Prospect Q&A: Reds CF Ryan LaMarre on Tag-teaming Atop Lineup with Billy Hamilton, Becoming Dynamic, More
Behind every great base-stealer, there is a hitter who is waiting to hit. Literally.
In 1982, when a 23-year-old Athletics left fielder named Rickey Henderson stole a career-high 130 bases, he batted leadoff and did much of his damage on the basepaths while No. 2 hitter Dwayne Murphy, Oakland’s center fielder at the time, was taking pitches, not fouling them off.
Thirty years later in 2012, when Reds top prospect Billy Hamilton stole 51 bags in 50 games at Double-A Pensacola to cap his historic 155-swipes season, there was No. 13 prospect Ryan LaMarre working the count, not swinging away.
Like Murphy, however, LaMarre (bio, stats here) is a few things: a good hitter in his own right, an outstanding defensive center fielder and, yeah, an accomplished base-stealer. Cincinnati’s 2010 second-round draftee racked up 55 SBs in 2011 before a foot injury and other circumstances limited him to 30 in ’12. (For the record, the A’s underrated Murphy stole 26 bases in ’82 and won the third of his six straight Gold Glove awards in the outfield’s more demanding position.)
I caught up with LaMarre, now a 24-year-old veteran of three Minor League seasons, to discuss these and other topics this afternoon. He took my call from Arizona — the Reds are hosting Spring Training in Goodyear, and LaMarre has been in town since Sunday night trying to crack his first Major League roster. Enjoy.
On how he spent his offseason: “It went good. I had a tear in my plantar fascia toward the end of last season, so I got that fixed up, got out of a boot probably in late November and then went [into] lifting, conditioning, getting all that stuff in. Then I was back at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, throwing and hitting with some guys. It was good, it went quick, but I feel like I got a lot accomplished. I always try to get a little bigger, stronger, faster, but definitely this offseason I paid more attention to how my body was feeling. If my foot was foot was biting back, I had to pump the breaks a little bit. It responded well, and I think we had a good plan going. The guy who owns the gym that I worked out at did an unbelievable job coming up with a plan and ways to get around my foot problems. I’m feeling great, healthy, ready to go now.”
On evaluating his 2012 season: “It was a good year overall. It was a learning experience. I wasn’t completely satisfied or anything. I always expect more of myself. But I hit leadoff for the first time, for about half of the season, which was a new experience for me — I had never done that. I was trying to work counts, get on base. … It was my first time when I played that many  games, and I think there’s something to be said about that. It was also cool playing for [then-Blue Wahoos manager] Jim Riggleman, knowing that he’s been in the big leagues, he’s done it before. He can tell you what you need to work on to get to that next level. It was just cool to have a guy around that’s been there, and it was just recently that he was there.”
On how Riggleman helped him personally: “We talked a fair amount about hitting and the approach that I had at the plate. I feel like when I was hitting leadoff, at times I was trying to be a little too passive almost, just trying to get on base. He was big on, ‘Yeah, you’re leading off, but you only truly lead off once a game, so you don’t always have to be up there trying to take pitches. You can start zoning guys up, and if you like the ball in or out over the plate, then don’t take that pitch early on. Look to attack-hit.’ I’m more of a bigger guy — I’m a slap, leadoff guy — so I think he was looking for me to drive the ball. I feel like I did that, but I feel like I got more [power] in there, so I will hopefully get some things quickly.”
On his development as a hitter: “I want to be more consistent and dynamic offensively. I have gotten [overly] mechanical and obsessed with how my swing is working, and I just have to trust that and know that what I am doing is right. When I do that, I think my power numbers will go up [and] my average will go up because I’ll be in better counts and not missing as many pitches and won’t be striking out as much. I think it revolves around getting a more consistent offensive approach.”
On his mechanical changes in the box (see link for interesting juxtapositions): “About halfway through last year, I hit a rough spot and started to switch things up. I tried to shorten up my swing, and I feel like I’m not sure that I accomplished that. I might have changed my setup, but I feel like I got away from my strength My swing almost felt disconnected. That was one of the things I worked on all offseason. I went down to Sarasota, Fla. and worked with Ryan Jackson, who is the Reds hitting coordinator, and a couple other guys and made that my primary focus: sync up my lower half and my upper half and eliminate some of the length on my swing. I feel encouraged by what I have seen so far just in the couple days out here. [My mechanics] look pretty similar, but it’s about the barrel position. I’m trying not to drop it right before I launch, just to get it in a good position and go from there. It probably isn’t even noticeable to a lot of people, but I feel like the way the ball is coming off the bat is a lot more noticeable.”
