The stolen base in Major League Baseball is sadly, a lost art. In an era that is slowly recovering from the aberration that was the "live ball era" (i.e. steroid era) and coming to grips that it all was just a sham, before this fad, was the art of the stolen base.
Sure we've been spoiled by the likes of Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, Tim "Rock" Raines, Marquis Grissom, and Vince Coleman who used this form of poetic strategy and skill to their benefit, and with superb accuracy. I however, would still rather see a player on any given night steal four bases in a game than hit four home runs-this means you, Mike Cameron.
Henderson led the American League in steals an amazing eleven times during his storied twenty-five year career. In only his second season, Henderson stole 100 bases in 1980 at the encouragement of his then-manager Billy Martin while with the Oakland A's.
In 1982 in only 149 games, he stole an all time single-season record, 130 bases. Think about that number for a minute.
130. (take it in).
In 149 games, he'd have stolen a base at the rate of .87 a game (130/149). That means, on any given night at the ballpark, chances are very good he was going to get on base and steal at least one bag. Not only does this take skill, patience, and strategy, but consider that he has to work his way on to base in the first place successfully for any of this to come into play.
Next consider he was caught stealing an astounding, 42 times that year. Even at this high number, he still had a 75% success rate. While any major league manager will tell you anything above 80% is the desired line, they clearly don't have 172 attempts in their equation anymore either.
Finally, consider in 2008, not a single team had 172 attempts collectively, and only the Tampa Bay Rays, had more successful thefts (142) than Henderson's magical 130 in 1982.
That means of the now 29 other major league teams, only one had more successful attempts than Henderson's individual accomplishment that year.
But enough about Henderson and 1982.
Consider also, that in 1985 Vince Coleman, (pictured) a speedster of there ever was one, stole a rookie record, 110 bases in 1985 while playing for the St. Louis Cardinals. Why did he do this? Not only because this was the way baseball was played in the Eighties, but because it was effective and so was he.
While Coleman never matched the statistics of that season the rest of his thirteen year career, he too wasn't just a one-year wonder as the next two years he stole 107 and 109 bases respectively, before never cracking so much as 90 ever again.
Today the logic is"Why waste an out on the base paths when anyone in the lineup (yes sadly lead-off and #9 hitters) can simply bring me home on one big swing?"
The short answer is, because all or nothing baseball is boring. Shortstops aren't supposed to routinely hit .320 have 20 home runs and the ability to drive in near 100 runs as players such like Miguel Tejada, Derek Jeter, Michael Young, Alex Rodriguez, Hanley Ramirez, Rich Aurilia, and Jimmy Rollins have shown us they can.
When just anyone can hit for power, when second basemen like Jeff Kent, Chase Utley, Dan Uggla, (name a Texas or Colorado hitter), Carlos Baerga, or Alexi Ramirez are capable of similar statistics any given season it takes away from the prestige and greatness of the long ball.
Give me speed and stolen bases any day. Save the power for the heart of the order guys, the traditional 3-5 hitters where this is expected. Players who usually are found playing the infield corners or who historically man on outfield corner position.
Each year it seems a player flirts with stealing 100 bases only feel cheated in May when his numbers come back to reality. In recent years we've seen players like Scott Podsednik steal 70 bases for the 2004 Milwaukee Brewers, or Juan Pierre or Dave Roberts flirt numerous times with this feat, only to seemingly think better of it.
Last year Wily Tavaras led the major leagues with a respectable but still not noteworthy 68 thefts for the Colorado Rockies. We also saw career .239 hitterMichael Bourn steal fifteen bases through the month of April for the Houston Astros (go ahead, look it up) only to finish with an appalling 41 for the entire season.
We saw Jose Reyes come closest to respectable in my book with his 78 in the previous season. Today its simply to easy to dismiss Jacoby Elsbury's 50 2008 steals as a "threat" on the base paths because no one else was better (in the American League) thus his numbers stand out as impressive when they in actuality are not.
