Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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United States, Pennsylvania, Wexford, Christopher Wren, English, Michael, Male, 26-30, baseball , politics.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Bourn Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum 

Bill James writes in his Historical Baseball Abstract: "The trend toward more and more home runs and more and more strikeouts will also end ..." In part, James argues, it will end because the game is cyclical, and also because someone or something will come along and change the game. I think that is in the process of happening right now. Something is happening to change the game's attitude towards the home run, and that something is steroids. Steroids are going to move the game away from guys who hit 50 home runs, and towards guys who steal 80 bases. We are in that transformation right now, although the numbers don’t back me up:

Steals per Game (SB/G):
2007: 0.75
2006: 0.82
2005: 0.74
2004: 0.72

In 1977, in contrast, there were 1.23 steals per game. However, with the renewed focus on steroids, which have put the sluggers under the microscope, I expect to see a decline in home runs. Teams, once they absorb these trends, will respond by emphasizing small-ball tactics like bunt, hit-and-runs, and base-stealing more and more. (And hey, success breeds imitators. If a small-ball team like the Anaheim Angels wins the World Series, then expect teams to move in that direction, just as teams did with OBP in the early part of the decade with the Oakland A’s and Moneyball.) During the late 1950’s, with the power game in decline, teams moved towards base-stealing as a means of seeking an advantage. The Go-Go Sox of 1959 and Maury Wills of the Dodgers helped convince teams to emphasize speed, which came to dominate baseball during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that teams began to rely on the power game to engineer runs.

Home Runs today do seem to be in a decline:
2007: 0.9477 HR/G
2006: 1.0965 HR/G
2005: 0.9946 HR/G
2004: 1.0988 HR/G
2003: 1.0455 HR/G

Perhaps the preliminarily low numbers of home runs are partly attributable to the lousy weather in the Northeast in April, but it seems possible/probable that the new focus on steroids is a factor here. Time will tell. Expect teams to adjust to the changes with an emphasis on speed. I hardly think that we are entering a new dead-ball era, but it seems likely that teams are going to take another look at speed.

The Phillies look like they are moving to embrace the running game. Consider this: right now the average N.L. baseball teams has attempted 51.5 steals in their first 68-70 games. Those teams have been successful 73% of the time. The Phillies have run 65 times in 69 games, or nearly one per game, which is slightly more than the league average. The Phillies have been successful 85% of the time this season. It looks like the speed game has been successful and I predict the Phillies will employ it more in the future.

With all of that in mind we turn to our (very brief) look at Michael Bourn’s season thus far with the Phillies. Bourn beat out fellow minor league prospect Chris Roberson to win the role of the Phillies fifth outfielder / pinch-runner in Spring Training and has electrified the Phillies with his speed on the base-paths. Thus far this season Bourn has attempted ten steals and has successfully taken the base on all ten tries. I doubt there is any other player in baseball this season who has relied more exclusively on his feet to get around the base-paths:

Bourn’s Bases Gained:
By Stolen-Base: 10
By Base on Balls: 6
By Batted Ball: 11
Total Bases: 27

Stolen Bases are 37% of Bourn’s bases gained. I can’t calculate what Bourn does simply running the bases when the ball is put into play.

Bourn ranks sixteenth in the National League in stolen-bases, which isn’t too shabby when you consider that he has just forty-four plate appearances, far fewer than most of his fellow speedsters. The only player in the N.L. with a comparable rate of success to Bourn is the Mets David Wright (sixteen-for-sixteen). Bourn, who is really a part-time player because he’s the fifth of five outfielders on the Phillies roster, would probably get 70-80 steals in a season if the Phillies turned him loose and allowed him to play full time.

Advocates of speed argue that it transforms the game. Although there is precious little evidence that an effective base-stealer significantly rattles a pitcher on the mound, you can see some definable instances where a player like Bourn changes the complexion of a game. Bourn’s performance in the seventh inning of the Phillies – Giants game on May 6th is a terrific example of that: after Charlie Manuel lifted Pat Burrell for Bourn when Burrell drew his fourth walk of the game in the seventh, Bourn proceeded to steal second and third bases, then take home on a fielders choice with Wes Helms. Helms weak grounder ought to have held Bourn at third base, but his impressive speed allowed him to easily beat the throw home.

As electrifying as Bourn has been on the bases, don’t forget Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino either. Rollins is tied for eighth in the N.L. in steals with thirteen (in sixteen chances). Victorino is third in the N.L. with twenty-one. What makes Victorino’s base-stealing really impressive is the fact that he’s been unsuccessful just twice. That is a 91% success rate.

Watch the Phillies and see how much their approach to the game changes as the season continues on.

The Phillies won last night to stay within two games of the Mets and a half game from the Braves for second-place. Things will get interesting starting this weekend, and I'll explain why on Friday.

Tomorrow: Ruiz vs. Barajas.

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