Is the Elite Power/Speed Combo Player Making a Comeback in MLB?
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
In baseball, the perfect offensive player is a guy who can hit for power and steal bases. Scouts and clubs long for these guys like Homer Simpson longs for donuts.
The conventional wisdom is that these guys aren't easy to find. However, given the players who have popped up in the last couple of years, you can't help but wonder if they're becoming easier to find.
Based on names alone, the elite speed/power combo player would seem to be enjoying a comeback in Major League Baseball. Take one look across the MLB landscape, and you'll see guys like Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper and the Upton brothers, all of whom are almost or just as dangerous on the bases as they are at the plate.
Alas, the truth is not in the names or the talent behind the names—it's in the numbers. If elite power/speed combo players are making a comeback in MLB, that's where the proof will lie.
To this end, the first question that must be answered is whether elite power/speed combo players were ever really commonplace. The next is whether they ever went away.
The Power/Speed Glory Years
The answer to both questions is yes.
The ultimate measure of a perfect power/speed hitter is the ability to accumulate 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in a season. Only four guys have ever done that, the most recent being Alfonso Soriano in 2006.
A much more practical measure of a superior power/speed guy, however, is the ability to at least top 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season. Maybe you didn't notice, but these guys were all the rage in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
There have been 60 30/30 seasons in MLB history, and 18 of them happened between 1995 and 2001. That's 30 percent of all the league's 30/30 seasons happening in a seven-year window, which is remarkable.
That's not all. In addition to there being a total of five 30/30 guys in the 1999 and 2001 seasons, there were more 20/20 guys in those two seasons than there have been in any other year in MLB history.
It's easy to note the time period here. The 1995 season was the year immediately following the labor stoppage in 1994 and the 2001 season was the year of Barry Bonds' record-setting 73-homer campaign. This seven-year period was basically the heart of the Steroid Era.
Coincidentally, things began to slow down after the 2001 season. Between 2002 and 2008, the next seven-year period, there were 13 30/30 seasons. That's five fewer 30/30 seasons than there were between 1995 and 2001. Soriano was responsible for four of the 13, meaning there would have been only nine in seven years had he not come along.
The discrepancy would be even bigger had Brandon Phillips, Jimmy Rollins and David Wright not just barely made the cut by hitting 30 homers apiece in 2007. After the three of them managed 30/30 seasons in '07, there were only two 30/30 seasons in 2008, one in 2009 and none in 2010.
Here, there are several time periods worth noting.
The 2002 season was when Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated published his article about steroids in baseball, which still stands out as a major turning point in the rise of not only awareness to PEDs in baseball, but outrage to them.
Three years later in 2005, MLB began testing for PEDs and punishing violators with suspensions. There was one 30/30 season that year.
The next year in 2006, MLB increased the penalties for juicing to 50 games for a first-time offense. Once again, there was only one 30/30 season, and it was by the same guy (Soriano) who posted the lone 30/30 season in 2005.
Following the outburst of 30/30 seasons in 2007, the Mitchell Report came out toward the end of the year and freaked everyone out. There were only three 30/30 seasons between 2008 and 2009, and Baseball-Reference.com's records show that offensive numbers in general have been well short of where they used to be.
Blaming the Steroid Era for everything that's ever gone wrong with baseball is easy, but in this case it's hard not to correlate the rise in awareness and policing of PEDs with the decline of the 30/30 player. It would seem that the end of the Steroid Era was not just the end of the line for sluggers, but elite power/speed combo players as well.
But what of today? Are they back?
A Rumor of a Comeback
After there was a grand total of one 30/30 guy between 2009 and 2010, there's been an explosion of them over the last two years.
Four guys—Ryan Braun, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Kemp and Ian Kinsler—posted 30/30 seasons in 2011. Braun did it again in 2012, and Mike Trout accomplished the feat as well despite not being promoted to the majors until late April.
So after seeing a grand total of six 30/30 seasons in a four-year span between 2007 and 2010, we've seen six 30/30 seasons in the last two years alone. There could have been a seventh if B.J. Upton had hit two more homers in 2012, as he ended the year with 28 homers and 31 stolen bases.
A trend? Not necessarily. A two-year sample size is far too small to draw conclusions of any kind, and the four 30/30 seasons in 2011 could easily be proven to be an outlier going forward.
But a rumor of a trend? Maybe. While it's possible that the 30/30 season will quickly turn into a rarity in the near future, it's equally possible that there are more to come.
As I noted way back when, the talent is most certainly there. Guys like Braun, Ellsbury, Kemp and Upton are in the thick of their prime seasons. Trout is just starting out, and he should have a few more 30/30 seasons in him if his brilliant 2012 season is any indication. The list of potential 30/30 guys includes Andrew McCutchen, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Bryce Harper, who hit 22 homers and stole 18 bases as a mere 19-year-old in 2012.
