Stolen bases making a comeback
New generation's 'men of steal' creating havoc on basepaths
Carl Crawford, the man who puts the sting in the Rays of Tampa Bay, can see fear in their eyes.
"It's a big impact," Crawford, the American League's stolen base leader four of the past five seasons, said. "Stolen bases lead to more runs being scored. I can mean the difference of winning the game or not.
"Plus, I notice when I'm on base, pitchers are terrified. So I figure it does have a big impact on the game. It definitely makes everyone a little more nervous when you're on base. At least that's what I've noticed."
Crawford and those in his sprinting class -- Jose Reyes, Juan Pierre, Chone Figgins, Hanley Ramirez, Eric Byrnes, Jimmy Rollins, Ichiro Suzuki -- can create fear and loathing in rival pitchers and catchers.
The eyes betray anticipation, anxiety, alarm. It's the inner game. The pressure builds as the runner takes his lead. Something is about to happen, and they have to perform their jobs perfectly to prevent it.
Averaging 53.6 steals the past five seasons with a success rate of 83.8 percent, Crawford also led the American League in triples three consecutive seasons. The run ended with Curtis Granderson's amazing 23 triples in 2007.
Crawford changes the game with his burst, his daring, his imagination. Speed never rests. It's a constant. It kills.
Judging by his puzzled expression, Grady Sizemore figured he'd just been lobbed a trick question.
"Back in fashion? The stolen base?" the Indians' graceful center fielder asked. "I don't know what you mean. The stolen base has never gone out of fashion. It's always been a huge part of the game, and it still is."
Sizemore is a bright, new-age star with old-school style and attitude. He plays the game from the heart, and stealing a base -- 33 in 2007 -- comes with the territory. He'll never challenge Rickey Henderson, the record holder with 1,406, as the Man of Steal, but Sizemore will win games and influence pennant races on the bases.
"The stolen base is invaluable," Sizemore said. "I think those of us in the game know the impact it has on the game, even if the focus has been on the long ball for a while.
"We know how aggressive baserunning -- stealing, the threat of the steal -- how it can open holes in the infield, put pressure on the defense, on the pitcher.
"It's not just the stolen base. It's how it impacts the game."
As the sport puts the steroid era in its rearview mirror, the emphasis on aggressive baserunning -- steals, going first to third and first to home -- figures to increase.
Steals are trending upward. The National League has gone from 1,349 total steals (71-percent success rate) in 2005 to 1,515 thefts (71 percent) in 2006 and 1,564 steals (76 percent) in 2007. Volume clearly hasn't negatively affected efficiency.
The same pattern applies to the AL, where steals have risen over the past three campaigns from 1,216 to 1,252 to 1,354 -- with accompanying success rates of 70 percent, 71 percent and 73 percent, respectively.
Five players claimed 50 or more steals in 2007, one more than in 2006 and two more than in 2005.
It's too early to get a fair gauge on 2008. Steals tend to rise in volume with the temperatures. Muscle pulls and strains are more apt to afflict a player in cold temperatures.
"You'll see guys start to take off when it warms up," said Figgins, the Angels' catalyst who interrupted Crawford's run in 2005 with a career-best 62 thefts. "Sprinters like it when it's hot."
Claiming the title of steals king in '05 brought Figgins to Kansas City's Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to accept an award from the late, great Buck O'Neil. Listening to O'Neil wax poetic about the great speed burners of his time, Figgins gained a deeper appreciation of what speed has meant to the game over time.
"It's always been an essential part of the game, going back to Cool Papa Bell and all those guys," Figgins said. "I'm honored to be carrying on in that tradition with my friend Juan Pierre and all the other guys."
Tommy Lasorda grew up with the Brooklyn Dodgers and has spent the rest of his life wearing and bleeding Dodgers Blue.
In his first season as manager in Los Angeles in 1977, succeeding Hall of Famer Walter Alston, Lasorda presided over the first lineup ever to feature four 30-homer men: Dusty Baker, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Reggie Smith. Yet the man who ignited the club was leadoff hitter Davey Lopes, who had 47 steals.
