Running game stealing spotlight from homers
Successful teams finding alternatives to pure power
These are the lessons we all learned in the first half of the 2009 season:
It isn't 1998 anymore, praise be to the deity of your choice. Sitting around waiting for the three-run homer is a hope, not a strategy. This comes in the "tough to chew" category for money-ball mania, but in the first half of this season, team success was as closely correlated to the stolen base as it was to the home run.
Ironically, the game is evolving into its former self in this regard. And there are valid reasons for that. This is, we all want to believe, the post-performance-enhancing-drug era. Bulking up is no longer the training regimen of choice. Look through the rosters and compare them with those of recent seasons. You're going to see lots of players whose listed weight is much lower than it was previously.
Now, nobody particularly wants to morph into the body type of a weightlifter. That kind of thing only engenders suspicion. We're not quite at "thin is in," but we're definitely at "you know, slender isn't that ridiculous after all."
And from a team standpoint? You need an alternative to sheer power, or you're not going to succeed. Power is fine, but it isn't going to be available in the kind of volume it was 11 years ago. So you need to be able to move. You need to be able to play small ball. You need, in other words, to be able to run. You don't have to stock the roster with sprinters, but you better have some people who can change a game through the fundamental act of running as fast as they can.
At the halfway point of the season, the correlation between success and running, as measured by stolen bases, is striking. We'll look at the 10 teams with the best records in baseball. We don't do this by positions in the standing because of the disparity in quality among divisions.
The top 10 teams by record rank first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, 10th, 20th, 21st and 24th in stolen bases. The stolen base has never been very popular with the growing number-crunching element within the game, but this kind of evidence is not coincidental.
Meanwhile, the rankings for these same teams in home runs are first, second, third, fourth, fifth, eighth, 14th, 18th, 27th, and 28th.
Strikingly, the team with the best record in baseball at the halfway point, the Los Angeles Dodgers, is 27th in home runs. They didn't have the suspended Manny Ramirez for 50 games, yet they did not miss a beat without Manny being Manny, which includes hitting some home runs. The fact that they were fourth in the Majors in stolen bases might have been helpful.
Philosophies still vary on the running game. Leading the Majors in stolen bases at the halfway point are the Tampa Bay Rays, who led both leagues in steals in 2008. Rays manager Joe Maddon does not simply favor the running game, he insists upon it.
It is not simply the advancement of runners that benefits a running team, according to Maddon. Running puts the defensive team truly on the defensive, and it can change the game's most fundamental matchup -- pitcher vs. hitter.
Against a running team, the opposing pitcher may have to alter his delivery or, more frequently, alter his pitch selection to guard against the stolen base. When that happens, the running team has already won something.
"If you don't run, the pitcher and catcher can just play catch," Maddon says.
Maddon saw that philosophy work when he served as a coach for the Angels, who have been a running team for years. That used to be an extreme exception in the American League, the sluggers' circuit. But the Twins have made it a staple of their game. And now the Rays are running more often than anybody, and this approach is one of the primary reasons the club went from a decade of defeat to the World Series.
And this just in: At the halfway point of this season, the Boston Red Sox are fifth in the Majors in stolen bases. They are also fifth in home runs, but this team was at one time regarded as the franchise leader in station-to-station baseball. Now Jacoby Ellsbury is stealing home against the Yankees.
At the other end of the stolen-base spectrum are the Milwaukee Brewers, last in steals at the halfway mark. Their manager, Ken Macha, coming out of a background managing in Oakland, regards an out made on the bases as a felony. With largely the same personnel, the Brewers were 10th in the Majors in stolen bases last year.
So the running trend is not universal, but it is becoming the majority approach, as alternatives to pure power are sought and discovered.
Think of a team whose recent identity and even whose ballpark has been linked to power and run production. You're not wrong if you thought of the Texas Rangers. They are sixth in the Majors in stolen bases after the first half, and they lead everybody in percentage of successful steal attempts.
You can see the difference on the field, and you can hear the difference in manager Ron Washington's voice as he described the talents of his second baseman, Ian Kinsler, a real run-production force.
"If they put Kins on, it's a triple," Washington said, "because he'll steal second and third."
The Rangers stole 81 bases in 2008. They had 71 in the first 83 games of this season. And in a clearly related development, something else had changed. The Rangers finished 21 games behind the Angels in the AL West last season. This year they held first place for most of the first half and even now are battling the Angels on relatively even terms. Yes, their pitching and defense have both improved. But now they are also the Rangers who can run.
That's the direction in which baseball is headed, in a hurry.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.