So we know the rumor of a trend exists, and we know the talent is in place for this trend to become full blown.
But will the league allow it?
The League Says Yes to Speed, Not So Fast to Power
There's something interesting to note about the six 30/30 seasons from the last two years: They account for six of the 43 30-steal seasons that happened in 2011 and 2012.
By comparison, there were 52 30-steal seasons that went down between 2008 and 2010. That three-year period thus yielded only nine more 30-steal seasons than the most recent two-year period.
That alone suggests that the stolen base is on the rise, and the full breakdown makes that suggestion a reality:
- In 2008: 16 30-steal guys
- In 2009: 17 30-steal guys
- In 2010: 19 30-steal guys
- In 2011: 20 30-steal guys
- In 2012: 23 30-steal guys
This is a trend that's developing not just among the elites, but across the league. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the stolen bases per game figures over the last five seasons are as follows: 0.58, 0.61, 0.61, 0.67, 0.66.
The last time stolen bases were as common as they have been in the last two years was in 1998 and 1999, when there were 0.68 and 0.70 per game. However, there's one thing those two seasons and the last two seasons do not have in common: on-base percentage.
The league OBP in 1998 was .335, and it rose to .345 in 1999. In 2011, the league OBP was .321. Last year, it was .319. It was the first time the league OBP had fallen below .320 since 1988.
Fewer hitters getting on base means fewer opportunities to score runs, leading to an environment in which the stolen base would be in demand. To boot, there are fewer players ending up on second base by way of doubles in today's game, as the average for doubles per game has also fallen:
- 2008: 1.86
- 2009: 1.80
- 2010: 1.75
- 2011: 1.73
- 2012: 1.70
This could be a fluke, but it's more likely the upshot of players becoming less juiced and pitchers mastering their craft like never before. The numbers certainly support the pitchers, as the league ERA is way down and strikeout totals are way up (via Baseball-Reference.com).
Whatever the explanation, the writing is on the wall: If you want second base, you have to take it.
There's another thing to be said about the rise of the stolen base, and it has to do with speed being a young man's game. Older guys generally don't run all that much, as their legs don't have as much spring as they used to and they need to conserve energy for the long haul. It's no surprise, then, that the league's increase in stolen bases has come paired with a youth movement.
Between 2000 and 2007, the average batter age in MLB was over 29 years old. But in the last five seasons, it's dipped below 29:
- 2008: 28.8
- 2009: 28.8
- 2010: 28.9
- 2011: 28.7
- 2012: 28.5
The league's hitters are getting younger. Couple that with the increased need for stolen bases in a day and age when hitters are getting on base less frequently, and the league's stolen base totals are much more likely to go up than down as we move into the future.
Because of that, the league's 30/30 threats should have the speed side of things covered. Any player with the ability to steal 30 bases in a season is probably going to keep getting the green light, and that includes the power hitters in the mix.
The power side of the equation is where things get dicey.
Power hitting in baseball is not what it used to be. That much is apparent when you take a quick look at the slugging and ISO (Isolated Power, which is basically slugging without singles) totals over the last 15 years:
ISO statistics via FanGraphs
You can see how much power numbers have tailed off over the last three seasons, especially in 2010 and 2011. The last time power numbers were that low was in the early 1990s, the time before the Steroid Era started spiraling out of control.
The power numbers from the 2012 season offer a glimmer of hope because of how much an improvement they were over the power numbers from 2010 and 2011. But Baseball-Reference.com's records show that this was thanks to an increase in home runs, which may not be repeatable.
While home runs went up in 2012, FanGraphs shows that strikeout and ground-ball totals also went up last year. Given that, the extra home runs look awfully fluky.
So while the speed portion of the power/speed combo looks more than welcome in today's game, the power portion looks like an unwelcome outsider.
So, is the elite power/speed combo player making a comeback or poised to make a comeback in Major League Baseball?
As much as I want to say yes, my better instincts are telling me to doubt it.
There are things working in favor of the idea. There are plenty of talented players with power and speed out there, meaning there are guys that are capable of establishing themselves as elite power/speed threats with 30/30 seasons. It also bodes well that there are more young players out there, and that the stolen base is more in demand in today's game.
But what I can't get over is the power problem, which is a big one.
Do you anticipate seeing more 30/30 seasons going forward?
I'm guessing most hitters will agree that it's a lot harder to hit a home run than it is to steal a base, and I'm guessing every pitcher in the league will agree that it's more important to limit home runs than it is to limit stolen bases.
The way the league's numbers from the last couple seasons add up, it's clear that it's especially hard to hit home runs in today's game, and that's thanks partly to PED testing and partly to the league's pitchers. They have the upper hand these days.
So while the talent and the green lights to run are there, the power is another matter entirely. We've seen an intriguing rise of 30/30 players over the last two seasons, but expecting 30/30 players to spring up like they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s seems unrealistic.
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