Sharp batting eye lands Jaso in leadoff spot

Hurdle likes first baseman at top of order despite lack of stolen bases

Sharp batting eye lands Jaso in leadoff spot

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- John Jaso walked across the clubhouse one afternoon in 2010 to check the lineup card, scanning for his name. He was in his first full season as a catcher with the Rays, and he knew where he thought he should look.

He started at the bottom and worked his way up. He scanned from ninth to eighth to seventh -- and he found his name all the way at the top. With speedsters like Carl Crawford and Melvin Upton Jr. behind him, Jaso was the Rays' leadoff hitter.

"[Bench coach] Davey Martinez was right there, and he was like 'Hey man, we wouldn't have you here if we didn't like what you were doing. Don't change a thing. Do your thing,'" Jaso recalled. "It was easy enough."

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Jaso still might be considered an atypical leadoff man. He's stolen 15 bases in his Major League career. He's a good athlete and a smart baserunner, yet he lacks the straight-line speed of Gregory Polanco, Josh Harrison or Starling Marte.

But Jaso has a sharp batting eye, a patient approach and a knack for getting on base. That could land the Pirates' new first baseman atop the lineup this season against right-handed pitchers. For him, it's a natural fit.

Jaso on joining the Pirates

"It's just that one [leadoff] at-bat," Jaso said. "I like it because I start up there going a little more passive and seeing pitches and kind of adapted to jumping on some pitches and mixing it up. I like it."

Jaso found his name in the No. 1 spot Sunday for the third time this spring and walked three times in the Pirates' 3-2 loss to the Blue Jays.

Jaso owns a career .361 on-base percentage. Only two Pirates, non-Andrew McCutchen division, have posted a better single-season mark since 2010: Russell Martin (.402) in 2014 and Francisco Cervelli (.370) last season.

"He seems to have an internal clock for it. You look at the at-bats, the focus and intent when he walks up there, it's real. He'll see pitches," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He'll also ambush early. He's a little bit of a wild card, but he's got a good eye. ... If he sees something he likes, he's going to get his swing off."

While some might worry about Jaso's lack of stolen-base speed, Hurdle points out that some basestealers are hesitant to run in front of star hitters, fearful of giving away an out. That's one reason Hurdle sent out a Jaso-Cervelli top of the order in front of McCutchen on Wednesday against the Orioles: You really can't go wrong putting runners on for the former MVP, and those two consistently find a way to get to first base.

Jaso isn't too concerned about where he'll find his name in the Opening Day lineup. But he might want to start from the top this time.

"I've learned in baseball not to assume anything. As soon as you assume something, it's the exact opposite," Jaso said. "I told Clint I will hit anywhere one through nine -- and then I realized I will probably not hit ninth."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.