More teams feeling the need for speed on bases
Even traditional power clubs like Yanks, Red Sox possess strong running games
The focus at the moment is on Masahiro Tanaka, the expensive and promising addition to the New York Yankees' rotation. His signing followed that of center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, a move that could impact the balance of power in the American League East in a surprising way by putting a different brand of pressure on clubs visiting the big ballpark in New York.
Are you ready for the Bronx Burners?
Linking Ellsbury with Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki and Alfonso Soriano -- elite baserunners of the era along with the comebacking Derek Jeter -- could turn New York into a daring outfit not normally associated with pinstripes. Carlos Beltran, another free-agent import, is a smart baserunner as well, even if he's not as adventurous as he was in his youth.
"We've seen the damage he can do against us," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Ellsbury, reflecting on the many games his team has played against the Red Sox, Ellsbury's former club. "We witnessed firsthand how he can change a game. I've seen him hit home runs to beat us; I've seen him steal home to beat us. I've seen him do it all, make great catches. So we added a great player."
Like their eternal rivals to the north, the Yankees rarely have been associated with the art of baserunning -- in part because of their home park's inviting dimensions, but more so because of the muscle-bound nature of their traditional lineups.
The move from blast to burst was set in motion in 2013. Few teams ran the bases more successfully than the World Series champions from Boston, but the Bombers from the Bronx were in the ballpark.
Fourth in the Major Leagues in steals with 123, the Ellsbury-fueled Red Sox were caught just 19 times for an Major League-best 86.6-percent success rate. Kansas City's Runnin' Royals led in steals with 153 and were second with their 82.7-percent success rate. Third, at 78.8 percent, were the Yankees, who stole 115 bases.
The Rangers (149), Brewers (142) and Padres (118) rounded out the top five in total steals, with the Yankees seventh, two thefts behind the Indians.
Importing Ellsbury, who led the AL with 53 steals and was caught just four times last year, could lift the Yankees to another level if Girardi turns the greyhounds loose. Gardner, if he returns to 2010 and 2011 form -- when he stole 47 and 49 bases, respectively -- could join Ellsbury to give the Yankees an unrivaled tandem.
Gardner (24 steals in 2013), Ichiro (20) and Soriano (18) didn't run as frequently as in the past but remain viable threats.
Ichiro, according to the data of Baseball Info Solutions in the 2014 Bill James Handbook, is the active leader in career bases gained with 396. Jimmy Rollins (367), Carl Crawford (366), Juan Pierre (343) and Beltran (304) complete the top five.
Taking all forms of baserunning into account, the Royals had the game's most successful track team with a 109-base net gain in 2013. They were followed by the Padres (90), Red Sox (76), Indians (72), Mets (70), Athletics (65), Rockies (63), Rays (57), Rangers (50) and Yankees (36).
At the bottom of the list, with 32 bases lost, were the Marlins and Tigers. Detroit can expect a spike with former Ranger Ian Kinsler, a plus runner with 196 career bases gained, arriving. Running the bases is not Prince Fielder's forte. He was traded to Texas.
Despite the presence of Mike Trout, the game's premier baserunner the past two years, the Angels plunged into a tie for 19th overall in terms of baserunning efficiency. Trout alone gained 49 bases, more than anyone in the game, but the rest of the team was minus-45 bases.
On Trout's heels in bases gained were Rajai Davis (48), Ellsbury (47) and Elvis Andrus (44), followed by Alex Rios (38), Alcides Escobar (36), Eric Young (33) and Daniel Murphy (32).
Angels manager Mike Scioscia, an advocate of aggression on the bases, used to have Chone Figgins leading the most dynamic relay team in the AL -- matched only by the Flyin' Phillies of Rollins, Shane Victorino and Chase Utley. Philly fell all the way into a tie for 27th in 2013 with minus-25 on the bases.
"Speed is a constant -- it doesn't go into slumps," said Dodgers coach Davey Lopes, a great baserunner in his time. "An aggressive mindset on the bases can carry over into other areas of the game. There's more to it than the numbers; it becomes an attitude. It was like that when I was with the Phillies."
It was under Lopes' tutelage that Rollins, Victorino and Utley took flight during the Phillies' exciting run from 2007-10. They led the Majors in stolen-base percentage in each of those four seasons, including a record 87.9 percent in 2007.
The project now for Lopes and fellow baserunning guru Maury Wills will be turning Yasiel Puig's remarkable speed and explosive style into intelligent aggression. Puig ran into more outs (11) than any player in the game in 2013.
"Yasiel has some things to learn," Lopes said, "but you can't teach speed. And this guy can really run."
Look for the Dodgers, who gave up 13 bases as a team in 2013, to make a major leap in 2014 with a full season of Puig and Hanley Ramirez -- especially if Matt Kemp is successful in his comeback and returns to dual-threat form.
Another club that should be much more proactive on the bases is St. Louis. The reigning National League-champion Cardinals, who were minus-16 on the bases as a team in 2013, acquired an electric athlete in center fielder Peter Bourjos. He can challenge former Angels teammate Trout in speed and quickness.
New Cards infielder Mark Ellis has been a quality baserunner throughout his career, with 114 bases gained. Athletic prospect Kolten Wong, expected to get first call at second base, was 20-for-21 in steal attempts at Triple-A Memphis in 2013.
He's not a threat to steal, but Matt Carpenter is among the best in going first-to-third and second-to-home, gaining 18 bases in 2013.
Putting speed and intelligence on the bases in front of the likes of Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta, Jon Jay and Matt Adams should keep the Redbirds' offense humming in pursuit of another Fall Classic appearance.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.