The Quick and the Dead

Posted on February 17, 2011

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Remember Vince Coleman? I do.

Coleman burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s with St. Louis, stealing 326 bases his first three seasons in the speed-oriented, AstroTurf-carpeted world of baseball in the 1980s. He became the very symbol of an era defined by Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines and other speed demons, an era during which the game centered not upon home runs (as the era that replaced it would) but upon speed and athleticism.

But then came that next era, the era of Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco and other caricatures whose muscles looked like something out of an anime TV show. Home run rates leaped across the league, and the new vogue was to stack one’s lineup with slow-footed 20-plus homer guys.

As a result, Vince Coleman’s 1987 season was the last time a player stole 100 bases. If Coleman had retired at age 26 and not played another game, he would have had 326 swipes. Among active players, Derek Jeter of the Yankees ranks tenth on the steals list–with 323. Even as the pitchers took back a good bit of the ground they had surrendered for the past 20 years, MLB teams stole fewer than 100 bases per team in 2010. The steals total was up perhaps 15 or 20 percent last year over the totals in the middle of the past decade, but all things considered, speed remained a secondary component of offensive strategy in baseball.

All that is about to change. Baseball has undergone the first part of a revolution over the past few years: Entirely washed clean of the steroid era, the league has begun to search for better and more useful ways to determine player value than pure home-run power. One key component of that new analysis has been opening up defensive evaluation to a math-friendly, objective analysis previously considered impossible or invalid. A middling offensive player can endear himself to fans, teams and statisticians by demonstrating excellent defensive range. That is the new ideal: A player with good offensive skills but truly excellent defensive abilities. Those guys tend to be the crossover athletes, the ones who can run all day.

As a result, hordes of young players with speed and defensive skills are coming up through minor-league systems and getting much longer looks as legitimate potential contributors. As hard as it may be to believe, Yankees fans, there was a time when Brett Gardner would almost certainly not have had a full-time job. Nor would Oakland’s Cliff Pennington, or Toronto’s Rajai Davis. Yet all three should see ample playing time and threaten 50 steals in 2011.

More such talents are on the way. Mike Trout, the best position player prospect in the minor leagues, has great speed; so does Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings. Brett Jackson, the top prospect in the Chicago Cubs’ system, is an outfielder who should easily swipe 30 bases in his prime. Domonic Brown has the same sort of speed for the Phillies. All could take over as full-time players before the end of the season, and certainly will by 2012. All but Jennings will replace slower, less athletic players. Teams like Boston (who added Carl Crawford to Jacoby Ellsbury to round out their corps of speedy threats), Tampa Bay, Texas, Philadelphia and the LA Angels have thrived recently on having and using speed wisely. Oakland and San Diego have identified speed as an undervalued asset and have managed to stay competitive despite minuscule payrolls, mostly on the strength of stealing bases and playing great defense.

Will another blazing speedster steal 100 bags again soon? No. But the days of the one-dimensional offensive player are over. If the trendy tool of the 1980s was speed, and the fad in the 1990s was power, and in the 2000s it was plate discipline, then the 2010s will be all about balancing those skills. Trout, Jackson, Brown and others represent a future in baseball that could be even more exciting than its present: The game is getting more and more athletic, and therefore more and more fun to watch, and those who do not embrace the power of speed will be left to eat dust.

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