Back before Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees games moved at a glacial pace, before Barry Bonds deposited moonshots into San Francisco Bay and Jose Canseco personified Mighty Casey’s musculature, speed had a prestigious place in baseball.
It’s making a comeback these days as station-to-station offence goes the way of steroids. Look no further than the Oakland A’s, once a team that embraced the sabermetric theory that a stolen base is a risk not worth taking. The A’s ranked ninth of 30 teams in stolen bases last season in the major leagues.
The Blue Jays ranked eighth overall, and in the off-season added a pair of potential 40-base stealers to incumbent Rajai Davis and his 46 thefts. Leadoff hitter Jose Reyes stole 40 bases for the Miami Marlins, and his then-and-now teammate Emilio Bonifacio swiped 30 in an injury-marred season that limited his games played to 64, out of 162.
While the stolen base is one measure, speed factors into the game by other means, such as going from first to third on a single, legging a double into a triple, the hit and run, cramping the style of the opponent’s double-play combination at second base, and defensively turning a seeming double into the gap into an out, or preventing a hit ball from going into the corner.
“Speed is so much fun to watch, it’s entertaining, but that’s not the reason to have guys with speed on your team,” says Alex Anthopoulos, general manager of the Blue Jays. “If you can put the ball in play, run a little bit, then you don’t have to hit the ball hard [to score runs]. You can force the other team to make an error, break a bat and still have a single, to keep a rally going.”
In the poststeroid era, power and scoring are slipping, forcing teams to produce runs more creatively.
Major-league teams scored 4.32 runs per game last season and 4.28 in 2011, the lowest rates since 1992 at 4.12, compared with a peak of 5.14 in 2000.
On-base percentage is also down at .319, the lowest since 1988 (.318), compared with a peak of .345 in 2000.
“The mentality was the big hit, the home run,” Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter says. “The emphasis on speed is starting to come back to the game, playing baseball the right way.”
Hunter played the last five seasons for the Los Angeles Angels, whose manager, Mike Scioscia, believes in pressuring the defence.
“In any sport, any time you can make athletes hurry, any time you can speed up an athlete’s clock, mistakes happen,” says Buck Showalter, manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
Stolen bases are starting to increase, going from 0.53 per game in 2005 to 0.66 last year. Showalter believes another uptick may be seen this year due to the elimination of the fake-to-third, throw-to-first rule, a device used by pitchers with runners on first and third bases. It enabled them to hold the running on first in check; this year, it is to be called a balk.
As baseball evolves once again, the sabermathematician is hardly being cast out. Statistical charts have shown that a runner caught stealing with none out will cost his team a run, two-thirds of the time. The decision to run is more complicated than when Rickey Henderson was stealing 130 for the A’s in 1982 or Lou Brock 118 for the Cardinals in 1974.
“I have to pick my spots,” Reyes says. “I have to know the hitters behind me, the power guys [Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion in the 3-4 slots], to make sure when I go, I’m going to make it for sure. I don’t want to be the last guy out.”
Toronto manager John Gibbons says he’ll send runners according to situations, giving the green light only to Reyes, Bonifacio and Davis.
Some power hitters would rather a base runner stay put so as not to distract them as they eye the pitcher and the fences beyond. Those were the days.
“That’s their game,” Encarnacion (.280/42 homers/110 RBIs) said of Reyes et al. “They have to run, they have to steal a base. I focus on the pitcher and they play their game. I don’t have to worry about that.”