Expos: Have we got a rookie
Los Angeles — "I wouldn't want to take anything away from Fernando Valenzuela and his super start," said Manager Dick Williams of the Montreal Expos. "But my man plays everyday and that ought to count for something."
Williams was referring to the National League's two leading Rookie of the Year candidates -- the Los angeles Dodgers' outstanding young pitcher and the Expos' own base-stealing sensation, outfielder Tim Raines.
"Boy, do I like this kid," Dick continued. "He's a switch-hitter who sprays the ball all over the place, who knows the strike zone and when to take a pitch, and who stole 34 bases in his first 35 games.
"Physically Raines looks like most 21-year old kids -- trim and athletic. But at 5 ft. 8 in., we don't want him to try to hit the ball out of the park, although he did win a game for us against the Dodgers with a late-innng home run.
"Mostly, with his leg speed, we want him to steer the ball on the ground between the infielders, and so far it's like he's got a seeing-eye bat. Counting hits and walks, Tim has been on base more often than any other player in the league this season, and I don't expect that to change."
Last year, while playing second base for Denver in the American Association, Raines was Minor League Player of the Year with credentials like a .354 batting average, 105 runs scored, and 77 stolen bases in just 108 games.
"I think some people were surprised when we put Tim in left field and made him our leadoff man in spring training," Williams said. "Ordinarily you don't do that with a kid who hasn't played the outfield regularly since junior high and who had only one hit in 20 at-bats when we brought him up late last season.
"But since we already had an established second baseman in Rodney Scott and had lost [outfielder and leadoff hitter] Ron LeFlore last year to the free agent draft, it seemed like a very logical way for us to go," Dick continued. "The fact that Raines didn't hit for average with us last September was mostly my fault. Because I didn't want to split LeFlore and Scott at the top of the order , I batted Tim third, and I think the adjustment and the pressure was a little tough on him at the time."
Along with his sprinter's speed, the huge lead Raines takes off first base (while still being able to get back safely against pickoff throws) has terrorized National League pitchers into balks, loss of control, and a severe drop in batter concentration.
"Earlier in the season, before we knew what Raines was all about, I used to have my third-base coach hold him up if we happened to catch a sign that the opposing manager had called a pitch-out," Williams said. "But after Tim stole second base safely seven times in this situation, I told my thirdbase coach to forget it.
"We have often put a stop watch on Raines in games, and it takes him only 3.6 seconds to go from home to first when he's batting left-handed," Dick added. "He's a little slower from the right side, but not much. And we clocked him at 13.9 on an inside-the-park homer during which he eased up considerably after rounding third."
Raines has also made things extra interesting for Montreal fans by not only stealing second but also frequently going for third -- which is a lot tougher.
"Because the catcher only has to throw the ball 90 feet to nail a man trying to steal third, as opposed to more than 127 feet at second, most runners won't take the chance," Williams noted. "But Tim gets such a great jump when he runs that he's not really bucking the percentages too much when he tries for third."
Although Raines has been wearing out National League pitchers with a batting average that has hovered around .350, surely Williams doesn't expect him to be anywhere near that at the end of the season.
"Well, the guy has already hit better than .350 in the minors, and with the maybe 30 infield hits he'll get this year because of his speed, I wouldn't want to be the one who says he can't," Dick replied. "He's a funny kid that way -- he's real easygoing off the field, but he's as aggressive as Pete Rose once he puts on the uniform."