Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Scientists tell us that the fastest animal on earth, with a top speed of 120 feet per second, is a cow that has been dropped out of a helicopter.
Speed in baseball has been on my mind a lot these days. The Phillies have lived and breathed the long ball in recent years and appear – partly thanks to the presence of new first base coach Davey Lopes – to be emphasizing speed in their training and pre-season strategy these days. This isn’t a bad development in my judgment, as long as the Phillies don’t become the Anaheim Angels, because the Phillies probably ought to diversify their offensive philosophy a little. Few teams can get away playing exclusively small ball and win, and few teams can simply play station-to-station baseball expect to do the same. According to Steve Boros, the Oakland A’s manager in ‘82, the key to winning isn’t just base-stealing or just hitting home runs: “You can’t win with only stolen bases. Few teams win with only power, because they eventually can be pitched to. The great modern teams [Big Red Machine, mid-‘70’s A’s] had a blend of speed and power.” Diversity. Teams without at least some diversity will get into trouble because they can't threaten the opposition at either aspect of the game.
The Phillies will have a nice blend of speed and power in 2007. They are coming off of a season where they were third in the National League in Home Runs with 216 and ranked eighth in stolen bases with 92. The Phillies don’t utilize the stolen base as often as some teams, but they are faster than your average squad of slow-footed sluggers. The Atlanta Braves, for example, led the N.L. in home runs with 222 and stole just 52 bases, worst in the N.L. No surprise then that the Braves were never seriously in the playoff race.
Even with Bobby Abreu (20 steals in 24 attempts) wearing the blue pinstripes instead of the red, the 2007 Phillies have a lot of speed to burn. Specifically, they have six players – three starters and three bench players – who will challenge the arms of defenders in the field. First … a word about what I mean about “speed”. I categorize two plays as being "speed" plays: the stolen base and the triple. The steal is obvious – a player has to cover ninety feet while the ball is being delivered to home and beat out the throw from the catcher. This is a play that Mark McGwire did not excel at. The triple is also a speed play as well because a player has to cover 3/4 of the field while the ball is in play. I don’t consider the double a display of speed because many players can cover the distance without any trouble if they drive the ball hard enough. The triple, that extra ninety feet of distance, is the mark of a fast, fast player.
The Phillies fastest player in lead-off hitter Jimmy Rollins, who stole 36 bases in 40 tries in 2006. Rollins is a real speedster, having taken 207 bases in 259 attempts in his career. His 36 steals were ninth in the N.L. in 2006. Rollins also hit nine triples, which was good for ninth in the N.L. Rollins has 61 career triples and has led the N.L. in three-baggers three times: ’01, ’02 & ’04. That aggressive speed on the bases is what makes Rollins the Phillies best speed threat.
But will Rollins still be stealing bases with frequency in 2007? The team has floated the possibility of batting Rollins fifth in the order to provide support for Ryan Howard. I am not sure that is the best of options, but having a player with Rollins unique blend of power and speed that low in the lineup would lengthen the Phillies lineup and give some options for the team, e.g., having Rollins steal a base to give the Phillies a runner in scoring position for Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand and to prevent the double play. However, I am opposed to the move because J.Roll is more valuable as a lead-off hitter. I expect Rollins to try for 50-60 steals in 2007.
Expect to see Chase Utley run a little more as well. Utley might be the Phillies most complete player, hitting 32 home runs, 40 doubles and stealing 15 bases along with hitting four triples. He’s quick, he hits hard and he plays – like Jimmy Rollins at shortstop – a tough defensive position: second base. It is astonishing that the Phillies have a middle infield that features good defensive players with both speed and power to their game.
Finally, we come to Shane Victorino. Victorino is an interesting player, probably the Phillies best defensive outfielder, and could be a major speed threat in 2007. Victorino attempted seven steals and was successful just four times, not a good percentage. However, Victorino also hit eight triples. I think he’s got a lot of speed and talent. Expect to see Victorino hit second (or perhaps first if the Phillies move Rollins to fifth in the lineup) and expect to see him try 30 or so steals in 2007.
