In 2001, at the advanced baseball age of 38, the Yankees “Warrior”, right fielder Paul O’Neill, set a new career milestone perhaps more impressive than his previous career accolades. O’Neill already possessed five World Series rings, a batting title, five all-star appearances and a renowned reputation as an old school, ultra-competitive firebrand. What transpired in 2001 was fairly innocuous by O’Neill’s standards of excellence, but was notable nonetheless: he set a career high for stolen bases with 22. Even more impressive was the fact that he did so in the least amount of regular season games in a fulltime, non-strike shortened season in his career.
Unfortunately, in today’s baseball climate, O’Neill’s milestone would go widely unrecognized in the baseball community due to the lack of emphasis placed on baseball’s second-most exciting play, the stolen base (despite Buster Posey’s best efforts, America still loves a great play at the plate, and it is the most exciting play in the game).
There is no question that baseball, and much as all aspects of life, from fashion, to art, to entertainment, is a cyclical entity. Currently, we are entrenched in the 1970’s Earl Weaver mode of thinking which emphasizes that hitting a three run home run is preferable to generating runs through the “antiquated” methods of small ball.
This irony surely cannot be lost on so many baseball fans. Only a decade ago, with the success of Mike Scioscia’s Los Angeles Angels and MLB’s crackdown on PED’s and steroids, many baseball insiders and pundits were singing and dancing in chorus lines for bunts and steals, while writing poetry and dirty limericks about hit and runs and the wonders of a sacrifice fly. Small ball was hailed as the present and future of the game. Astounding how things change so quickly, and without the results to validate such a change in philosophy.
Power numbers are down across the board, the astronomically high amount of strikeouts is despicable, and pitchers are mowing down players at alarming rates. With the amount of strikeouts in recent years, the speed of the game—outside of Boston, at least—hasn’t been such an issue, especially with NFL games lasting virtually the same amount of time, if not more. Seriously, East Coast fans ought not to have too much trouble staying up to watch west coast baseball because the games are usually over between midnight and 12:45 EST. Begrudgingly, we can thank the likes of Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn, and Mark Reynolds for the rediscovered joys of speedy play.
However, despite the changing landscape of baseball, another irony is seemingly taking place before our eyes. For years, sabermetricians and advocates of advanced metrics in baseball howled until they were heard, and infiltrated all levels of baseball until their theories gradually became the modern orthodoxy for player evaluation and on field decision-making. They challenged baseball’s old guard, they dismissed traditional statistics like RBIs’ for newer jargon such as Adjusted ERA+, and they re-engineered the system in their intellectual image.
This multitude of number crunchers even got their own movie for a system that has never won a World Series. Brad Pitt definitely brought sympathetic eyes to a most sympathetic figure in Billy Beane; the man whose results never come close to matching his reputation.
This group was never challenged until now.
Are we, as fans and followers of baseball, supposed to look the other way and pretend that the offensive way of playing baseball is working, or even at times competent?
The game has been abundantly altered over the course of the last ten years, which seems like a large enough time period to draw some conclusions and cull enough data to reach some conclusions. The very obvious conclusion is that whatever is happening with pitchers from Little League on up through the majors, it is working. Baseball personalities such as Al Leiter and Tim Kurkjian have elucidated that they cannot recall a time in recent baseball history when so many tremendous talents have been available in the pitching profession, from stacked pitching rotations to bullpens filled with 100mph flamethrowers. Baseball’s new philosophy has been good to pitchers.
Unfortunately, while the pitchers have flourished due to new developmental and philosophical techniques, offense has slowed to a crawl and suffered tremendously. Some blame defensive shifts, but they are ultimately beatable if players were not so stubborn and pig-headed about pulling the ball. Ty Cobb once excoriated Ted Williams for hitting into a shift, bemoaning that he could simply poke the ball the other way to get on base. This anecdote feeds into the soul of baseball—individual success translates to team success. By being persistent to play the game on their own terms, players have reduced bunting and sacrifice plays to relics of a past age that no longer serve any purpose in the modern game. Along with these plays, stolen bases have suffered because they are far too risky and waste precious outs. It seems far more likely like a waste of great talents with niche skills sets like Brett Gardner, Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon.
Of course, if sabermetricians and new age baseball thinkers think stolen bases ought to be eradicated , then they should be because the current offensive juggernauts are lighting up scoreboards like Christmas trees, right?
Perhaps it is time to not overhaul what teams are doing offensively, but time for them to tweak their systems. Sky high strike out totals, GIDP’s, and runners loitering on base have become customary to a startling degree, and it’s time that baseball ought to rely less on players driving each other in and rely more on having the players on base create something.
It’s time for MLB to once again consider the stolen base and what it has to offer.