Through the Braves’ first 32 games, basically one-fifth of the season, fourth outfielder Jordan Schafer had a total of 19 plate appearances and three starts.
This wasn’t what he had in mind coming off the best year of his injury-plagued career, a 2013 season in which Schafer posted a .331 on-base percentage and 22 stolen bases in 94 games (265 plate appearances), and for much of two months provided a spark as a semi-regular in the lineup when others were hurt or struggling.
Schafer was 3-for-17 with two doubles, three stolen bases, one walk and four strikeouts in 19 games before Wednesday, when he went to manager Fredi Gonzalez’s office before batting practice and told him he’d like to play more.
With Justin Upton in left field, Jason Heyward in right field, and center fielder B.J. Upton in the second year of a five-year, $75.25 million contract, it’s not an ideal situation for a backup outfielder if the starters are healthy.
“I told him, hey, you’re in a tough situation,” Gonzalez said. “You’ve got Jason, you’ve got B.J. who’s swinging and playing pretty good, and you’ve got Justin, who’s swinging. He was kind of reserved about coming in, because he told me in Miami, ‘I need to talk to you.’ That was like 10 days ago. I said, ‘It took you this long to get the courage to come in?’
“I told him how proud I was of him, of his work ethic — he’s ready to play, ready to help the team. Whether he pinch-runs, steals a base, or fills in on defense. And I know it’s a tough spot. I said, it’s early, and it’s hard to take someone out of those spots.”
While a starter struggling for months on end appreciates Gonzalez sticking with him, the flipside of that is a player like Schafer, wondering what it takes to get an opportunity to see more playing time.
“Patience makes me good, and sometimes it makes me bad — giving guys opportunities,” Gonzalez said of his conversation with Schafer. “But it’s still, what, the first week of May? Pretty soon we’re going to start giving those guys a day off here or there. It’s going to start getting hot, and you be ready to play.”
Making Schafer’s situation all the more difficult is the fact that his three starts came against hard throwers – the Mets’ Zack Wheeler on April 9, when Schafer was battling flu symptoms, and the Marlins’ Nathan Eovaldi on April 23 and Jose Fernandez on April 29. He went 0-for-3 in each of those games.
Schafer had a total of nine at-bats in the two weeks before facing Fernandez, arguably baseball’s most dominant pitcher.
A year ago, Schafer hit .298 (34-for-114) with 10 extra-base hits (three home runs), 14 RBIs, seven stolen bases and a .389 OBP in a span of 50 games from April 23 until May 26, when he smashed a foul ball off his left ankle and fractured a bone. In that stretch he had filled in for Heyward, who missed time with an appendectomy, and B.J. Upton, who slumped and strained a groin muscle.
So far this season, he’s had three games in which he had more than one at-bat.
If nothing else, Schafer has continued to impress his manager with his attitude and willingness to do what’s asked of him.
“When I got here in 2010, a lot of people were saying, ‘Schafer is this,’ ‘Schafer is that,’” Gonzalez said, referring to the reputation for immaturity that Schafer has finally been able to shed during his second stint with the Braves. “I tell you what, I have enjoyed him since Day 1. And I told him that today. He’s a good kid and he’s ready to play. That’s a good thing. You want guys that want to play.
“And I told him, you being the fourth outfielder, or a utility infielder or a backup catcher, those are the guys you draw – you draw the Fernandezes, the (Adam) Wainwrights … that’s the guys you draw. As a fourth outfielder, you’re going to get the tough draws.”