The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

    Small ball becoming an art of the past

    David Taintor

    I was watching the Red Sox-Yankees series last weekend, anticipating a large bash-fest that usually happens when the two teams full of superstars get together.

    On Saturday, the two combined for 27 runs and 28 hits, so when I flipped on ESPN Sunday night, I was expecting the same sort of thing. Much to my dismay, not only were there no home runs in Sunday’s game (there were six hit the night before), I was surprised to see the Red Sox rely on the elements of small ball.

    I was shocked when Red Sox centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury took a large lead from third base and took off toward home plate while Andy Pettitte went into his windup. Ellsbury slid safely into home plate, for the first live steal of home I have ever seen. I found myself yelling at the television for what seemed to be minutes before a replay was finally shown. What was ironic was seeing former Hall-of-Fame player and current announcer Joe Morgan, a prolific base-stealer in the 1960s and 1970s, and is 11th all-time in steals, explain how it was done.

    Stealing home in today’s baseball world is a lost art, as is the concept of small ball which once dominated the game for decades. Ty Cobb stole home 50 times, and Rod Carew stole home 17. The swipe of home was not so uncommon back then as it is today, where it is a true rarity. Watching Ellsbury steal home also got me thinking how baseball has left behind the concept of stealing bases, using the hit-and-run and sacrificing at-bats to move runners over.

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    Although some teams practice small ball, it is not used by Major League teams on a very consistent basis. National League teams tend to use bunting the most because pitchers have to hit, but outside of this, it isn’t used extensively. Some teams that use small ball a lot include the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Florida Marlins and the Minnesota Twins. The rest of Major League Baseball has become dependent on what Buster Olney from ESPN calls the “Moneyball” philosophy.

    Indeed, the home run has truly replaced the need for many teams to even consider using small ball. As we have seen in the past two decades, home runs have dramatically increased overall, as have players using performance-enhancing drugs. Chicks may dig the long ball, as the saying goes, but what I find sexy when watching baseball is the rare combination of true speed, talent and ability to use the bunt efficiently.

    Yes, my small-ball faith may be a little biased. I grew up an avid fan of the Twins, one of the few teams that has to rely on small ball to survive and be successful. Because the Twins are a small-market team, they aren’t willing to sign players like Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira that become available via free agency. To make up for this, the Twins rely on small ball and fundamentally sound pitching and defense, which is taught well in the Twins’ minor league system.

    Over the past several years, this philosophy has worked out well for the Twins, despite losing many of their best players along the way. They have won the Central Division title four of the last seven years and often compete in the playoffs. Despite not having a true superstar that is nationally popular, the Twins remain competitive every year using this small ball philosophy.

    The decline in small ball can be seen in a number of different statistics. For the sake of space, and considering Ellsbury’s steal of home, I will focus on stolen bases.

    Once a key ingredient in a baseball player’s arsenal, it has virtually disappeared on a wide scale, as the home run has become more popular. No player has stolen 100 bases in a season since Vince Coleman stole 119 in 1985. The most recent player to come even remotely close was Jose Reyes in 2007, when he stole 78 bases. To be honest, I would be shocked if another player ever stole more than 100. Only 14 players in the 1990s stole enough bases to land in the top 200 for all-time steals in a single season. In the current decade, only six players are in the top 200, a large drop thus far. These included Reyes, Scott Podsednik in 2004

    with 70, Juan Pierre with 65 in 2003 and 64 in 2007, Reyes with 64 in 2006, Luis Castillo with 62 in 2000, Chone Figgins with 62 in 2005 and Willy Tavares with 68 in 2008.

    It is also important to consider a lot of players falling in these categories have done so multiple times, such as Reyes, Castillo and Pierre. Just think of how many players have landed in the top 200 of the all-time home run list for a season in the past two decades. Furthermore, the only recent player who is close on the all-time steals list is Kenny Lofton, who is 15th with 622. What all of this means is that the steal is becoming more and more of a weapon that is not being used by the pros. I always agreed with the saying speed kills, but it doesn’t kill so much anymore.

    The small ball oppositionists say stealing bases and using sacrifices may not work, will prevent a big inning, or are just too boring. While I agree using small ball may not work all of the time, it is more reliable than the home run.

    One of my biggest pet peeves is watching a power hitter with runners on first and second with no outs strike out. I’m not asking David Ortiz or Ryan Howard to bunt, but please at least advance the runners over into scoring position and use an out effectively. Granted, power hitters will hit the three-run bomb that can be crucial to winning games, but more often than not, a strikeout can ruin an entire inning. What I find exciting is watching a player steal a base, leg out a triple, or perfectly execute a suicide squeeze.

    If you still think I am nuts, take the winner of the past two World Baseball Classics – Japan. They rely strictly on speed, bunting, solid defense and pitching, in my mind the perfect brand of baseball. Their dominance stretches down to the little leaguers, who have won twice and been runner-up three times since 2001 in the Little League World Series. They are the perfect example of how small ball can be, and should be, used successfully.

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    Small ball becoming an art of the past