Leadoff man Eric Young Jr. gets on base and No. 2 hitter Jace Peterson moves Young over — assuming Young hadn’t already stolen second — and then the middle of the order drives one or both of them home.
That scene has played out multiple times for the Braves during their Grapefruit League exhibition games this spring. That doesn’t mean it will continue when the games count, but for the first time in a while, the Braves can envision a real one-two punch at the top of their lineup because Young and Peterson fit those roles.
“It’s exciting because you see what they can do,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “They get on base. They run the bases. They are athletic.”
Getting production from hitters Nos. 1 and 2 is key for the Braves as they try to make the transition from an offense dependent on power (and prone to strikeouts) to one based on so-called small ball. They haven’t had that since 2012, when they scored 700 runs, seventh-best in the National League, with Michael Bourn and Martin Prado usually batting one-two
The Braves haven’t really had a true leadoff hitter since then and haven’t gotten much from their No. 2 hitters. That’s why Young and Peterson getting things started at the top of the order is something for the Braves to be excited about, even during spring training.
“I’m really pleased with those two guys with the way they hit at the top of the order, especially against right-handed pitching, and set the table,” Gonzalez said.
Both Young and Peterson have been among the top players on offense in the Grapefruit League.
Young is hitting .321 in 56 at-bats with a .397 on-base percentage, plus five stolen bases in as many attempts. Peterson is hitting .341 in 44 at-bats with .442 on-base percentage plus two stolen bases in two attempts.
Peterson still has much to prove as a prospect, with only 17 big-league games on his resume. Young has played in 504 big-league games over the past six years with one full-time season split between Colorado and New York in 2013.
In 1,589 career plate appearances Young has hit .252 with a .320 on-base percentage and has 138 stolen bases in 171 attempts. Nearly all of his career starts have come as the leadoff hitter, which was his father’s forte for 15 years in the big leagues until he retired in 2006.
Young said it took him until high school to fully embrace his role as a leadoff hitter.
“Obviously the genetics are there and the mannerisms, so it was kind of easy to fit into that mold watching him and having a similar skill set,” he said.
Young said when he leads off games he wants to make the opposing starter throw all of his pitches. That way he can relay useful information to his teammates about the pitcher’s sharpness that day.
That’s of course in addition to his primary responsibilities as the leadoff hitter.
“I just want to get on base and let those guys behind me do their job,” Young said.
Peterson played a combined 86 games between Double-A and Triple-A in 2014 and hit .307 with a .402 OBP and 33 extra-base hits. He said he hit in each of the top three spots in the order in the minors, but prefers to hit second.
“I feel like being able to get that runner over for the three-, four-, five-hole guys,” he said. “I like being at top and getting on base and maybe stealing a bag if the situation is there. I just want to be able to score runs.”
That’s the challenge for the Braves this season after they scored only 573 runs in 2014 to rank 29th in the majors, down from 688 in 2013.
In 2012 Bourn hit .274 with a .348 OBP, stole 42 bases in 55 attempts and scored 96 runs. Prado hit .301 with a .359 OBP and struck out 69 times in 690 plate appearances.
There’s hope, at least, that Young and Peterson can do something similar in 2012.
“You never know when the lights turn on,” Gonzalez said. “You get a little better feel with E.Y. because he’s done it, he’s got a little better track record. From what I’ve seen from Peterson, his swing is pretty solid, there’s not a lot of moving parts. Defensively, he’s made some great plays. We feel like he can translate that to a successful major-league season.”
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