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Griff says... Speed Kills

I’ve been thinking about an article about the importance of speed in MLB for quite awhile. When you analyze baseball history you will see that historical trends are evident. In other words, history repeats itself. Over the decades we moved from an emphasis on offense, to pitching, to speed, then back to pitching, and now offense again.

I’m not saying pitching is less important but rather that plus offense is now becoming more important. Let’s face it, the Yanks won because of their powerful offense and pretty good pitching. The Phillies were champs two years ago because of their offense and good pitching at the right time. But it certainly looks as though we can make a strong statement that superior offense beats good pitching regularly now. In spite of stellar pitching by the Braves last year, they only came into contention when their offense led the NL the second half in runs scored.

One of the main reasons this trend has reversed itself in recent years is because of the clamp on steroids and HGH. Ten years ago it was all about home runs. Everyone was trying to understand why there were so many home runs. Many people said the balls were being made different. Others said the bats were being made different. Still others said that pitching was down and some said the hitters were just getting bigger and stronger. But it appears now that the main reason for home runs flying out of the parks at record individual numbers was likely due to steroids and HGH. But that era is finished or at least dying out. The home run totals have declined over the last several years, or at least leveled off, and that is a direct result of the reduced use of steroids and HGH.

If we take the trend to the next logical level it will be an emphasis on speed. If you can’t sit back and wait for the two or three run homer anymore, then you have to learn to manufacture runs. But just having speed is not enough. You have to use it and implement a speed strategy. Having a speedster like Nate McLouth who has an incredibly successful stolen base percentage doesn’t do any good when he doesn’t get on base and doesn’t attempt steals often. (Please, somebody tell Bobby Cox to read this article.)

Some organizations have already made speed a successful strategy. The Angels had little in home run power last year but led the league in batting average. They scored by stealing, advancing the runner, sacrifices, taking an extra base, and in general, being more aggressive in the way they approached the offensive strategy. I think that will become more prevalent in the near future and if you look at the recent draft classes, more speed picks are being made, even by the Braves. In our last year’s draft we took a couple speed guys.

One of the attributes about speed that you have to like is that it is easily identifiable. You don’t teach speed to any measurable degree so they either have it at an early age or they don’t. It is not like the guessing that goes on when you draft pitchers. If someone is fast at the minor league level and steals a lot of bases, it is likely they will be similarly successful in the bigs.

Even though the Phillies are known as a power offense, they also utilize speed to a much larger degree than is commonly known. Philadelphia was fourth in all of baseball with 136 steals last year. To put it in perspective the Braves had 58 and finished 27th out of 30 teams. In fact, of the top 10 teams in steals last year, 8 of them were in the playoffs recently. So you have to agree that it is becoming an important factor. Chase Utley specifically worked this offseason to give himself more flexibility that translates into better range at second and also to steal more bases. Yunel Escobar talked about stealing 20 bases this year as a primary goal.

There is a team speed approach and an individual speed approach. Those teams just mentioned in the top 10 last year use a team speed approach. They steal bases with many different players, not all of which are known to be speedsters. If you use the right approach and situation, even slower players can steal bases. Let’s not forget McCann and Chipper have both been successful stealing recently when they ran at certain times.

In the Braves exhibition opener on Tuesday, Jason Heyward stole third. Earlier in the game it looked like two instances where a Braves runner went from first to third on a hit and run. That is something I would love to see Cox do more often this year. It’s exciting and creates momentum and opportunities.

But along with the increased use of speed you also need more situation awareness and understanding of what is needed as a batter at any given time. In the same season exhibition opener this week, the Braves had an opportunity to break the game open in the third inning I believe. We had runners on second and third with less than two outs. All we needed was a sacrifice fly from someone to score a run. But Infante, Mitch Jones and McLouth all failed to do so. That is the difference between manufacturing runs and trying to be the hero.

Who remembers when Ricky Henderson played and how much his threat of speed terrorized other teams and changed the whole dynamic of the game? The same occurred with Maury Wills, and Lou Brock, and others. Yes they were fast, but when you implement a team speed approach and are more aggressive, you put more pressure on the other team. More often than not it works. Here’s why.

Most pitchers are right-handed. Most righties do not have plus moves to first base. When a runner is on base, it is easy to distract the pitcher with the threat of speed. Even if they don’t pay attention to you (like Braves pitchers are notoriously known for) then it works in the favor of the runner also. Either the pitcher gets distracted and makes a mistake to the batter, or he ignores the runner and turns an average speed baserunner into a stealing threat. Add to that the woeful average percentage caught stealing and you can conclude that catchers are also at a disadvantage. It’s just like free throw shooting. If you can only throw out a runner 30-40% of the time, you are going to fail most of the time and the other team will want to put you into those situations more often. There’s no reason why McLouth, Escobar, Diaz, Cabrera and Heyward can’t each steal 15-20 bases this year if opportunities are seized. And Chipper, Prado and Infante could steal another 10. Why is this not a good idea especially when we are concerned about our power hitting?

When you look at teams that are most dangerous, especially in the National League because we don’t have the Designated Hitter, it is usually the teams with a leadoff guy who has dangerous speed. Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins are often the difference-makers when they are on base and running. Even though neither has a stellar on base percentage, they are in the leadoff spot because they have speed and when they are on base they will usually try to steal. National League leadoff hitters are at somewhat of a disadvantage when it comes to OBP because they are too often in worse situations than their American League counterparts. That is the difference between having a pitcher hit ninth in front of you a couple times a game versus a designated hitter. The teams with the speed approach are able to steal and take the extra base on a hit, advance the runner more often, and score from second nearly always.

As we saw in the exhibition opener this week, when the Braves can’t get the leadoff guy on, we really limit our chances. Even more so when the leadoff guy strikes out and creates no chance at all by not putting the ball in play. Heyward’s steal of third could have made the difference in the game had we been able to get him in. Imagine how much more media publicity there would have been then?

I’ve been pushing this subject throughout the offseason and will continue to do so. The Braves need a leadoff hitter who can get on base consistently and steal bases, take the extra base, score from second on virtually any ball through the infield, and tag and get to second and third on long fly balls. If we don’t have this performance from McLouth, and if we don’t find someone else who can fill this role, all the other factors and question marks could go well for the Braves and we may still not win enough games. I have said it before and will reiterate here. The leadoff man is either the first or second most important role in the offense. If we struggle at the leadoff position we will struggle all year.

My recommendation is to platoon Diaz and Cabrera at the leadoff position. Both are aggressive, good baserunners with pretty good onbase percentages and make consistent contact with the ball. That is our best alternative until Jordan Schafer is ready again.

My next blog will be on Monday. The topic will be about Agents and Issues. Griff says…later.

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