Chicago — If you were following the High-A California League back in 2012, you got to see some high-octane base running, almost every game. Nineteen players stole at least 20 bases that season.
That was the year Billy Hamilton stole 104. Delino DeShields wound up stealing 101 (though not all in the California League). A player named Rico Noel stole 90. George Springer, Ender Inciarte, Keon Broxton, Joc Pederson — they were all running rampant out on the west coast that year.
And yet, that was the same year John Hicks, catching for the High Desert Mavericks in tiny Adelanto, Calif., set a league record by throwing out 54 percent of the runners trying to steal on him (57 of 106).
“Delino DeShields came to our place with 99 stolen bases,” Hicks recalled. “He was trying to get to 100. It was the second-to-last game of the year. I was catching and I threw him out twice. I kept him at 99.”
Until the next day when he stole two.
“He didn’t get it on me, though,” Hicks said, smiling.
His backup catcher was Carlton Tanabe, and he threw out 50 percent of the would-be thieves.
“It starts with the pitchers,” Hicks said. “On that team, the manager was Pedro Grifol (now with the Royals). His whole philosophy was, ‘If you are on the mound and you are over 1.4 seconds (to home plate), I’m taking you out of the game.’
“All of our pitchers were quick to the plate. All I had to do was get the ball in the air. It was great.”
Hicks is throwing runners out so far this year like it’s 2012 again. During spring training, he threw out seven straight runners. After giving up two stolen bases early in spring, he threw out three trying to advance on balls in the dirt and dispatched the last four who tried to steal on him.
In his only start behind the plate this season Sunday, he threw out Pirates’ Adam Frazier in the ninth inning.
“I wouldn’t say that I have one of the strongest arms, by any means,” said Hicks, who points out that it’s starting catcher James McCann who has “McCannon” stitched onto his glove. “But my focus is on the release, getting the ball in the air as soon as possible.”
That, the quick feet and quick release, was drilled into his baseball DNA back when he was 11 years old playing travel ball in Goochland, Va.
“We had a baseball academy back home and that was the whole thing — every practice,” he said. “We’d get loose and for 15 minutes we’d do hot hands — just in your glove, out of your glove, as fast as you could.
“And that’s still my process. Get my feet set and get it in the air as soon as possible.”
Between Hicks and McCann, they’ve thrown out five of seven attempted base stealers this season.
“They are doing a good job,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “The pitchers are keeping them close. They are using their slide step and our catchers are getting opportunities. You have to use the slide step and half step and mix it up. The time has to be between 1.2 and 1.4 for the catchers to have a chance.”
In his first four professional seasons, Hicks threw out 44 percent, 54 percent, 49 percent (Double-A) and 38 percent (Triple-A). In his first season with the Mariners in 2015, he caught five of 10 base stealers.
All told, in eight professional seasons, he’s thrown out 46 percent.
Not too shabby.
And yet, teams keep moving him out onto the field. He played some third base for the Mariners. The Tigers used him at first base for 26 of the 44 games he was up. Even at Triple-A Toledo, he played some in the outfield.
Odd. But it’s actually a compliment. The Mariners and Tigers moved him to other positions as a way to get his bat to the big leagues. In 2012, the year he threw out 54 percent of the runners, he hit .312 with 15 homers and 79 RBIs.
And he stole 22 bases.
“You ask any catcher, you as Mac, what’s your favorite part about catching — it’s throwing people out,” Hicks said. “That year I threw out all those guys, I also stole 20 bases. That was like a win-win – throw a guy out and steal a base.
“That’s a good day.”
TIGERS AT WHITE SOX
Series: Three games, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, Guaranteed Rate Field, Chicago
First pitch: 4:10 Thursday, 2:10 Saturday-Sunday
TV/radio: Thursday and Saturday on FSD, Sunday on FSD-Plus/all three games on 97.1
Probables: Thursday — RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-0, 6.00) vs. RHP James Shields (1-0, 6.00); Saturday — RHP Michael Fulmer (0-1, 1.13) vs. RHP Lucas Giolito (0-0, 4.50); Sunday — RHP Reynaldo Lopez (0-0, 1.50) vs. RHP Mike Fiers (tentative).
■Zimmermann, Tigers: He pitched well in his Opening Day start, striking out eight Pirates over six innings. It was his highest strikeout total since early in the 2016 season. He was getting swings and misses with both his two-seam fastball and his slider.
■Shields, White Sox: The 36-year-old beat the Tigers twice last season, despite allowing four home runs in those two starts. He still struggles to get left-handed batters out. Last season leftied produced 17 home runs against him, and a slash line of .279/.375/.554/.929.