In an era where star pitchers are allowing fewer big hits than ever, teams must squeeze out runs any way they can — and that means baseball's runners will be stealing the show
Another Opening Day has arrived, and baseball’s 2014 story lines are set.
Among them: The Red Sox going for a repeat. The Los Angeles Dodgers outspending the New York Yankees — the New York Yankees! — and counting on a transcendent star, Yasiel Puig of Cuba, to carry them to their first World Series appearance in over 25 years. Speaking of the Yanks, this is Derek Jeter’s last go-round. You may hear a fair amount about this development throughout the season.
But here’s why I’m more excited about the 2014 baseball season than any in recent memory: we’re going to witness a much quicker game. N0t quicker in the sense of two-hour finishes. Baseball will always be languid, take it or leave it. Pitchers aren’t getting a shot clock.
Here, I’m talking about speed as in really fast players on the base paths, looking to roll the dice and swipe a base or two. Stolen bases create great theater. Will he or won’t he go? Is the pitcher playing some kind of mind-game? The runner’s off … the catcher throws to second, bang-bang. Safe or out?
If a stolen-base threat stands on first, you don’t want to leave your seat.
Back in the 1980s, teams like the St. Louis Cardinals built championship teams around speed. Hits pinballed around turf fields, and players like Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines and Vince Coleman flew across the carpets. The 1982 Cardinals led the National League in stolen bases, with 200. (They would have led the majors, but the Oakland A’s had 232, because Henderson himself stole 130 bases in 1982, still a major league record). The Cardinals hit a league low 67 home runs.
They won the World Series.
But during the 1990s, base-stealing started becoming a lost art. More teams built bandbox ballparks. So instead of signing a speedy corner outfielder, they got a guy who could just knock it out of the park. And oh yeah, players also started juicing. In 1998, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals slugged 70 home runs, three more than the entire 1982 Cardinals team. (The 1998 Cardinals did not win the World Series).
Meanwhile, the fledgling analytics movement figured out that as home runs became easier to come by, the risk of stealing wasn’t worth it. Between 1983, one of the peak years of the speed era, and 2000, the peak of the steroid-fueled home run era, stolen base attempts per game declined by 26%. Home runs per game rose 50%.
But now, steroid testing, and some pretty outstanding pitching, has popped the power bubble. Home runs per game are down 18% since 2000. And last year, teams scored the fewest number of runs per game since 1992. Players struck out at a record rate. Teams must squeeze runs any way they can.
So that’s why the Cincinnati Reds — a team that has made the playoffs in three of the last four seasons — have handed their leadoff and starting centerfield job to rookie Billy Hamilton, a player who stole 155 bases in the minors two seasons ago, a new professional record. Hamilton’s mission is simple — get on base, and run wild. He’s not the only fleet-footed player worth watching these days. Eric Young of the New York Mets and Michael Bourn of the Cleveland Indians will swipe their share of bases. As if Mike Trout of the Anaheim Angels wasn’t talented enough, he can also burn up the basepaths. Two seasons ago, he led the American League in stolen bases. Delino DeShields Jr., son of another standout of the bygone speed era, swiped over 100 bases in the Houston Astros organization two seasons ago. He’s another prospect worth watching.
Coleman, now a baserunning instructor in the Astros organization, was the last player to steal over 100 bases, when he swiped 109 for St. Louis in 1987. In fact, he exceeded the 100 stolen base mark in each of his first three major league seasons. “It takes a certain individual to be a base-stealer,” Coleman says. “You have to be egotistical, daring, alert — all in one package. You have to be the kind of guy who likes trying to break into somebody’s house, and not worried about being caught.” So, Vince, ever burglarize someone’s property? “Hey, that’s just the example I use when I give my baserunning seminars,” Coleman says. “You can’t be scared.”
Coleman has some advice for Hamilton. “He has to get his PhD in pitchers,” says Coleman. “Go to school. That’s no B.S. That’s real.” Coleman would keep a notebook, his bible, scribbled with a pitcher’s tendencies, his tells. He can still recall some to this day. When Bruce Hurst, Jim Deshaies, Zane Smith and Rick Honeycutt set their feet shoulder-length apart, they were going home. And Coleman was headed for second. “Dissect all the pitchers,” says Coleman. “Find their flaws. It was my craft.”
Hamilton, who is the subject of a profile in this week’s issue TIME magazine, says he’s heeding Coleman’s advice. “I study a lot of pitchers, now more than I have in the past,” Hamilton says. During his call-up to the big leagues last September, Hamilton relished the additional resources available to him. “When they had those scouting reports laid out, it was like, Wow, this is amazing,” Hamilton says. “We didn’t have this in the minor leagues. You were mainly on your own.”
Right now, baseball’s in a pretty healthy state. (Must be, if the Tigers can give Miguel Cabrera a 10-year, $292 million contract). Revenues have reached record levels. For small market teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, coming off their first winning season and post-season appearance, since 1992, and the Kansas City Royals, who also had a rare winning record last year, there’s more hope than usual. But to me — and more importantly, a younger generation of fans — there’s still something missing. Some kind a cultural buzz around the game.
To correct that, a little thievery will go a long way.