THE RUNNING GAME, FORGOTTEN IN THE POWERBALL ERA, IS COOL AGAIN—AND A KEY WEAPON IN THE HUNT FOR OCTOBER
This is an article from the Sept. 24, 2012 issue
Go back to a time before Prius-sized sluggers and their three-run homers hijacked the game, before hitters became more selective at the plate than a master chef in a supermarket, before a Red Sox--Yankees game plodded on longer than a PBS miniseries. There was a time when baseball moved at a different speed. It was fast—as fast as Cool Papa Bell running down a ball in the gap, as fast as the Mick going from home to first, as fast as burners like Rickey, Rock and Vince blazing around AstroTurf infields as if they were the autobahn.
Perhaps if he'd arrived in the game at a different time, Rich Thompson, a 33-year-old rookie outfielder for the Rays, would have gotten his chance earlier. He came along in the wrong era, when the one above-average asset he possessed—speed—was of little value to major league teams. Thompson was 24 when he made his big league debut, with the Royals in 2004, and in his only at bat before being sent back to the minors, he grounded into a double play. Eight years passed without another call-up. He and his wife, Teresa, had three kids and spent his off-seasons selling mortgages over the phone and caddying at golf courses for $100 a day. When he told people that he'd keep playing until he had enough money to buy a car, he wasn't kidding. He stuck around the minors like a modern-day Moonlight Graham, and he kept running: In 2011, his 12th season in the minors, he stole 48 bases for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Phillies' Triple A team.
In May, Thompson was still an IronPig and on his way to read to students at an elementary school when he got a call from his manager: He'd been traded to the Rays and—945 minor league games and 3,711 plate appearances after his first major league game—was headed to the Show to fill the roster spot vacated by injured Tampa Bay outfielder Brandon Guyer. Within 24 hours Thompson was in a game as a pinch runner; taking a lead off second base, he distracted the pitcher enough to balk. The following day he stole two bases. Now he is in the middle of a white-knuckle pennant race, an unlikely weapon for a team fighting for the postseason.
"He's a guy who can come right off the bench and steal a base, and those guys are hard to find," says Rays bench coach Dave Martinez. Suddenly Thompson is a valuable major leaguer, even though he is more or less the same player he was as a young prospect: a below replacement-level hitter who can steal second base in 3.2 seconds, as fast as the game's top speedsters. The game has changed, and now it has a place for players like Thompson.
Speed is cool again, from Tampa Bay, where the Rays have an offense built around such burners as Thompson and outfielders B.J. Upton (30 steals) and Desmond Jennings (27), to Oakland, where the once anti-small-ball A's are running wild. In between, in minor league hamlets around the country, a generation of fast and athletic players has been changing the way the game is played. Reds prospect Billy Hamilton's obliteration of baseball's professional record for steals in a season—he had 155 in the minors this year—was one of the best stories of 2012. His legend seemed to grow every day: the phenom who steals bases on pitchouts, scores from second on sacrifice flies and catches fly balls on the warning track. (He's a shortstop.)
Hamilton looks like a throwback—he wears his uniform old-school baggy and his nickname, Blazin' Billy, rolls off the tongue like Cool Papa Bell's, baseball's original burner, but he is the future of the game, a major player in baseball's speed revolution. "These guys are swinging the game back to what it was—they're reminding people of Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines and Vince Coleman," says former infielder Delino DeShields, who managed Hamilton in the minors in 2010 and '11 and whose son, Delino Jr., a 20-year-old Astros minor leaguer, stole 101 bases this year. "Baseball is coming back to its natural state. It was always meant to be about speed. It was always meant to be played fast."
There's a moment in Michael Lewis's 2003 book Moneyball when A's third base coach Ron Washington, now the manager of the Rangers, explains to second baseman Ray Durham why (to Washington's chagrin) the team didn't turn Durham loose on the bases. "Somebody gets his ass thrown out," huffs Washington, "and you got all kinds of gurus who tell you that you just took yourself out of an inning." It has long been a sabermetric tenet that the value of a stolen base was outweighed by the risk of getting caught. You do not give away outs. But in recent years something unexpected happened: Players stopped hitting home runs as if the game were slow-pitch softball, and the calculus of the game began to change.