On his development in center field: “Im always looking to improve defensively. In batting practice, I’m trying to improve my reads, improve cutting off balls, throwing to cutoffs, getting my arm stronger. But I think I’ve gotten so comfortable in center field that I’m going to start picking up a little bit from guys who play left field, guys who play right field just to make sure if a [Major League] position opens up in right field or left field that I’m able to fill and won’t have to learn it on the fly. I feel like I can play center field with the best of ‘em, but I can start getting comfortable [elsewhere] to let them know I’ll be comfortable playing wherever.”
On his 55-steals 2011, 30-steals ’12 : “It was a learning experience in Double-A [in '12]. The pitchers are better, the catchers are better. But anytime I can get into scoring position to help the team, whether it’s stealing second or stealing third, it’s such a huge advantage… Last year, playing for Riggleman, with him being in the big leagues for a while, he had a different mindset, like, ‘Outs are precious, so you have to pick and choose your moments,’ which led to me not running as often but trying to pick spots where I was more sure that I [would be safe]. When I played for [Ken] Griffey [Sr.] in [Class A Advanced] Bakersfield and stole 55, he just wanted us to run, run, run and learn on the fly about when to go and when not to go. Jim was more — we had a couple meetings early on about what you look for when you run: what count, who’s up to bat, what part of the game we’re at, [whether] we really need the base stolen, that kind of stuff. I feel like I’m still capable of stealing 50, 60, 70 bases a year, but it was good to learn about picking and choosing when to run last year.”
On teaming with top prospect Billy Hamilton at Double-A Pensacola, another fast, contact-oriented hitter, atop the lineup: “It was definitely an event when Billy got on base. But just as a base-stealer myself, I know how frustrating it is when you get a good jump and somebody fouls a pitch off, so [when he was leading off, and I was hitting second or third] I tried to give him a pitch or two here and there even though I knew [I might get] a fastball. I’d look at him and see if he got a good jump and try to let him get it. It’s the same thing for me. If I get a base-hit up the middle, he scores from second base as opposed to [me] having to drive the ball into the gap and [him] having to score from first. That was a learning experience, too, with how careful pitchers were with him. They’d vary up their time, they’d slide-step, they’d do different holds, they’d pick over five or six times in a row. It was an adjustment period [hitting behind him], but he is an offensive weapon and I can definitely see how he can get on pitcher’s minds.”
On how Hamilton’s historic season looked from his vantage point: “It was incredible. The toll it takes on your body: just running and running and running and sliding, all that kind of stuff. I felt like at Bakersfield I would get picked over and paid attention to, but last year everyone knew he was going to and he was still stealing bases.”
On when his foot injury last season started affecting his running: “I did it in June, but I didn’t know what it is. At the time I thought it was just a heel bruise, and so I played with it for a couple of weeks at least before I even went to the trainers and noticed that it was lingering. By then just playing every day, it was too late to nip it in the bud, so we just tried to do what we could to get me in the lineup. Jim was good about it if we ever had doubleheaders or maybe days where he could give me two days off in a row. It was manageable. There were definitely days that were better than other. That’s one of the things the Reds preach in the Minor Leagues. They get on guys about playing every day. It’s an attitude and there a pride thing to it. So if I can get in there and play, I’m going to play.”
On his first MLB Spring Training: “Just seeing all those guys who have been around. I am trying to see how these [veterans] go about their business, get their work in, how they go about their drills, all that kind of stuff. And just picking brains, seeing how they overcome struggles or what they do to get their swings back right, how to take care of their bodies during the season. It’s a huge advantage … even if I only pick up one or two things from those guys, it’s a learning experience that I hopefully don’t have to go through because I’ve already been around it.”
On his interactions with Reds right fielder Jay Bruce: “I’ve gotten to know Bruce over the last couple years, and I went on the Reds caravan with him last weekend. He’s always been a guy where if I have a question or anything, he’s wide open and I feel free to ask him anything about anything, and he’ll give me an honest answer. Just watching not only him but a lot of those guys go about their [batting] cage work. It’s not about going in there and getting 100 swings in. It’s about working on what you need to work on and accomplishing it. It’s not like you have to be in the cage for an hour before the day even starts. They go in there, they have a couple drills that they all do, and then they get out and start their day.”
On his 2013 season hopes: “I would like to just get better in every aspect of the game, be more consistent and dynamic offensively while still playing the best defensive outfield that I can and steal some bases. Obviously, my goal is to get to Cincinnati at some point and whether I start in Pensacola or Louisville, I don’t really care. The [Reds] have an idea, and if they want me to play center field or start playing all over out there, I’m sure they have a plan, and I just have to trust them knowing what they’re doing.”
On being one step from the Majors: “That’s been my goal since I started playing baseball, and I want to get there, but I feel like the second I start thinking ahead and about that — I just have to think about myself. They’ll call me when I’m ready, and they’ll be watching.”
On what conditioner he uses to “get that hockey flow” (a Twitter follower question from fellow Michigan alum and Minor Leaguer Tyler Mills): “I mix it up. I use whatever conditioner I have. I’m not too picky. I guess it’s [natural].”