astros. Outfielder Craig Gentry opened the third inning with a single off Astros left-hander Brett Oberholtzer, stole second base, stole third, and then raced home on a Josh Donaldson fielder’s choice.

The stolen bases were the 17th and 18th of the season for Gentry, who has been caught only once. As a team, in fact, the A’s have been successful on 56 of 68 attempts to start the season – the best percentage (82.4) in the American League and slightly better than the Oakland-era franchise record (80.7) set in 2008.

For as opportunistic as the A’s have been, though, they’ve been just as selective. Their 56 stolen bases ranked ninth in the league entering Wednesday, and just below the major-league average. So, with speedsters like Gentry and Coco Crisp, and such a high rate of success when it comes to thievery, why haven’t the A’s run more?

“I think a lot of the reason why we probably don’t run as much as we could is because we don’t want to risk running ourselves out of an inning, when we’ve got such great hitters that can drive us in,” Gentry said. “You want to give them a chance, so I think that’s kind of been the mindset a lot of times this year.”

Manager Bob Melvin affirmed that although the A’s “always look for the right opportunity” to turn runners loose, they’re more inclined to run when the offense struggles. And their offensive numbers entering Wednesday – the A’s ranked second in the majors in runs (487) and first in run differential (plus-149) – didn’t exactly scream for a change.

“It comes down to, we’re not going to run just to run,” Gentry said. “I think a lot of guys go out there and just run and don’t really care if they get thrown out or what. Sometimes that helps the team, sometimes it hurts your team. But when we steal, we want to make it count.”

The epitome of that is Gentry, who leads the A’s in stolen bases and whose 94.7 percent success rate entering Wednesday ranked fourth in the majors. Gentry, who has converted 74 of 85 attempts (87.1 percent) in his major-league career, said he used to be more reckless in the minors, where he could get away with his natural speed, but now spends more time studying pitchers’ tendencies and learning from fellow base stealers.

That doesn’t mean he won’t take an occasional risk. Gentry said stealing second base off of Oberholtzer on Tuesday was one instance where he “just kind of took a chance. … I kind of read it and figured that’d be a good time to go. I think a lot of it is taking chances and not being scared to run.”

In swiping third, though, Gentry got such a large jump that he arrived at the base standing up. “His time was a little slower when I was at second,” Gentry said. “And I just picked a good pitch to run on, and ended up getting a really good jump on it.”

Crisp said Gentry has “done an amazing job” this season given that Gentry – a right-handed hitter – has mostly played against left-handed pitchers, who can disguise pickoff moves to first base more easily. Gentry said he has learned in his first season with the A’s from Crisp, who is “really good at picking out little things that a pitcher does differently, whether it’s to pick off or go home.”

Crisp entered Wednesday having converted 16 of 20 steal attempts on the season. Crisp has led the A’s in stolen bases in each of the last three seasons and has a career success rate of 80.1 percent.

“I do my work in the video room and try to find something that I feel I can go off of,” he said. “And when I’m over there (on base), I look for it, and if I get it, I go, and if I don’t, I don’t go.”

Crisp estimated that he and Gentry, “With the speed that we have, we could just run and be around 65 or 70 percent (successful).” But like the A’s overall, Crisp said, he usually opts for the more calculated approach.

“It could make you a little more cautious over there, looking for certain things and trying to have a 100 percent chance of making it, and can lessen your stolen bases or attempts,” Crisp said. “But it’s also, I think, better to make sure you’re going to be safe.

“Because I don’t think any base stealer likes to get up and run back to the dugout after an attempt. That’s something I really dislike.”