This is baseball in 2012: The run environment remains as depressed as the housing market (scoring this season is near its lowest level since 1992), and hitters are having a harder time getting on base (the major league on-base percentage at week's end was .319) than in any season since 1988. With power on the wane and runs scarce, the value of speed and the stolen base is rising. Rabbits like Thompson, the Braves' Michael Bourn (the NL steals leader with 39), the Blue Jays' Rajai Davis (44, second in the AL) and, above all, Angels MVP candidate Mike Trout (a major-league-leading 45 stolen bases) have become more valuable than at any time in the last 20 years. With fewer hitters who can drive in runs with an extra-base hit, players who can steal or take an extra base to get into scoring position are vital weapons.
"You need to get a lot more creative in scoring runs against better pitching," says Joe Maddon, who spent 31 years in the Angels' organization before becoming the Rays' manager in 2006. "You need to steal bases; you need to take the extra base; you need to put pressure on opposing teams. It's true that speed kills. I remember as a scout in 1980, speed was a high commodity. I thought things would trend this way, based on better [drug] testing and the elimination of PEDs. I always thought things would swing back."
The Rays, who have stolen 127 bases this season, are on pace to become the first team since the Go-Go White Sox of the late 1950s to lead the AL in steals five straight years. But the rest of baseball is catching up. This season stolen bases and attempts are slightly below 2011 levels, when they were at their highest rates since '99 and '01, respectively. Last year 50 major leaguers finished with at least 20 steals; the last time more reached that plateau was 1989. This year 45 players are on pace to swipe 20.
The love affair with speed has spread even to Oakland, where the A's, who are on the cusp of the franchise's first postseason appearance since 2006, have complemented their power (they rank seventh in the AL in home runs) with aggressive baserunning. Led by Coco Crisp's 34 stolen bases, they are sixth in the league in steals with 115, their fourth straight season with at least 100—a mark they didn't come close to between 1999 and 2008. "Look at the A's right now," Maddon says. "They used to be an easy team to plan against because all they were going to do was bludgeon you at the plate. They were going to take pitches, and you wouldn't have to worry about what they did on the bases. Now they cause all kinds of problems for you."
Moneyball, contrary to popular belief, was never about on-base percentage or out-of-shape ballplayers who took walks—the book was about a small-market team exploiting market inefficiencies and finding undervalued players. Teams such as Oakland and Tampa Bay—which have the two lowest payrolls in the AL—regard speed as the game's current undervalued asset. "Of course we'd love to have a lineup where guys hit a lot of home runs," says the Rays' Martinez. "We don't have guys who are going to knock in runs from first base, so we have to take advantage of what we have. Speed is one of the advantages of the club."
The stolen base has become a more popular weapon because teams are stealing more successfully—the major league stolen base success rate of 74.2% is the second highest since 1920. "Players and teams are just a lot smarter about it," says former major leaguer Dave Roberts, now the first base coach of the Padres. "Organizations are teaching the craft early in the minor leagues. And there's so much more information out there since I was a player. Not only do you have detailed times of catcher throws and how fast a pitcher is to the plate, but you also have incredible video of pitchers and their tendencies that gives a base runner every tip he could possibly want."
Says Rays infielder Elliot Johnson, "Whatever information you want, you can get. You know that a guy like [Orioles catcher] Matt Wieters is 1.85--1.90 [seconds] to second base. You know how fast the pitcher throws home—the fast guys are 1.3 or lower, the slow guys, that's 1.35-ish." The math is simple. With a good lead and jump, Johnson, one of the faster Rays, can get to second in 3.3 seconds. (Teammates Jennings and Upton can get there a tick below, at 3.1 seconds.) "If a pitcher is 1.30 or lower [to the plate]," says Johnson, "I don't go."
Stealing bases is just one part of aggressive baserunning—the Rays also want to take extra bases as often as possible. During spring training Martinez directed players to go from first to third on singles to centerfield. "Guys who never thought they'd make it started to make it—Carlos Pe√±a made it," says Martinez of the slow-footed first baseman.
Martinez, a former major leaguer who became bench coach before the 2008 season, immediately pushed the team to be more aggressive on the bases. At first many within the organization, which is one of the most statistically savvy in the game, cringed. But soon they started to see the unquantifiable effects of how burners can influence games. The general rule of thumb has long been that stealing bases isn't worth it unless you're successful 75% of the time. The Rays' success rate at week's end was barely at that threshold (75.1%), but that doesn't bother Maddon. "Of course you want to be at 80 percent," he says. "But there's all this stuff that you need to factor in that no one talks about. The part that's immeasurable is the impact it has on defense and pitch selection. The game drips with intangibles."
