LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jhonny Peralta's slimmed-down physique is expected to be the key to getting some of his range back at shortstop. To infield coach Rafael Belliard, it's the first step.
The next step actually is the first step, the one he takes before the ball is even hit.
It's a step that Belliard has been wanting to work with Peralta on correcting since he joined the Tigers, and actually did briefly a couple springs ago. This Spring Training, as Peralta begins his contract year, is his best chance.
Physically, Belliard has been limited after his surgery Jan. 31 to remove tumors from his prostate. He hasn't been hitting ground balls with the fungo bat, and until recently, he hadn't been throwing. His early work in the field with Peralta consisted of rolling ground balls to him and forcing him to range.
He has still been able to teach the instinctive side of the game. He can work with Peralta on positioning, on knowing the pitcher in front of him and reading the start of a hitter's swing to anticipate where it's going to direct the ball.
And he can work with Peralta on his first step.
"The first step is usually the most important step for an infielder," manager Jim Leyland said.
To Belliard, it's bigger for a shortstop than anybody else.
"It's very important," Belliard said, "because the shortstop has to cover a lot of grass. If you see every game, there's more balls hit to short than anybody else."
For Peralta, that first step has always taken him in toward the batter. It's how he learned to play the position, how he became comfortable. When he's moving on the pitch, he feels like he can react quicker.
"When I do that, I feel like I'm more mobile," Peralta said Wednesday. "For a lot of people, it's different. Some people stop and watch, then they move. Me, I need to start moving."
Statistically, Peralta could point to defensive metrics and say he has held his own. His Ultimate Zone Rating, a metric which measures how well a players fields and gets outs on balls hit into his "zone," ranked fourth among all Major League shortstops last year, ahead of Elvis Andrus and trailing only Brendan Ryan, Clint Barmes and J.J. Hardy.
His Range Factor, which measures putouts and assists per nine innings, ranked 10th out of 11 American League shortstops with regular playing time. Only Derek Jeter ranked lower.
In this case, scouts would side with the latter. Peralta wouldn't put up a major argument, either.
He takes a lot of pride in his play at shortstop, and he would surely like to prove some doubters wrong. In so doing, though, he wants to improve his range, in particular toward the middle.
"Last year, a ground ball to the middle, for me, it was harder to that side," Peralta said. "So that's what I've tried to work on this year."
To some, that might be a surprise, because Peralta had to transition last year from having Brandon Inge to his right to Miguel Cabrera. However, Peralta felt comfortable making plays in the hole when he had to. His first step wasn't as much of a hindrance.
Toward the middle, it was different. It cut off his reaction time on harder-hit balls.
It was actually something Belliard noticed before last year. Last spring, however, the focus was on Cabrera's transition to third base and Prince Fielder's arrival at first.
"This year, we've got more time to work," Belliard said.
Once Belliard can start doing his normal activities again, they'll have more of an opportunity.
Peralta hasn't been tested much so far in the Grapefruit League schedule. They aren't deep enough into the schedule that he'd be building up innings, and a sloppy, wet infield Monday against the Astros wasn't much help. Peralta expects that to change.
So far, at least, he feels lighter and more agile.
"There's not a lot of ground balls to the side yet, but I feel good in the field," Peralta said.
That's a start. The first step is the next step.