Ken Bradley of the Sporting News asked me recently about speed and stolen bases coming back to baseball. Here are a few of my thoughts on the topic, followed by my answer to Ken’s question about whether or not we’ll ever see 100 stolen bases in a season again. (Look for Ken’s upcoming survey in Exit Poll at Sportingnews.com.)
In my day, speed was a highly valued commodity in baseball. When I was playing, plenty of guys were drafted for one main reason: because they could just flat-out fly. The basic strategy of management in that situation was something like, “well, if we can teach him to just put the ball in play somehow, we’ll be all set. That’s all he’ll need to do—make contact and then run like the dickens.” This was a pretty common way to look at it, in fact. In the early days of the Kansas City Royals Academy, for instance, the philosophy was to first and foremost draft good athletes and worry about the particulars later. In other words, you didn’t draft these guys as position players. Instead, you drafted them for their raw horsepower and then figured out how to fit them into the system. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that defenses seemed to cover a lot more ground in those days. Speed was valued in a big way, and it showed. Just the other day, Bob Denier, a great leadoff hitter and base stealer for the Cubs and Phillies in the 80s, put it to me this way (I’ll paraphrase): “Murph, remember when, like, every team had at least one guy who could steal 70 bases a year? And the Cardinals had six?”
I wasn’t one of those guys drafted for their wheels. Mine were functional, sure, but not knock-your-socks-off amazing. In May of 1974, right after high school, I was invited to a Phillies pre-draft workout, and one of the drills was the 60-yard dash where we paired up and ran for time. My numbers weren’t that impressive, and they looked even worse because for some reason I partnered up with Willie Wilson. Yeah, that’s right. The 60-yard dash with Willie Wilson. You’d think I would’ve found a fellow catcher, someone to help my cause. But, of course, I picked Willie, who went on to become one of the best base stealers of all time. I had no shot.
Anyway, all that said, I think it’s great that speed is coming back to the game. I expect a couple of things to happen as a result. First, because speed will be a bigger plus than it has been in recent years, scouts will look at young players differently. This will probably encourage more fast kids to see baseball as a viable option in addition to, say, football. Second, fans will see more “small ball,” that is, more bunts, hit and run plays, stolen bases, and triples (the latter being, for a lot of people, one of the most exciting plays in baseball). But I don’t think these changes will necessarily shift the game away from its recent focus, namely, the home run. (I’ll say more about that in a minute.) Still, I think we’re seeing signs of something I’ve always believed: baseball fans aren’t just in it for the long ball; they’re in it for the drama, the pure thrill of the competition--and small ball's a great source of drama. Indeed, with steroids out of the game, we’ve seen homeruns go down but fan attendance remain constant.
Now, will anyone reach 100 stolen bases in a season again? I say no. First of all, I don't think anyone right now is equipped to do it. Jose Reyes is probably the best bet among current players, but I suspect we’ll probably see even better base stealers in the near future, kids who are probably in high school right now and/or at least a few years away from the big leagues. But I don’t think anyone will ever get to 100 again, though someone may come close. Why? Well, first, to even have a sporting chance you need a stellar on-base percentage, and that’s no easy task. Ricky Henderson, for example, had a .414 OBP when he stole 108 bases, and Vince Coleman was at about .360 OBP when he stole 109. The bigger reason, however, is that even though we'll surely see players with 100 stolen base-caliber speed, most ballparks these days are geared toward hitters, which means that teams don’t really have any incentive to be designed for speed or to focus on the “small ball” tactics that can generate stolen bases. Think, for example, about the St. Louis Cardinals in the days of Vince Coleman. Back then they played 81 games a year at the old Busch Stadium, but they also played a lot of games at those classic Astro-turfed 'speed' parks like Olympic Stadium, Veterans Stadium, the Astrodome, Three Rivers, and Riverfront. Some of these parks favored hitters, some favored pitchers, but one thing’s for sure: they were all fantastic for runners.
So, with Astro-Turf dead and gone (no complaints here) and hitter’s parks here to stay, I think that despite speed’s return, power will continue to be emphasized.