Delino DeShields Jr. was lost, then discouraged. He was an outfielder in high school, then a second baseman in the minors. He stole 100 bases in a season, then started hitting home runs. He was a .312 hitter, then a .236 hitter. He was in Double-A with the rebuilding Astros, then in the playoffs a year later with the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers surprised everyone, including Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, when they selected him in the Rule 5 Draft. DeShields Jr. surprised everyone with his rookie season that ended with 121 games, a 2.1 oWAR and a 7th-place finish in AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Well, he surprised everyone but himself.
“I’ve always believed I could play in the big leagues,” he said. “It was just a matter of somebody giving me an opportunity there to showcase what I can do. It was definitely a blessing that Texas picked me and that I was able to contribute at a very high level playing every day.
“I know it surprised a lot of people. I’m really confident in my abilities — it was just a matter of having people trust me and just allowing me to do what I do best.”
What he does best is run. He showcased that with 101 stolen bases in in 2012 between Single-A and High-A. It showed, at least early on, in his bunting ability. But at some point that changed. DeShields Jr.’s approach changed at the plate, appearing to try for more home runs. It was a learning process in the field, too. He’d spend one practice at second base, the next in left, the next in center and then back at second. Ultimately, it was an environment and culture that DeShields Jr. believes stunted his growth.
“I was in a situation in Houston where they weren’t really pushing guys,” he said. “After all the good years that I did have, it was slow for me even though I felt like I was contributing on a high level. I felt like I was ready to go. For me being 21 years old, it was kind of discouraging.
“I’m not saying I didn’t care. I was obviously wanting to play, and I always play to win.”
DeShields Jr., the 8th overall pick in 2010, one pick behind New York Mets starter Matt Harvey, didn’t reach Double-A until his fourth professional season. The year prior to his promotion to Corpus Christi, he hit .312 with a .402 on-base percentage, which followed up a season in which he hit .287 with a .389 OBP.
He didn’t give the Astros a reason to promote him in 2014. At 21, he hit just .236 with a .343 OBP, although that came with a career-high 13 home runs. That wasn’t worth protecting him in the Rule 5 Draft, either.
Then came the Rangers. Then came a season not many predicted.
He hit .261 with a .344 OBP. He stole 25 bases and scored 83 runs, hitting just two home runs. He made the postseason roster, collecting seven hits in 24 at-bats in the team’s ALDS loss to the Blue Jays.
On the surface, the pieces don’t fit. For him, though, it was just getting back to the player he believes he is.
“There were certain people within the (Astros) organization who wanted me to hit for more power, drive the ball more instead of playing small ball,” he said. “You could tell the numbers were affected by that. My home run numbers were up, RBI numbers were up, but the batting average wasn’t there.
“When I got over here, I took a step back and saw that wasn’t me. I led the American League in bunt hits, had more sacrifice bunts, and it helps. For me, with my legs and my speed, I take bunting seriously. That’s a big part of my game. Not a lot of people do it now, so I feel like a diamond in the rough when it comes to that kind of stuff.”
With more freedom from the Rangers, he let his instincts take over. It worked.
“When people just allow me to be myself, play and be aggressive, I’m really smart on the baseball field. When I’m able to freely do, not what I want to do, but what I feel is comfortable to me given the situation, then that’s what helps me [play to] the best to my abilities. I always play to win, so no matter what…I could care less about numbers. But I know when I do those certain things then I produce. The whole key to this game is to score more runs than the other team. All that little stuff that adds up. When I just play and nobody is really controlling me, that’s when I’m at my best.”
He wasn’t at his best in 2016, which proved some correct. The worry about DeShields Jr. prior to being selected by the Rangers was effort. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels acknowledged as much. In the minors, DeShields Jr. followed up a bad season in 2011 with two strong ones in 2012 and 2013. He followed up the good seasons with the bad 2014. After his breakout 2015, 2016 was a disappointment. He lost his starting spot in May before losing his major league spot entirely. His 203 at-bats with the Rangers looked a lot like his bad minor league years. His 249 at-bats in Triple-A were more on line with his 2015 success.
“I was just trying to do too much,” he said. “Being in the big leagues, having a good rookie season — wasn’t great to me, could’ve been better — but I tried to follow up on that and do more, and do a lot of stuff I did in the minor leagues.”
He admitted to putting on “a lot of weight”, adding that he came in unprepared physically for 2016. He’s shed that weight and his “mind is clear.”
“I got back to my old self,” he said. “I’m a lead-off type of guy. I get on base, I steal bases. We have plenty of guys that hit homers and drive in runs. I’ll drive in my 40, 50 runs or whatever, but I want to touch home plate 100 times. That’s my goal, but I know if I’m going to do that, I need to get on base. Whether that’s bunting, beating out a ground ball, doing those things. I really focused on that kind of stuff in the offseason, just trying to get back to that.”
He’s saying the right things, but he knows he has to show it to really prove himself. So far, so good. While 19 spring training at-bats aren’t the best gauge of success, he has six hits, four walks to three strikeouts and three stolen bases without being caught. Projecting him to make the 25-man roster seems safe, although a starting spot in April is an injury away. More importantly, he looks closer to the 2015 version than the 2016 version. Keeping it that way is the next step.
“It’s early in spring training, but I feel like I’m doing the things that I’ve done before. It’s all on me. Honestly, it’s just free baseball for me. When it’s free baseball, I really think the sky is the limit for me. I kind of lost that spot being a starter, so to say, so now I’m in a position where I gotta earn that back. I’m on a good start so far.”
By Tommy Stokke