AL now a den of thieves

Stolen base figures reflect major shift

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / May 12, 2009
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The style of the two major leagues became ingrained over the years. The American League method relied on some slugger bashing a three-run homer. If you wanted speed and strategy, that was the domain of the National League. The AL harvested runs with the designated hitter. The NL cultivated them with the sacrifice bunt.

The stolen base, then, fit squarely into the NL view. Compare the leagues in any year, and you would find the NL stealing more bases than the AL.

"If you would have asked me who's leading, the NL or the AL, I would have said the NL," said Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

And Ellsbury would be wrong. The early season quietly has shredded convention about how the American League approaches the game, a shift that provides more evidence of a changing sport.

The AL has stolen more bases than the NL twice in the past 15 years, but it could happen this year for the first time since 2001. Going into last night, American League teams have stolen 321 bases compared with the National League's 284, despite having played 29 fewer games. At the current pace, AL teams will steal a total of 1,654 bases this season, which would be their most since 1998 and 337 more than last season.

As evidence of the trend, the Red Sox need look no further than the series they just concluded and the one they are about to begin. The Tampa Bay Rays are lapping the major leagues in stolen bases, having swiped 53. The Los Angeles Angels, against whom the Sox open a series tonight, rank second with 37. The Sox themselves have helped push the trend. They've stolen 25 bags, tied for fourth in the majors.

The way teams try to score has, at once, harkened to earlier eras and evolved.

"Nobody is sitting back waiting for the home run," said Rays left fielder Carl Crawford, who leads the majors with 22 steals. "All the steroids and stuff are gone. You've got to focus on guys who can find other ways to score runs.

"In the American League, it seems like guys are running. It's the new era. It's the new way to play. We're finding guys who can run and do a lot of things."

The adoption of drug testing apparently has forced teams to rethink their strategy. American League home run totals hit their lowest point since 1995 over the past two seasons, down to one per game last year and 0.99 in 2007.

Home runs steadily have decreased for several seasons, but stolen base totals have exploded only this year. Another turning point accompanied baseball's crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs: The Rays won the American League championship last year, and they did so while leading the league with 142 stolen bases.

"For the longest time, teams were making adjustments to the Yankees and Red Sox," said former Mets general manager Steve Phillips, who is now an ESPN analyst. "They were bulking up their pitching staffs to keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox. They were adding power to keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox. Now we're seeing teams transition to try to keep up with the Rays. They're adding speed to keep up with them."

While American League clubs are stealing more bases, they're also stealing more efficiently. The AL has stolen at a 75.5 percent success rate, which would be the second-highest rate in the past 20 seasons.

Baseball Prospectus, which uses a formula to determine base-stealing value, states a bag stolen increases a team's expected runs by .25, whereas getting caught decreases the total by .64. Bloated home run totals made that a chance not worth taking. Now, the extra base means more.

"When we get thrown out, I don't necessarily see it as a lost opportunity to score a run," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "There's an attitude about your team that can permeate the rest of the game also.

"You have to prepare for a team that does that. It's so much more difficult to prepare. If your team is able to do that, then you have other ways to score runs. It's another little switch that you can flip. For some teams, it's just not there."

"I think the game is changing in a different direction," said Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "You see a lot more speed guys. You look at the Indians, Grady Sizemore. He's a younger player. He's very exciting in the outfield. He steals. He hits a lot of triples.

"That's the player I think that the game is going to. It's exciting. There's a lot of younger players that hopefully a lot of fans can look to and say, 'This game is changing the right way.' "

Two such players illustrated how much fun it can be early this season. When the Sox played in Tampa Bay, Ellsbury grabbed the lead by stealing three bases in the third game of the series. The next day, Crawford stole six, which tied the modern record, to reclaim the lead.

Ellsbury and Crawford could engage in a similar back-and-forth for years. They're two of the fastest and best baserunners in a league that embraces their best asset.

"I'm glad about that," Crawford said. "I definitely want to make a mark in the new era that's going on so you can kind of get your name out of the old one. It's nice to have that. I have a lot of fun doing it."

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