On a recent September afternoon, as the greatest baserunning season in the history of the game was winding down, Billy Hamilton sat in the home dugout of the Double A Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He was wearing shoes frayed along the toes, the cleats chipped and scraped like mangled teeth. They were his eighth pair of the season. His knees were covered with purplish gashes that belonged in a horror movie; his left thumb, banged on the dirt during a mistimed slide, was so badly bruised it looked as if it had been dipped in tar.
No one seems to know precisely how fast Hamilton is—not even the Reds, who drafted him in the second round out of Taylorsville (Miss.) High in 2009. He's never been timed in the 60-yard dash. He refuses to race his teammates. (The last time he recalls racing was in third grade.) Cincinnati officials have timed him going from first to second in less than three seconds, and earlier this year he hit an inside-the-park home run and circled the bases in a preposterous 13.8 seconds (according to Guinness, the record is 13.3, set by a Reds player named Evar Swanson in a contest held in Columbus, Ohio, in 1932)—even though on video it's clear that he eased up about halfway to home plate. (The opposing team didn't even bother trying to throw him out.)
Pensacola manager Jim Riggleman says that when his leadoff hitter is at first or second base, opposing pitchers throw fastballs "95 percent of the time. Billy is very much in the pitcher's mind when he's on base." Pitchers became so predictable this season that the Blue Wahoos' number two hitter, outfielder Ryan LaMarre, made a deal with his table setter. "I told [Hamilton] I would take on every first pitch that I saw, to let him run, even if it was straight down the middle," says LaMarre. "It didn't matter if I was down a strike, because I knew what was coming on the next pitch. Unless Billy was on third, that pitch was going to be a fastball."
The lengths to which opposing teams would go to slow Hamilton was "sometimes pretty ludicrous," says LaMarre. After Hamilton beat out a routine grounder to second earlier this year, the Cubs' Double A affiliate began playing the infield in against Hamilton every time he stepped to the plate—even when there was no one on base. "That's something I've never seen before," says a scout. "What's crazy is that I'm not sure it's a bad strategy."
Much of the baseball world assumed Cincinnati would call up Hamilton when rosters expanded on Sept. 1 and use him as a pinch runner during the pennant race. The Reds chose not to bring him up, so he could rest before heading to the Arizona Fall League to possibly work on a position switch to the outfield, where they believe his speed will make him an elite defensive player. Hamilton could have been an intriguing weapon for Cincinnati at a time of year when an additional run can make or break a playoff race.
Speed is an even greater weapon in October, when the games are lower scoring and the margins razor thin. One steal can swing a series—something no one knows better than Roberts, who is constantly reminded of the base he stole in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS to spark the Red Sox' comeback from a 3--0 deficit against the Yankees. "I was in a piazza in Rome drinking wine a few years ago when this old couple walked up to thank me for the steal," says Roberts, who made no plate appearances that entire postseason. "I get thanked for that play pretty much every day."
Last week in Baltimore the Rays' unlikely secret weapon was sitting at his locker at Camden Yards before a critical series with the Orioles. Thompson, who went back to the minors in June and was summoned again by Tampa Bay on Sept. 1, appeared as a ninth-inning pinch runner in the second game of the series and stole second but then was thrown out rounding third on an infield hit. He has appeared in 16 games this season but has only 21 plate appearances. He is hitting .105 with a .190 OBP—but is 5 for 7 in stolen base attempts.
Late in games, Thompson finds himself unable to sit still in the dugout. "It's adrenaline," he says, "because I know when I'm going into the game, it's going to be a fairly consequential moment." Thompson doesn't know how long his stint in the majors will last—it could end in a few weeks, with the finish of the regular season, if the Rays can't nail down a playoff spot. Or he could find himself living his dream all the way through October.
For now he has a place in the game. Until the moment he doesn't, he'll keep on running.
The Quick and the Strong
The general decline in home runs across the majors since 2002 has been mirrored by a rise in the stolen-base rate.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
2.0 1.75 1.5 1.25 1.0 0.75
2002 2004 2006 2008 2010 2012
HOME RUNS PER GAME
STEALS PER GAME
To Catch a Thief ...
The major-league-wide stolen base success rate has risen steadily over the last three decades.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
74% 72% 70% 68% 66% 64%
1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010
Albert Chen looks at specialists (like Yankees lefty Boone Logan) who could impact the pennant races at SI.com/mlb