We've just been accustomed to seeing no one run anymore so he comes off as the threat we've been missing, when in reality, he's the best we've got.
Critics will say "There are other ways Ellsbury's speed is showcased. Whether that be catching a warning track fly ball in the outfield or going from first to third on a grounder through the right side, speed is still there."
This isn't the same.
I don't care if Ellsbury can do the above, or Jimmy Rollins for that matter. Its fundamentals and we shouldn't congratulate them for doing their job and utilizing their gift of speed in "creative" ways. We should be working their game around them by preaching stealing in addition to OPS (on base percentage) which is chic in today's game without really understanding it.
Who cares if people can get on base if they stand their like statues once they get there. Who cares if they can get on base if they simply wish to wait for a gap shot to score or move from first to third?
Give me some action. Give me some strategy. Let the opposing pitcher sweat it out with his manager and catcher as to how exactly they are to approach every successive hitter now that player X is on the base paths knowing he could (and likely will steal) at any given notice?
What does the future hold? ESPN's Brian McKitish wrote an excellent 2008 piece on the art of the stolen base and its future in baseball.
In addition to this, is there any hope to re-inject this lost art into baseball's repertoire for future generations to enjoy as much as I did? The short answer is yes.
With baseball's long overdue crackdown on steroids, mild as it is (I largely think they were forced to do it at Congress' behalf otherwise Selig and his cronies never would have done anything) now is the perfect time to stress a change in baseball's philosophy and return to basics.
So who might take the reins players such as Henderson, Coleman, and Grissom left behind?
In addition to Reyes and Tavares, I am hoping for anyone but keeping any eye as always, on the following.
1. Emilio Bonifacio, Marlins. After stealing a surprising three bases on opening day, has only stole one in eight games since. Still the 23 year old has speed to burn on a team that has always kept steals close to the vest. (see Pierre, Luis Castillo).
2. Someone on the Tampa Bay Rays- Similar to the Florida Marlins, the Sunshine state cousins, preach team speed. See Upton, BJ, and Crawford, Carl as examples. Both are still insanely young on a team that is getting better. Only problem is, with this success, will team strategy and priorities change due to winning? At 27, Crawford has averaged 53 steals in his career, but with the team winning now, maybe he'll become just another ho-hum middle of the order power hitter?
3. Freddy Guzman- Seattle Mariners- 71 combined steals in AA for Erie and AAA for Toledo in 2008. While he is an ancient 28 years old and has minimal major league experience he plays for a young and somehow exciting (for the moment) Seattle team. If runs become hard to come by, look for Guzman to resort to running in order to inject life into his team that will need it. If they overachieve and continue to win, perhaps Guzman runs in order to ensure they stay competitive each night? Could be fun to watch all season.
4. Elvis Andrus- Texas Rangers- as a 20 year old, stole 54 bases last year for AA Frisco RoughRiders but you have to figure with that whiffle ball park, his speed will soon fall victim to the easy lure of power that park provides not to mention the historical hitting preference the organization continues to preach each year at the expense of pitching which is why they are a perennial 3rd place team.
Current Minor Leaguers
5 . Jon Raynor New Orleans Zephyers,AA Only 24 years old and stole 48 bases in 2008 for Florida Marlins affiliate. (See Bonifacio, Marlins team concept above).
6. Corey Wimberly AA Texas RockHounds Colorado Rockies, AA Affiliate. Already 26 years old and having just completed his first season of AA ball in 2008. He was named the organizations fastest runner by Baseball America.
7. Eric Orlando Young AAA Colorado Sky SoxYes he is the son of the former Major Leaguer by the same name. More encouraging though, the 24 year old led all minor leaguers with 87 steals in 2006 for the Rockies affiliate.
Here is a list of other futures players to watch based on 2008 minor league steals stats.
Will we ever see a 100 steal man again? I certainly hope so even though Major League Baseball executives would probably disagree with me.