Stolen bases an afterthought as spring training starts
The stolen base has been stolen from baseball, an afterthought when spring training starts next week.
Baltimore swiped just 19 bases last year, the fewest for any team in more than four decades. In 1982, Rickey Henderson stole his 19th base on April 28 – Oakland’s 20th game of the season.
”You’re not going to have the stolen-base numbers like Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines and those guys had,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Thursday after arriving at camp in Sarasota, Florida. ”When you’ve got a lot of guys that hit the ball out of the park, it makes the baserunners real cautious. What’s the analyst and all the people on TV going to say when a guy gets thrown out with Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo hitting?”
Oakland set an American League record with 341 steals in 1976, six shy of the post-1900 big league mark established by the 1911 New York Giants. The game has changed since Tim Raines swiped 70 or more each year from 1981-86, among the 808 he accumulated over 23 major league seasons.
”Today’s game is the long ball and strikeouts,” Raines said last month after he was elected to the Hall of Fame. ”Pitchers have gotten so good that teams are relying on their bats more than they’re relying on their speed.”
Baltimore was just the third team since the start of the expansion era in 1961 to steal fewer than 20 bases, joining the 1964 Boston Red Sox (18) and 1972 Detroit Tigers (17), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
There were 2,537 steals in 2,428 games last year. The average of 1.04 steals per game combined for both teams last year and 1.03 in 2015 were the lowest two years since 1972 when it was 0.97, Elias said.
”You used to be willing to roll the dice and try to make something happen,” Oakland pitcher Sean Doolittle said. ”It does seem like it’s not as much a part of the game, just like bunting.”
Henderson had 100 steals or more in three of his first four full seasons with the Athletics, setting a season record with 130 in 1982 and a career mark of 1,406 from 1979-2003. Just three NL teams topped Henderson’s individual record last season, led by Milwaukee with 181, and Cleveland at 134 was the only one in the AL.
”I don’t think I would probably steal as many bases as I stole when I played because they dictate when you run and when you do not run,” Henderson said.
There will be drills galore on back fields across Florida and Arizona starting Tuesday: pitchers’ fielding practice, catchers blocking balls in the dirt and wheel defense for bunts, just to name a few.
But the simple old steal seems suppressed, gone the way of sacrifice bunts and pregame infield practice.
Stolen bases used to be such a priority that Harrison Dillard , a four-time Olympic gold medalist in 1948 and `52, became a spring training running instructor for Cleveland and the New York Yankees.
Oakland signed Herb Washington, an All-American sprinter at Michigan State, to be a ”designated runner” in 1974-75. He earned a World Series ring in his first season – he famously was picked off by Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Mike Marshall – and scored 33 runs over 105 games in his big league career – without making a single plate appearance.
Sabermetrics have played a huge role in the steal’s slide. When a hitter steps into a batter’s box and a runner takes a lead, managers and coaches know the pitcher’s delivery time to home plate and the catcher’s pop time – the second-plus it takes from the ball hitting the mitt to touching the middle infielder’s glove.
”When they’re teaching changeups in rookie ball, they’re teaching times to the plate,” Showalter said.
Split seconds separate superb from slipshod.
Cleveland’s Josh Tomlin (1.32 seconds) and late Miami pitcher Jose Fernandez (1.33) had the fastest average delivery times to the plate last year among those with 350 pitches or more with runners on first and second open, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Texas’ Cole Hamels (1.84) and Kansas City’s Danny Duffy (1.75) were the worst.
Miami’s J.T. Realmuto (1.85 seconds) and Kansas City’s Salvador Perez (1.86) had the fastest pop times to second, and Atlanta’s Tyler Flowers (2.04) and A.J. Pierzynski (2.01) the slowest among catchers with 30 or more attempts, Baseball Info Solutions said.
During the offseason, Major League Baseball senior vice president Chris Marinak gave general managers a presentation on the dwindling totals of steals and sacs.
”The metrics say that it’s not a high-percentage play to score a run, so clubs are relying more and more on the long ball for run production,” Baltimore executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said after that session. ”If you’re going to be in love with your long ball, you’ve got to have a little more patience at the plate, so you have a few more baserunners on.”
The Orioles led the majors with 253 home runs last season.
But there still is a place for steals.
In the late innings of close postseason games, a stolen base becomes a priority when a leadoff batter reaches. Many think back to the 2004 AL Championship Series, when the Yankees had a 4-3 lead and were three outs from sweeping Boston. Mariano Rivera walked Kevin Millar, and pinch runner Dave Roberts stole second and scored on Bill Mueller’s single , sparking the Red Sox to a 12-inning victory , an eight-game winning streak and Boston’s first World Series title since 1918.
”You’re facing better relievers late in game, and you know the chance of getting three hits against them isn’t very good,” Showalter said.
Fashion is fickle in baseball. A new speedster could spark a counterrevolution.
”I think it’s an art that’s coming back,” predicted former Arizona manager Chip Hale, now an Oakland coach.
Offense and defense rise and fall in waves, washing over each other like ocean over sandcastles. Dominance is fleeting.
”The game is evolving and it’s been evolving for 100 years,” Philadelphia GM Matt Klentak said. ”I would be surprised if stolen bases just went the way of the dinosaur and became extinct. Whether it’s this year or five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, I would expect that it may come back.”
AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.