Speed from the Bench: The Phillies seem to be set with Danny Sandoval and Chris Roberson to come off the bench to help out in the infield and outfield respectively, while Michael Bourn could (and should) get some playing time. I am wary about rehashing ground that I’ve already covered with my post on Bourn vs. Roberson, but I’ll have a few points to make …
Michael Bourn has a lot of speed and I would be very, very interested to see how he’d do if he got some playing time. As a Reading Phillie and Scranton Red Baron he got a lot of playing time and displayed speed to burn. Bourn got 87 hits as a Reading Phillie. Fifteen went for extra-bases and six of those were triples. As a Red Baron he got 43 hits, thirteen for extra-bases and seven were triples. Total, thirteen of Bourn’s twenty-eight extra-base hits were three-baggers, and 10% of Bourn’s hits were triples (13 of 130).
On those mundane occasions where he only drew a walk, Bourn was still looking to test the defense with a steal. He attempted fifty steals in 2005 and 2006, going roughly 1/3 of the chances he had to do so:
Times on Base* / Attempted Steals
Scranton (’06): 55 / 16
Reading (’06): 113 / 34
Reading (’05): 185 / 50
* defined as singles, doubles and walks. Naturally, there were probably occasions where Bourn drew a walk or hit a single and second base was closed. And stealing third is an atypical play in baseball.
Roberson and Sandoval used to incorporate speed into their game, but not any more. Sandoval, who will turn 28 this year, has been trying to break into the majors for years and finally did it in 2006.
Sandoval got around, starting the year in Reading (Double-A), then moving to Scranton (Triple-A), playing in 28 games for the Phillies, and then traveling in Venezuela to play in the Venezuelan Winter League. I wouldn’t categorize his speed numbers as being particularly good: with the Reading Phillies and Scranton Red Barons he attempted a total of four steals, despite having been on base 109 times. Only one of his 97 hits was a triple. As a Phillie he had 8 hits in 38 At-Bats, but just a double as his sole extra-base hit and without any steals. In Winter League ball with Pastora de los Llanos, Sandoval tried to run more. He was on base 54 times and attempted nine steals. Unfortunately he was successful just five times. He also failed to hit a triple.
Base-stealing had once been a vital part of Sandoval’s game: in 2005 with the Red Barons he had tried to steal 22 times, but had been caught 11 times. I suspect those struggles compelled either Sandoval or the Phillies minor league instructors to curtail his running on the bases.
I’ll try not to rehash any old points I made about Roberson, but he doesn’t really take advantage of his speed the way that Bourn does. Roberson was on-base 103 times with the Red Barons and attempted 34 steals. Not bad, and comparable to what Bourn did. Roberson only had two triples and 14 doubles in 2006. What it tells me is that Roberson is a more timid runner than Bourn, who tried to stretch doubles into triples with far more frequency. Like Sandoval, Roberson played some Winter League ball, playing in the Mexican League with Naranjeros de Hermosillo where he only hit one triple and attempted nineteen steals in 94 times on base. His efforts at base-stealing were somewhat for naught, as he was caught nine times in nineteen tries.
His efforts at being quick on the base-paths used to be there a little more: in 2005 he tried 48 steals after having been on base 189 times. He hit eight triples in Reading, but that is much less impressive when you realize that he did that while getting 172 hits and where 47 for extra-bases. Roberson is fast, but just not as fast as Bourn.
So there are my thoughts on speed. Expect to see the Phillies get more aggressive on the bases, trying to stretch some doubles into triples and trying to challenge the arms of catchers more by stealing bases.
Mind you this base-stealing strategy isn't one that I am enamored of. Base-stealing runs counter to the central tenents of sabremetrics theory: when teams have a runner on first with no outs, they can expect to score .9227 runs in an inning. If that runner successfully steals second, their run scoring probability rises to 1.1629. If that runner is caught, their run probability drops to .2877. In other words, a successful steal makes you just 26% more likely to score a run, while being caught stealing makes you 69% less likely. This is why I am skeptical that teams like the Rockies, the Dodgers or the Angels can really be successful in the long-term employing this small ball approach. I am open-minded enough to agree that diversity on offense can only help the Phillies and I am willing to say that the Phillies should run more, stretch more doubles into triples, try and take that extra base with a steal. Just so long as the Phillies don’t forget that their identity is the power offense. Doubles. Home Runs. Walks.
Let’s see what the Phillies do.
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