Yes, last year’s MVP chatter was a bit misguided, if not hyperbolic, but there is no disputing that Jason Bartlett played a significant role in the Rays‘ 2008 success. This season, with comparatively little fanfare, he was even better. He did experience a drop-off afield as far as his defensive metrics, but he more than made up for it with his bat, hitting a surprising .320/.389/.490 while setting career highs in home runs (14) and stolen bases (30). As a result, his VORP improved from 13.0 to 58.3. Bartlett sat down with BP to talk about the evolution of his game on both sides of the ball when the Rays visited Fenway Park in September.
Jason Bartlett: You’re right. Whenever I bring that up, people are surprised, but I think that a bigger surprise is that George Hendrick, our first-base coach, was my manager when I was in A-ball with the Padres. We joke about how he got rid of me there, and now he’s probably going to try to get rid of me here, too.
DL: How would you describe George Hendrick?
JB: He’s laid back, man. He’s one of the most laid-back people I’ve ever been around. He loves to have fun; he has a great sense of humor. He doesn’t get too worked up about things, man. That’s the kind of guy you need. And he knows a lot about baseball.
DL: When a player is in the low minors, what does it mean to have an 18-year big-league veteran like Hendrick as a manager?
JB: You tend to listen more when they talk. He had a lot of good things to tell me about hitting back then-things that are still stuck in my head. Nowadays, if I have a problem, I obviously go to our hitting coach, but I also talk to George about things as well.
DL: When you went from San Diego to the Twins, what differences did you find in their respective minor league systems?
JB: In Minnesota… they do things a certain way there, man. They make you work hard. Not to say that San Diego didn’t, but Minnesota has a great minor league thing going on over there. They teach guys the way they want them to learn; they teach them how to play baseball the right way, and how to appreciate the game. They just bring up guys the right way.
DL: How much of a transition was it going from playing for Ron Gardenhire to playing for Joe Maddon?
JB: There are a lot of similarities. They’re both really laid back and like to have fun. I don’t think Gardy is going to dye his hair, or do anything crazy like that, like Joe does, but with each one you feel comfortable. You go out there and like Joe always says, “I don’t care about mistakes,” it’s the mental mistakes that bother him. That gives you the relaxation to just go out there and play, and if you make a mistake, you make a mistake.
DL: Maddon, in commenting on how you lead all of baseball in batting average with runners in scoring position, said, “Part of it, I believe, is that he was rooted in the Twins system.” What did he mean by that?
JB: I think that he means that I’m probably just having good at-bats, and that I’m battling. Something I’ve worked on this year is having a good two-strike approach. For some reason, I had forgotten about that when I came over here, because in Minnesota they stress that once you get to two strikes, you shorten up and just try to put the ball in play. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on here.
DL: Are you focusing more in those situations?
JB: I really don’t think that it’s more focusing with runners in scoring position, because I think that everybody is always trying to focus. You’re trying to figure out what the pitcher is going to try to do. Say there’s a base open, or there’s a runner in scoring position, and you have a righty-righty, or a lefty-righty; there are a lot of things that come into play, and the past few years I never really thought about that too much. This year I’m learning the game more, and for some reason, everything is starting to click.
DL: Is there anything else that has contributed to your great season with the bat?
JB: I guess I’d just say that one of the main things is that I’ve been trying to get my foot down earlier, so that I can see the ball. Last year, I chased a lot of pitches, and this year my focus has been to get that foot down so that I can see the ball better, and that seems to have helped.
DL: A criticism of your game is that you don’t draw enough walks. Have you made a conscious effort to improve in that area?
JB: I mean, I think that will just come as I get older, but I’m an aggressive hitter, and if I get ahead 2-0, I’m going to be looking to hit. I try not to let a good fastball get by me. I try to stay aggressive.
DL: How surprised are you that you’re hitting .330?
JB: I’m surprised that I’m hitting .330, but I’m not surprised that I’m hitting .300 or over. I’ve always considered myself a .300 hitter. I am surprised that it has been this high for so long, because usually you go up and down, up and down. So, I don’t want to jinx anything, or whatnot, I just want to ride this as long as I can.
DL: Your power numbers are up this year.
JB: I don’t know what to tell you about that, man. Like I said, I’ve been trying stay aggressive and attack the ball in hitter’s counts. I’m trying to do something with the ball as opposed to just trying to shoot it over to right field.
DL: Switching to defense, John Dewan’s The Fielding Bible says that you “epitomize the shortstop role as a commander of the infield.” What are your thoughts on that?
JB: You know, I try not to think about stuff like that. All I can control is what I do out there. Once I get caught up in that kind of stuff, it gets in my head and I can’t relax and just play ball.
DL: As a shortstop, is it not your job to be a leader?
JB: It is, but I’m going to be me out there, you know. I’m not going to change for anybody. I’m going to be out there and tell guys what positions to get in, and what guys have tendencies to do, but that’s about it.
DL: The Fielding Bible also said that you’re fearless going back on popups. Is there fear going into the outfield to chase balls?
JB: Yeah, there’s a fear factor, because that’s how a lot of people get hurt. One thing I tell the outfielders, when I first meet them, is that I’m going to go hard until I hear them, so I want them to be sure to say something. There have been times when we’ve said something at the same time, and didn’t really hear each other, and have come pretty close to a collision, or a ball will drop right between us, and those are the times that are tough. But most of the time, they’re usually going to let me know that they’re going to get it. But yeah, communication is important.
DL: What was it like working with Akinori Iwamura last year? Not only was he transitioning to a new position, there was also the language issue.
JB: Aki did great, man. It seemed like he never skipped a beat moving positions. I think that if he stayed there every day, he would be one of the best second basemen in the league. And he knows a lot more English than people give him credit for. He does have the translator, and I think that Aki is learning more English every day, which helps him out.
DL: Because of Akinora’s injury, you’ve had a different double-play partner for each the past three seasons. Is lack of continuity difficult for a shortstop?
JB: A little bit. You have to learn certain guy’s ranges, how they like to take a double-play feed, and how they feed you on a double play, so while it doesn’t take too long to get used to it, when it’s constantly changing it is kind of bothersome. I think I’ve handled it pretty well, though.
DL: You’ve battled through a few injuries of your own. Compared to previous seasons, where is your defensive game right now?
JB: I’d say that I’m almost there. There are some things where I’m learning to cheat a step here and there, so that I don’t have to go as far for balls. I’m becoming smarter as a baseball player, learning hitters more, and learning my pitchers better. I think that’s the key. You can have great range, but if you’re not in a good spot, you’re still not going to get the ball.
DL: Omar Vizquel is still playing shortstop at the age of 42. Can you picture yourself doing that someday?
JB: I can picture myself doing that, but a guy like that is amazing, to be in that kind of shape at that age. Then you look at someone like Alex Gonzalez in Boston. You see a lot of shortstops, they’ll make a play, and yeah, they’re good and everything, but this guy will make great plays. He’ll range up, slide, dive, and he’s still out there every day. Those are the guys that I appreciate, the ones that are making plays that a lot of other guys don’t.
DL: Any final thoughts, maybe something people should know about you?
JB: I’m a really big family guy. A lot of things that I do are for my family. I play baseball because I love it, but I also play because I have a chance to support my family. Having our baby now, he’s my motivation for everything. Baseball is important, but it isn’t everything.