Chone Figgins had a good laugh when he thought back to the afternoon early last month when Rays speedster Carl Crawford stole six bases on the Red Sox, tying the modern record for the most steals by one player in a single game.
"No team would let me do that," giggled the Angels third baseman, who ranks third in the MLB with 20 swipes. "We went back and watched the tape and it was funny how he just took over that game. They couldn't do anything with him."
With 31 stolen bases in 33 attempts, Crawford leads the majors by a mile, and is on pace to steal 95 bases this season. That would be the highest total since Vince Coleman swiped 109 for the Cardinals back in 1987. But even though Crawford has become the premier base-stealer in the American League (he has led the Junior Circuit four times during his seven years in the bigs), this isn't some isolated show of brilliance by one player. So far this season, bases are being stolen across the game at a dizzying clip. The average number of steals per game currently sits at .65, the highest it has been in 10 seasons and approaching the range where it was consistently before the Steroid Era.
"I've never seen this much running going on," Crawford said. "No one is sitting back waiting for the three-run home run. They're letting guys run. They're trying to get runs another way."
Is this the rediscovery of small ball? Maybe. Though it hasn't changed the draw of the home run: At 1.02 per game, the rate at which balls are being knocked out of the park is staying more or less near where it has been over the past eight seasons or so. Still, there's undoubtedly been an increased emphasis on the speed game across baseball.
For a few teams, it's just business as usual. Since 2003, the Rays and Angels have finished in the top five in the majors in total stolen bases every year. Besides Crawford, two other Rays -- B.J. Upton (16) and Jason Bartlett (14) -- are in the top 10 in the majors in steals, while a pair of Angels -- Figgins (20) and Bobby Abreu (15) -- are also right there. Along with the Mets, who have led the National League in steals almost every year over that period (mostly thanks to notorious thief Jose Reyes), that makes a triumvirate of teams that stress an organizational philosophy of manufacturing runs. For the Rays especially, it's paying off: Tampa Bay is tied with the Yankees for the major league lead with 300 runs scored.
Is it the right philosophy? Figgins thinks so, even though the Angels don't score runs at a Rays-like velocity. He's quick to point out that the teams who have found success in the postseason in recent years haven't relied on the long ball; it's the teams who have been able to get men on base and then benefit from speed and smart baserunning who have done well. The last time a team led the majors in home runs and reached the World Series in the same season was Cleveland in '95.
"Speed never slumps," Figgins said. "If you can get guys on base by walks or errors or things like that, you're able to create a lot of stuff power can't."
The Angels in particular have been a team that loves to test opposing defenses, a strategy that has been in place since Mike Scioscia was first named manager in 2000. Figgins believes the reason isn't as much an organizational philosophy as it is a product of pitcher-friendly Angel Stadium, where the team can't rely on home runs despite boasting some big bats over the past nine seasons. "There aren't a lot of blowout games [here] because the park doesn't give up a lot of home runs," he said, "so the organization has been built on having a lot of line-drive hitters."
The Rays, on the other hand, have a roster full of speedsters. According to Crawford, manager Joe Maddon put a lot of emphasis on testing opposing defenses this past spring. Besides Crawford, Upton and Bartlett, platooner Ben Zobrist and second baseman Akinori Iwamura are also threats (though Iwamura is likely out for the season with a torn ACL)."We don't sit back and wait at all," Crawford said. "We're running all over the place."
Thus far this season, Tampa Bay has 84 stolen bases, putting it on pace for 252 total steals. That's a remarkable number, but it's nowhere near the major league record, set by the Oakland Athletics in 1976 with 341 swipes. And it's also worth noting that, much like home runs, stolen bases don't necessarily translate into championships, either. But in an era where "home run" is almost a dirty word, it's hard to argue against relying on speed, considering the success the Angels have had over the past seven years as well as Tampa Bay's spectacular World Series run last season. As Figgins puts it, "If you have athletes on your team, you have a good chance to win every night."