Roberts takes run production personally
San Francisco's new leadoff hitter ready to add new dimension
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Dave Roberts possesses a sunny disposition, but the first-year Giant revealed what can put him in a foul mood."If this team's not scoring runs," Roberts said, "I take that personally." Around San Francisco, run production usually has meant belting the ball over the fence. It rarely has involved striving to reach base by any way possible, scrambling into scoring position with slick baserunning, then hustling home. Roberts excels at the latter method, explaining why the Giants consider him a central figure at the top of the order. Barry Bonds, who gushes over teammates infrequently, articulated the Giants' expectations for Roberts during Tuesday's much-chronicled news conference by singling out the center fielder. "All I know is, we've got some speed out there," Bonds said. "With Dave Roberts getting on base, he's going to create a lot of problems. I've had the opportunity to play against him for many years. I told him, 'Don't change your game. Run. The more runs you score, the more runs we have.'" That rationale prompted the Giants to sign Roberts, 34, to a three-year, $18 million contract on Dec. 2. They're hoping that he can be their most effective leadoff hitter since Brett Butler filled the role from 1988-90 (a quick review of Butler's primary successors: Darren Lewis didn't hit enough, Marvin Benard fizzled out quickly and Ray Durham struggled with injuries when he wasn't morphing into a No. 5 batter). If Roberts comes close to duplicating last season, when he hit .293 with 49 stolen bases for San Diego, the Giants will be thrilled. His offensive repertoire features dimensions that the team has more often coveted than enjoyed. Roberts has averaged 39 stolen bases in the last five seasons, a total exceeded by only one Giant since Lewis amassed 46 thefts in 1993. Bonds had 40 in 1996. Roberts maintains patience at the plate, a concept foreign to most Giants. He ranked 21st in the National League last season by watching 3.95 pitches per plate appearance. By comparison, the highest-ranking Giants hitter was Omar Vizquel at 44th (3.75). Randy Winn, San Francisco's usual leadoff hitter in 2006, was 70th (3.48). Roberts recorded on-base percentages of .360 last season and .356 with San Diego in 2005. Either would eclipse the .342 on-base percentage Giants' leadoff hitters compiled in '06.
"It's nice to see that certain teams can appreciate what guys like myself bring to the table," Roberts said. "Stealing a base, seeing pitches in an at-bat, moving a runner -- that's the stuff that helps teams win baseball games that might go unnoticed."The Giants noticed, especially after watching Roberts help San Diego win the previous two National League West titles. "Being able to eliminate him from [their] lineup and have him in ours is a blessing," left-hander Noah Lowry said. "He's a guy who's good to all fields, and that's what makes him tough, I think. With a lot of the bigger power hitters, you get a guy who's usually good to one side of the field or they have gap-to-gap power. Roberts is a guy who, if you throw him away, he'll take you away or he'll take you up the middle, or if you throw him in, he'll turn on you because he has quick hands. And that's just at the plate. You have to worry about his speed once he gets on base." Indeed, Roberts' speed has earned him a place in baseball history. His ninth-inning steal of second base in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series enabled him to score the tying run and galvanized Boston's remarkable comeback from a 3-0 series deficit, which preceded the Red Sox's first World Series crown since 1918. If anybody appreciates the impact of a stolen base, it's him. Asked how frequently he's asked about that steal, Roberts said, "Oh, gosh. Literally every day it's brought up at some point in time. People ask me if I get tired of hearing it, but there are so many people who have had great careers who are remembered for something negative or one negative play. So, for me to be looked at in that light, it's a huge compliment." Mindful of Roberts' assets, Giants manager Bruce Bochy intends to give him the "green light" to try stealing any time he wants. That strategy worked in 2005-06, when Bochy managed Roberts in San Diego. "He knows I'm not going to take advantage of the liberties that he gives me," said Roberts, whose stolen-base percentage was .891 (49-for-55) a year ago. Bochy even indicated that he'd allow Roberts to take off from first base with Bonds at bat. That would take the bat out of Bonds' hands if Roberts were to get thrown out or if a steal set up an intentional walk. But Bochy will embrace Roberts' aggressiveness. "We don't want to get away from some of our strengths," Bochy said. "If that's Dave Roberts getting in scoring position. ... This is going to take everybody contributing."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.