"There are a lot of things a stolen-base guy does to the other team," Lasorda said, leaning on the batting cage at Dodger Stadium. "Start with the pitcher. He's aware of everything the guy's doing over there, so it's taking his concentration off the hitter.
"Now you go to the catcher, what's he going to call for when he knows the other guy can go on any pitch? Fastballs. So that helps the hitter. The first baseman is on the bag, so it's taking away some of his range. The middle infielders are on edge, knowing one of them has to get over and cover if the guy takes off, ... and that opens up a lane for the hitter. Put it all together, and it's a big burden you're putting on the defense.
"I learned everything I know about the game from the two smartest guys in baseball: Branch Rickey and Al Campanis. They were big believers in the stolen base, and you can see it in how the Dodgers have attacked teams over the years."
Steals didn't come in volumes in his time, but Jackie Robinson was as destructive a force on the basepaths as any player in history. He passed the torch to Maury Wills, who revolutionized the game with his legs in the early '60s, stealing a then-record 104 bases and the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1962.
Lopes succeeded Wills as a dynamic force on the bases, and the Dodgers are still in the business of heisting bags with Rafael Furcal and Pierre leading the way.
|"Running the bases hard is the way you have to play the game -- if you want to win. It's not OK to make mistakes, but you want to take that extra base when you can."|
|-- Dodgers left fielder Matt Kemp|
The only AL club that held the upper hand against his Yankees during his 12 years at the helm was the Angels, taking 61 of 116 regular-season games and two playoff showdowns (2002 and 2005). They did it in large part by running with abandon.
"We want to be sure that we go into the season with the mind-set that we're going to be an aggressive ballclub," Torre said. "We're trying to encourage them to be more instinctive players."
His champions in New York were known for their power, but Torre didn't mind turning his baserunners loose. The 1998 club, one of the game's best ever, stole 153 bases -- second in the AL to the Blue Jays' 184. Five Yanks stole 15 or more on that 114-win powerhouse.
In 2001, the Bronx Bombers were second again in steals in the AL with 161. The leader, with 174, was Seattle, on its way to 116 victories.
Ichiro (56 steals), Mark McLemore (39) and Mike Cameron (34) shared the baton on Lou Piniella's relay team.
With Barry Bonds erupting for his record 73 homers that season, the Giants had 235 homers and 57 steals -- and won 90 games, 26 fewer than the flying Mariners.
"Running the bases hard is the way you have to play the game -- if you want to win," said young Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, one of the most aggressive young baserunners in the game. "It's not OK to make mistakes, but you want to take that extra base when you can."
Walk, don't run
Not all baseball philosophers share the belief that establishing a running game is a priority in assembling a productive offense.
There are those who embrace the notion that bases are so valuable, it's foolhardy to give them up -- even if your success rate is in the 70s and you're gaining all those peripheral edges espoused by Lasorda.
Take the Oakland A's. Since Henderson pulled out of the East Bay, the A's have been identified by a station-to-station offense with the emphasis on working counts, drawing walks and taking advantage of favorable counts to launch homers.
"If we had a Rickey Henderson type, we'd certainly cut him loose," A's general manager Billy Beane said. "But we don't, and we haven't had a player like that since I've been here. It's not so much that I'm against stealing bases. I'm against getting caught trying to steal bases."
The A's ran wild even before Henderson arrived. No club in the modern era ran like the 1976 A's with Billy North (75 steals), Bert Campaneris (54) and Don Baylor (52) leading a 341-steal assault.
The chief critique of the approach often associated with "Moneyball" baseball theory is that it doesn't fly as successfully in the postseason. Manufacturing a run with a scratch hit, a steal, an infield out and a fly ball can be decisive when each pitch carries meaning and runs are at a premium.
On their way to the 2004 World Series triumph, the Red Sox's single most memorable moment arguably was a heist of second base by Dave Roberts in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees.
It inspired the comeback of the ages. One small steal for the Red Sox, one giant theft for the nation.
Bourn to run
Michael Bourn is finding a home in Houston with his legs, taking flight, after struggling to find playing time in Philadelphia.
