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SMART BASERUNNING CREATES AN OFFENSIVE EDGE: Even with basestealing not as prevalent in the majors today, baserunning is still critical to creating runs and having a productive offense.

The facts are there for all to see. The number of stolen bases in the major leagues has decreased dramatically in recent years.

How less often are major-league teams flashing the teal sign? In 2017, there were 2,527 stolen bases spread mong the 30 clubs. Compare that total to 20 years prior, when there were 3,308 steals in the majors.

Going all the way back to 1987, when major-league clubs accumulated 3.585 stolen bases, the decrease is nearly 1,000 bags over30 years, a noteworthy reduction.

To see how things have changed on the base-paths, consider that Kansas City's Whit Merrifield led the American League with 34 steals in 2017. How low was that total in the history of major-league ball? Well, it was the fewest to top the A.L. since 1962, when Luis Aparicio swiped 31 bases.

There is little question that stolen bases have become less a part of the American League game, where teams have the extra bat at the designated hitter spot and would rather swing for the fences than play small ball. In general, baseball is in a swing-and-miss era where strikeouts no longer carry a stigma, and teams fear getting caught stealing before one of their sluggers goes deep.

Last season, only three players stole 40 bases in the majors--Miami's Dee Gordon (60), Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton (59) and Washington's Trea Turner (43). After Turner, it dropped to 25 for St. Louis'Tommy I'liam in the National League.

Before 2015. there hadn't been three or fewer with 40 steals over a full season since 1967. That season, which was dominated by pitching, only St. Louis' Lou Brock and Oakland's Bert Campaneris reached that figure.

So, is the stolen base dead? Do modern analytics so discourage making outs on the bases that speedy runners are seeing their cleats figuratively nailed to the base?

Not so fast, says Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell, whose club led the National League with 128 stolen bases last season, second only to the 136 steals by the Los Angeles Angels.

"It's not new to not give up outs on the bases," Counsell said. "That's been around for a while. But, as much as anything, it can create a mentality for your team that's important, and that you can use.

"We have to manage our team to what our talent is. We've had players who can steal bases, and who can run the bases. Speed is part of their game, and we're going to continue to take advantage of that. We're going to continue to take bases whenever we can, and that's not going to change.

"I understand and value not making outs on the bases. I also value what aggressiveness does. We've seen the advantage of having a player on first who can steal a base, and the pitcher changes and tries to be quicker to the plate, and he makes a mistake.

"That's exactly what we want. There's no stolen base but there's the threat, and that leads to an advantage for our hitter. That's not something they've figured out how to measure yet, and I don't know if we will. But we feel like we've gained advantages for that, and we'll continue to do that."

In other words, running the bases remains important in the big leagues, whether you are piling up stolen-base numbers or not. For example, Angels perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout has not come close to matching the league-leading 49 steals of his rookie season in 2012 (he swiped 22 bags last year), but is still regarded one of the best baserunners in the majors because of the combination of speed, aggressiveness and technique in cutting the bases on a dime and giving nine cents change.

The same goes for Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant over in the National League. Bryant is not blessed with great speed, as evidenced by his 28 steals in 42 attempts over his three seasons in the majors. But Bryant's hustle still makes him a weapon on the bases, with infielders well aware they better not bobble the ball when he's pushing it down the line to first base.

"Kris Bryant always runs a ball out," said Milwaukee third-base coach Ed Sedar, who supervises the Brewers' running game. "Even on routine grounders, he runs the ball out. So, you can't take anything for granted on him."

When scouts talk about the top baserunners in the game, the name of Houston's Jose Altuve always surfaces. One of the top thieves in the game, the diminutive second baseman led the A.L. with 56 stolen bases in 2014 but has compiled more modest totals in recent years, including a mere 32 last season that still nearly caught Merrifield for the league lead.

As with all good basestealers, Altuve is not afraid of being caught. He has led the league in caught stealing three times in the last five years. But it's nothing ventured, nothing gained on the basepaths, and his prowess extends beyond the mere statistic of bases stolen.

When it comes to stealing bases these days, no one is feared more than Cincinnati center fielder Billy Hamilton, generally recognized as the fastest baserunner in the game. Hamilton's totals have been limited somewhat by his on-base struggles (.298 career OBP), but that hasn't stopped him from being very consistent in the steal department the last four seasons--56, 57, 58 and 59.

