When Vince Coleman became a coach in the Astros organization prior to the 2013 season, Austin Wates' ears were among the first to perk up. Having swiped 17 bases in 2012, Wates was eager to learn more from one of baseball's most prolific base stealers.
A freak injury cost Wates the chance to practice much of what he learned in 2013. This year, healthy and with another spring's worth of Coleman's wisdom, the 2010 third-round pick is off and running.
The Virginia Tech product notched his first three steals of the season Monday while going 3-for-4 with a homer and a double in Oklahoma City's 6-4 win over New Orleans.
Wates added a walk and scored three times from the RedHawks' leadoff spot, a position the center fielder is relishing with some of Houston's top prospects, such as No. 3 George Springer, No. 4 Jon Singleton and No. 12 Max Stassi, hitting behind him.
"I try to be a table-setter and get on base and make things happen so the guys behind me can drive me in," Wates said. "I'm just trying to stay within myself."
Austin Wates stole 48 bases with Double-A Corpus Christi in 2012. (Kenny Karst/MiLB.com)
Singleton backed Wates with two doubles, a walk, two RBIs and a run, while both Springer and Stassi added doubles.
Wates' work on the basepaths has gotten a jolt from Coleman, hired two winters ago as the outfield and base-running coach for Class A Quad Cities. Wates got to work with Coleman -- ranked sixth all-time with 752 stolen bases -- extensively the past two springs.
"I've been trying to pick things up from him so I have that in my game," Wates said. "It's something I've been working on, something where I can bring a lot value-wise, because I'm not a power hitter. They key is to get on base and try to make something happen."
The three-steal game was the third of Wates' career and his first since 2012. He stole 15 bases in 38 games last season before his year was ended by a freak injury. After hitting his way to Triple-A in early May, the Virginia Tech product was struck by a pitch and fractured his forearm May 24. About five weeks later, Wates tried to return to action, but the fracture gave way to a full break, effectively ending his campaign.
The 25-year-old, who boasts a .305 average and .378 on-base percentage in his Minor League career, has returned to form this season, batting .467 with hits in each of his first four games.
Wates said his confidence was restored by playing 27 games in the Puerto Rican Winter League this offseason. Despite batting just .191, the outfielder said the stint left him encouraged heading into Spring Training because he came back stateside knowing his arm was fully healed.
"Sometimes when you're coming back, you have doubts about whether you're healthy or not," he said. "It was good to get that out of my system before Spring Training started."
The home run was his first in Triple-A and the 17th of his five-year Minor League career. He hit the long ball during a three-run seventh inning that vaulted the RedHawks into the lead.
New Orleans scored four runs in the first off Oklahoma City starter Mike Foltynewicz, Houston's sixth-ranked prospect. Designated hitter Mark Canha and catcher Rob Brantley both homered in the inning.
Jake Seiner is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Seiner.