On Thursday night, the Texas Rangers beat the Oakland Athletics 7 – 6. Oakland jumped out to an early 4 – 1 lead, but predictably that wasn’t enough against a team that started the night 18 games over .500.
Being a well-balanced team, the Rangers used an assortment of tools to come from behind. Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, and David Murphy each had a pair of RBIs; Ian Kinsler and Michael Young both doubled; and the team recorded four stolen bases. The Rangers have been running a lot since Ron Washington became their manager.
Their now familiar “antlers” signify the team’s emphasis on speed. It wasn’t always so. For years they were known as the Power Rangers. With little in the way of speed, base runners would stand around waiting to be driven in by one of the team’s big sticks. Opposing pitchers and catchers could largely relax, knowing the likelihood of an attempted steal was slim. Yawn.
Texas isn’t the only team that has rediscovered speed. For the last few years the entire league has been stealing bases at a steadily increasing rate. A fundamental and exciting part of the game that seemed on its way out at the beginning of the 21st century is back. In 1999, MLB teams averaged 119 stolen bases for the season. By 2004, that number had dipped to 86, an average that was repeated in 2005. The statistical knock on stolen bases was that if you didn’t succeed at a rate of 75%, you were giving away outs. Apparently, many big league managers decided that the risk was too great and nearly stopped stealing bases altogether. The idea that you shouldn’t steal if you don’t succeed 75% of the time morphed into an abandonment of a fundamental tool of the game. This mindset betrayed a fundamental undervaluation of the stolen base.
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Baseball fans know there is much more to stealing a base than simply moving a runner to the next bag. During the Oakland-Texas game on Thursday night, the additional benefits of a solid running game were on full display. As noted above, the Rangers stole four bases and won the game. The A’s stole one base and lost. However, their lone stolen base, by centerfielder Coco Crisp, was a nice example of the running game’s value not captured by statistics.
Crisp, the A’s premier base stealer, had a fine night. He hit three singles, completed a dazzling 8-4 double play from the seat of his pants in the 7th inning, stole a base, and scored two runs. His run in the 3rd inning was first and foremost a product of his speed. After solo home runs by Derek Norris and Cliff Pennington to start the inning (the A’s had three home runs; the Rangers had none – bizarre), Crisp singled. Crisp has been caught stealing only once so far this year, so when he gets on first, second base is almost guaranteed.
A single followed by a stolen base is arguably better than a double because of its effect on the dynamics of the next at bat. Typically, with a base stealing threat on first, the pitcher has to throw over several times, trying to shorten the runner’s lead. He may have to change his delivery: his leg kick becomes a slide step that’s quicker to the plate but harder to execute. He also has to change his pitch selection and sequence. Breaking ball counts become fastball counts to give the catcher a better chance at gunning down the runner. A pitcher who likes to throw a hard slider or a changeup in the dirt on 0 – 2 has to think about elevating the pitch because of the threat on first. All of this works to the advantage of the hitter. And although a hitter may have to take a pitch he’d otherwise swing at to allow the base runner a chance to steal, he’s going to see more pitches around the strike zone.
After Crisp’s single in the top of the 3rd, Feldman faced Jemile Weeks. Feldman was clearly rattled by Crisp’s presence on first base. After several throws over to first, Crisp won the battle by stealing second. That allowed Oakland to stay out of a double play when Weeks hit a hard grounder to Feldman. It also put Crisp in scoring position. When Yoenis Cespedes later singled with two outs, Crisp was able to record Oakland’s third run of the inning. Good, solid, exciting baseball.
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The rest of the league is definitely on board, and has moved beyond the deadening effects of misinterpreting stolen base statistics. While teams averaged only 86 stolen bases per year in 2005, that number has been moving up. Last year, teams stole an average of 109 bases for the season, an increase of nearly 26 percent in just six years. That’s a significant increase in a relatively short time that raises none of the ugly questions that a similar increase in power hitting would, and rightly did. The A’s and Rangers are perfect examples of the trend. In 2004 the A’s and Rangers stole 47 and 69 bases, respectively; in 2011, they stole 117 and 143 bases, respectively. Each team has more than doubled its annual stolen base total since 2004.
With all of the talk about pitching and defense again dominating the game, it’s heartening to see managers respond by making greater use of one of the most exciting offensive weapons in their arsenal. Whether a team is stacked with some of the most powerful bats in the league, like the Texas Rangers, or has more than its share of light hitters, like the Oakland Athletics, speed on the base paths makes any team better and more exciting to watch.