Hamilton is known throughout the league as a "walking double," because if you put him on base, he's going to be on second in the blink of an eye.

"We see Billy a lot," said Sedar, whose Brewers face off against the Reds throughout the season in the N.L. Central. "We know when he gets on, quickly he's going to try to steal.

"Billy also will try to score from second on a groundball in the hole at short. He just keeps going. Those are things you have to look out for."

MLB.com debuted a new baserunning statistic in 2017--Sprint Speed--that revealed the fastest runners in the majors by determining how many feet per second they cover on the bases when at full bore. To no one's surprise, Hamilton ranked first with an average of 30.1 feet per second.

The other top speedsters on the basepaths might surprise you. Second on that Statcast list is Minnesota's Byron Buxton at 29.9 feet per second (a good reason why he was nabbed just once in 30 stolen-base attempts in 2017), followed by Cleveland's Bradley Zimmer (29.8), San Diego's Franchy Cordero (29.6) and Milwaukee's Keon Broxton (29.4), all budding players just getting their big-league careers going. The major-league average is considered 27 feet per second.

Despite a low .299 OBP last season in 143 games with the Brewers, Counsell saw Broxton make a big difference on the basepaths, even beyond his 21 steals in 28 attempts.

"Some things, the majority of runners take advantage of," Counsell said. "But the times Keon goes on contact at third base and scores, it's hard to factor that in from a baserunning value.

"When a guy that fast goes on contact, it changes the infielder's world, believe me. I look at Keon and what he can do on the bases, and he is a good baserunner. He creates problems fot the other team. Baserunning can still affect games without it showing up as a measurable."

Already a good baserunning team, the Brewers improved that area with the offseason acquisitions of Lorenzo Cain (five-year free-agent deal) and Christian Yelich (trade with Miami), considered two of the best athletes in the game. Neither is a prolific basestealer, per se (Cain's career high is 28 and Yelich's is 21), but both are high on-base players who go first-to-third and home-to-first on base hits with the best of them.

Last season, at age 31, Cain was 26-for-28 in steal attempts with Kansas City, a good indication that he knows when to take off and when to stay put.

"They are smart baserunners," Sedar said. "They might not steal a lot of bases, but they run the bases smart and take advantage of opportunities given them. If they can take a base, they will do it. That adds energy to the whole team.

"They both get on base a lot, so they can keep the pressure on you... Yelich has those long legs and he eats up a lot of ground in a hurry. He makes it look easy on the bases. Cain is the same way. They're a lot alike in that regard."

Gone are the days of the 100-steal-a-year rabbits such as Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman. How many modern baseball fans remember that Henderson eclipsed the 100 plateau three times in the early '80s, just before Coleman turned the trick three consecutive seasons from '85-'87?

With risk assessment now a huge part of the game in so many areas, teams are more selective and conservative in going for broke on the basepaths.

Several factors have contributed to that change, including teams depending on the longball for runs, the risk of finger or hand injuries (everyone seems to go head-first these days), more pitchers adept at slide steps and holding runners, and an emphasis on playing catchers who can control the running game.

Some players also point to the increased use of instant replay on "bang-bang" plays on steal attempts. Because that still relatively new tool is being used more and more to "nit-pick" close plays, runners must be sure to maintain contact with the base until the play is completely over or risk being called out for coming an inch off the bag. (Some fielders are quite adept at giving a nudge at the proper instant.)

All of which adds importance to other areas of baserunning--taking an extra base on a weak outfield arm, beating the throw home on contact plays, worrying a pitcher into mistakes with big leads and breaks off the bag, etc.

Heads-up, speedy runners such as Jarrod Dyson, Mookie Betts, Delino DeShields Jr., Starling Marte, A.J. Pollock, Jean Segura and Cameron Maybin can change the course of a game with their prowess at capturing bases, 90 feet at a time.

"Stolen bases might be down but baserunning is still important in the game," Sedar said. "You look at Houston and the way they run the bases. They reduced their strikeouts last year and were aggressive on the bases. They always keep the pressure on the other club. That's why their offense is so good.

"There are a lot of ways to get an edge in a game, and smart baserunning is one of them."

By Tom Haudricourt
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Author:Haudricourt, Tom
Publication:Baseball Digest
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2018
Words:1781
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