PORTLAND, Maine — In 2010, while playing for Greenville in the South Atlantic League (Class A), Jeremy Hazelbaker stole 63 bases. It was the highest total by a Boston Red Sox minor leaguer since 1981.
He stole 47 a year ago between Class A Salem (12) of the Carolina League and the Eastern League’s Double-A Portland Sea Dogs (35).
He has 24 stolen bases this year in 34 attempts and tied a franchise record with four in a 6-5 loss to New Hampshire on Sunday.
Hazelbaker has refined his approach to base stealing.
“Since it’s my second year in the league, the other teams know me better and they’re doing a better job holding me on,” said Hazelbaker, who will turn 25 on Aug. 14.
“I’m picking my spots [to steal] a lot better this year. I used to just go every time but now I’m reading the pitcher’s moves.”
He likes to steal on off-speed pitches because the pitch takes more time to get to the catcher and it takes more time for the pitcher to deliver it.
“And they throw most off-speed pitches out of the strike zone. They’re trying to get the hitter to swing at a ball in the dirt,” said Hazelbaker. “And if they do bounce it in, it makes it easier for me.”
He said he always has been blessed with speed — he was named the fastest baserunner in the South Atlantic League by Baseball America after the 2010 season — but he said, “It has taken a while to work it into my game. I have to work to maintain it.”
“He has the green light [to run on any pitch],” said Sea Dogs manager Kevin Boles. “We want him to take risks because the payoffs are tremendous. He has come a long way. He used to just take off on the first pitch but, now, he looks for the pitchers’ keys and for breaking ball counts. He has a plan.”
Hazelbaker also has come alive at the plate, earning Eastern League Offensive Player of the Week honors for July 16-22 for his .417 average, four homers, seven stolen bases, eight RBIs, 10 runs scored, two doubles and a triple.
“It’s good to get something like that. The week went well and to see it [Offensive Player of the Week] posted on the [scoreboard] adds excitement to your week,” said the left fielder, who raised his average to .255.
He said there wasn’t a blueprint to his success.
“You can hit a ball as hard as you possibly can but it seems like there are 10 guys in the outfield and they catch everything,” said Hazelbaker. “Right now, the ball is finding holes. I’m getting hits I didn’t get earlier in the season.
“I’ve also found more of a comfort level. I’m seeing the ball well and I’m a lot more relaxed at the plate. That has allowed me to stay off off-speed pitches and other pitches I don’t want to swing at. I’m just letting my hands work,” said Hazelbaker.
Boles said Hazelbaker has been “managing the strike zone a lot better. He wasn’t as competitive at the plate earlier this season but he has started to make adjustments and get on base a lot more. He has well-above-average hand speed. He has some of the quickest hands in the organization through the [strike] zone. He has shown the ability to hit the ball to all fields and he can also leave the ballpark [homers]. He has been very impressive.”
Because of Hazelbaker’s speed and the fact he is a threat to bunt, that draws the corner infielders in and creates more hitting space for him, explained Boles.
“When they play in that close, they don’t have much time to react to a ball hit hard to their left or right and that works to my advantage,” said Hazelbaker. “I need to [capitalize] on that.”
He has power to go with his speed, as he has hit 15 homers in 85 games along with 15 doubles and three triples. He has 48 RBIs and has scored 51 runs.
“[Homers] are a plus for me,” said the former All-American at Ball State University in Indiana. “It took awhile for me to figure out what kind of hitter I was going to be. Being a corner outfielder, was I supposed to be a power hitter or try to hit the ball on the ground and leg out hits?
“I’ve learned just to work on hitting the ball to the gaps and if I get a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it, I can hit it out of the ballpark,” said the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Hazelbaker, a native of Selma, Ind.
Hazelbaker, a left-handed hitter, has a great work ethic and has improved dramatically on defense, according to Boles.
“He’s also throwing better,” said Boles.
“Last year, I didn’t see the ball well at times so I didn’t get good reads,” said Hazelbaker, who feels he is getting better reads this season and has learned to play the big wall in left field modeled after the Green Monster at Boston’s Fenway Park.