Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Chin Music: Reviving the Craft

On April 26, with the bases loaded and Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte on the mound, Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury took off for home, stumbled as he approached the plate, and slid into an awkward belly flop, safe at home plate. Since the game was on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball and happened in a game against the Yankees, the feat of Ellsbury stealing home blew everyone’s collective mind, like when Daniel Faraday’s own mother sent him back in time so she could knowingly, but really unknowingly kill him. See, either you have no idea what I’m talking about or your mind was just re-blown.

With one stolen base on everyone’s mind, Rockies rookie center fielder Dexter Fowler pluralized the whole situation and made it a bunch of stolen bases on everyone’s mind the very next day when he swiped five bases in a win over San Diego.

Not to be outdone, this past Sunday (six days after Fowler’s accomplishment), Carl Crawford stole six bases against the slow deliveries of Brad Penny and the Red Sox bullpen, becoming the fourth person to accomplish that feat by joining Eric Young (who was last to do it in 1996), Otis Nixon, and Hall of Famer Eddie Collins (who did it twice in 1912, which I believe is back when the base paths were all uphill, both ways).

So that’s pretty cool, I guess. There are a handful of top-tier base stealers pompously showing off in a dying art, which is sort of like writing a dissertation in Latin. But wait, maybe in this pseudo-post-steroid-era transitional purgatory that Major League Baseball finds itself in stealing bases is the new homerun; maybe Carl Crawford is the next Max Fischer. Crawford, whose previous season high for stolen bases was 59 in 2004, already has 18 stolen bases through the first month of play. At this pace, while he likely won’t approach Ricky Henderson’s record of 130, he will break the 100 stolen base plateau. Meanwhile, Ellsbury has already stolen 14 bases, and looks well on his way to surpassing the 50 he stole in his rookie season last year. These players are supposed to steal bases though, so what’s the big deal. As John Schlegal points out over at, everyone is attempting more stolen bases, and everyone is succeeding at the highest rate since the 1950s.

There are roughly 2 stolen base attempts per game this season, compared with 1.59 per game last year, but some of the league’s top base stealers are actually behind their normal pace –players like Jose Reyes and Grady Sizemore. And despite that, there are still more attempts and a higher success rate (76%). The key that unlocks this conundrum is that it seems like everyone is running. Bobby Abreu, who is 35, already has 11 stolen bases this season, halving his total from last season and pacing him for a career high, surpassing the 40 he stole in 2004. Ian Kinsler, who stole a career high 26 bases last year, already has 7 steals and is also on pace to demolish that previous high. Even some corner infielders are getting in on the act. Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez swiped the first base of his career this season, and even the likes of Joey Votto, Kevin Youkilis, and Evan Longoria, none of whom are exactly fleet of foot, are getting in on the action.

With the deflation of some power numbers, base stealers are back to being important in a game where manufacturing runs and aggression on the base path are playing an integral role in winning. Base stealers are becoming the anti-McGwire (who, by the way, stole 12 bases over the course of his career) and baseball executives are slowly realizing that to win games, they may just need to replace the stigma of Big Mac Land with the all-natural goodness of say, Whole Foods.

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