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True grit: Scrappy Theriot makes the grade
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Staff

Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot tries to make a throw to first from his knees.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer, 2008

Chicago Cubs' Geovany Soto, left, celebrates with teammate Ryan Theriot last season.


Associated Press

Ryan Theriot of the Cubs


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 3/31/2009 3:39 PM

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MESA, Ariz. - Ryan Theriot knows that baseball players do not survive and thrive on grit alone.

Theriot has never been in short supply of grit. He's your quintessential "scrappy" middle infielder that baseball traditionalists love to romanticize about.

He's also one of the more polarizing figures on the Cubs because some in the stats-oriented crowd never have warmed to him.

Now Theriot has some numbers on his side. Last year, in a breakout season, he batted .307 with an eye-popping .387 on-base percentage, which was best among Cubs regulars.

"Last year, personally, was good," he said. "A lot of things went right for me. I was able to help the team in a lot of different ways. I expected to be able to do that last year. Yeah, it gives you a little more confidence when you can look and see that '3' in front of your average.

"Good numbers last year. There are some other things I would like to improve on, like runs scored, for sure, stolen bases. I think I can have a higher on-base percentage. One thing I was proud of was the walks-and-strikeouts (ratio). Hopefully, that can stay the same and get even a little bit better."

For the record, Theriot struck out 58 times while drawing 73 walks and piling up 580 at-bats.

So what's to pick apart now? The critics point to Theriot's .359 slugging percentage, which combined with his OBP adds up to an OPS of .746. Theriot hit 19 doubles, 4 triples and 1 homer to account for his extra-base output. He also was caught stealing 13 times to go along with 22 stolen bases.

With players such as Milton Bradley, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto and Derrek Lee in the lineup, perhaps the critics shouldn't be harping on Theriot's OPS.

But he'd like to up it.

"One hundred percent," he said. "I don't really want to try to do that, but yeah, I would love to do that."

How can this 5-foot-11, 175-pound middle infielder accomplish that?

"Hit it in the gap, down the line," he said. "I don't know. I can work out more, try to drive the ball more. Those things really aren't the things that keep me on the field."

Speaking of the field, Theriot committed only 14 errors last year while compiling a fielding percentage of .975.

Of course, fielding percentage tells only part of the story. But "The Fielding Bible," which exhaustively breaks down defense, is kind to Theriot, saying he has "strong range up the middle and good hands, but he has occasional trouble when he backs up on groundballs instead of attacking them."

Cubs bench coach Alan Trammell works with Theriot every day. Trammell has what many consider Hall of Fame credentials from his days as a shortstop for the Detroit Tigers. When Theriot started dropping balls on tag plays last season, Trammell worked with him.

"Just to go back to the first couple days of spring training, when we got reacquainted again, my message to him, and really, to a lot of guys was, 'I'm just looking for a little more polish,' " Trammell said.

One thing Trammell would like to see is Theriot stay on his feet more.

"We talked about diving," Trammell said. "Sometimes, it's unnecessary. As a guy that can run, and you dive in the hole, for what? Save your body. And I'm not saying, 'Don't dive.' I'm just saying there's a time and a place. It goes back to being prepared, knowing the situation.

"That's one of the things I had written down on the plane ride back home right after the playoffs. He's a great student. He's a confident kid anyway, but he knows he's our starting shortstop now. That's a good feeling."

Theriot says he's read "The Fielding Bible." Unlike many athletes, he says he doesn't dismiss it out of hand. Nor does he take it as gospel.

"That stuff is so subjective," he said. "It's so hard to grade a guy defensively, and there's really only one way to do it, and it's errors. I thought for the most part it was pretty good."

Trammell describes Theriot and fellow middle infielders Aaron Miles and Mike Fontenot as baseball "rats" and "sponges" for the way they soak up information.

That seems to suit Theriot fine, as there are only so many numbers he can digest.

"You don't go out there playing every day to hit .300 or have great numbers," he said. "You go out there chasing wins, chasing Ws. That's what I've done. That's what I did last year and the years past. It's always seemed to work out."