"I've always liked the running game," Bourn said. "I've always had speed, but I've learned to improve my technique and it's become a bigger part of my game.
"I don't run just to run. I don't run into outs. I'll pick my times to run. I think I'm still trying to learn, how to get a good grasp on pitchers. That just takes time."
Reyes, the Mets' wonder who led the Majors with 78 steals last season, seems to be toning it down somewhat, and Bourn thinks he knows why.
"It is a wear and tear on the body," Bourn said. "Reyes learned that last year. I know it took a toll on his body. I could tell by September he was tired."
Astros manager Cecil Cooper believes in finding the ideal blend between speed and power.
"I love the homers -- we all do -- but speed is something that plays every day," Cooper said. "Guys go into a slump, but they can still walk and steal a base, and that's the same as a double. To me, that's exciting; that's baseball.
"I grew up in an era with Lou Brock and Maury Wills, watching those guys. You still have the heavy thunder -- you still need the hitting -- but speed is something that can give you an edge and be a difference-maker on those nights when the bats are quiet."
If you can't outslug 'em, outrun 'em. This might sum up the attitude of clubs that know they don't have the firepower to get into long-ball derbies with the likes of the Yankees, Tigers and Red Sox.
The Blue Jays came out running aggressively this season, pushing the action.
"The Angels, by far, are the most aggressive team in the American League, when it comes to running the bases," Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells said. "They're probably followed by the Twins, and those are two of the most successful organizations over the last few years.
"I think it is a lot more fun, instead of just sitting around waiting for a three-run homer. It's fun to get out there and not just worry about the conversation with the first baseman, but worry about trying to get a good jump. It just makes you that much more in tune to the game itself.
"That's how we all grew up playing, looking for every opportunity to get to the next base. That's kind of how it is right now. I think we're all trying to look at the bigger picture here, and that's playing meaningful baseball in September. We need to do the little things right to get there."
The Angels chart first-to-third movements, convinced it translates into production that supplements what manager Mike Scioscia calls "batter's box offense." Figgins' ability to get on base and create havoc can be as effective a weapon as Vladimir Guerrero's booming bat.
"When we talk about offensive chemistry," Scioscia said, "we're referring to having a blend of the two. There have been stretches where we've scored a lot of runs without hitting home runs. That happened in May and June of last season when we were scoring about six runs a game without many homers. There are different ways to score runs, different ways to win games."
License to fly
For Eric Byrnes, life began all over again at 30. Having signed with the Diamondbacks as a free agent after a dismal 2005 season with three clubs, he walked into Bob Melvin's office and was set free of his inhibitions.
"I have to thank the manager," Byrnes said. "The first thing Bob Melvin told me was, 'I want you to steal 30 bases.'
"I was scared to run. I'd stolen bases like crazy at UCLA, but when I got to the [Oakland] A's, they didn't want it. It was instilled in me that I couldn't make an out on the basepaths. It's their philosophy. I wouldn't go unless I was 99 percent sure I'd make it."
In 2003 and 2004 combined, Byrnes was close to that percentage -- 27 steals in 30 attempts, a 90-percent success rate.
After his performance ranged from bad to worse as he moved from Oakland to Colorado to Baltimore in 2005, Byrnes found happiness with the Diamondbacks in the form of a green light.
Soon, a desert legend was born.
Byrnes stole 27 bases in 30 tries in 2006, but he was just warming up. He was 50 for 57 in '07, fourth in the NL.
"You can't be afraid to make a mistake," Byrnes said. "I'm gonna run. It was becoming a lost art. I'm happy to play for a team that believes in the running game."
Referring to an era marked by inflated muscles and home-run totals to match, Byrnes said, "Bashing balls out of the park is all people cared about. I got sick of turning on ESPN's highlights and seeing home run after home run.
"I want to see a guy drill a ball in the gap and watch a play at home. I love great defensive plays by great athletes. And I love to see guys running the bases -- stealing, racing home to beat a throw. It's the way the game was meant to be played."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.