I saw these two quotes in Sunday’s Louisville Courier-Journal in an article about the Louisville Bats and I feel they’re a harbinger of things to come in baseball.

From Louisville manager Rick Sweet discussing AAA all-star and top Reds prospect Drew Stubbs:

“He’s not only stolen bases, he’s hit very well. He creates a lot of havoc with (opposing) ballclubs. He’s very aggressive, and he’s really been consistent offensively.”

The Courier-Journal writer Jason Frakes writes: “As major league teams have reverted to putting a premium on speed, Stubbs has found a valuable niche.”

Stubbs is quoted:

“After the steroid era and all that kind of stuff, the game is going back to the way it was. Stealing bases helps manufacture runs…”

I think Sweet and Stubbs are right; baseball is going through change at this time. Sweet’s havoc comment makes it obvious to me that the “havoc” mantra is a Reds corporate theme, and the message is reaching the players, as indicated by Stubbs’s comment.

I’ve met Sweet and he’s an absolutely great guy, and a great man to be preaching the Reds’ gospel. He’s personable, he’s quotable and available. He says enough to keep you interested, but not more than he should.

I’ve seen Stubbs’s aggressiveness in action. I’ve seen him steal third base before the pitcher ever delivered the ball (left handed pitcher). It was an extremely heads up and exciting play.

I think Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty was onto something when he signed Willy Taveras to play centerfield. I don’t think he should have signed Taveras because I don’t Taveras is the player the Reds thought he was, but the Reds needed a quality defensive centerfielder who could lead off. They needed him even worse last year with Adam Dunn in left and Ken Griffey, Jr. in right. I think Jocketty has read that baseball’s desired game is changing, but I also think changing for the sake of change may have tipped his hand and he may have overreacted in letting Adam Dunn get away and then signing an overpriced, overvalued centerfielder.

Fans are now revolting against the power age. I think, over time, the steroids scandal will blow over for it seems to have touched too many of the big name stars. If the scandal could have been isolated to a few identifiable players, I think the ramifications to those specific players would have been worse, but with it being so far reaching, baseball has to be careful not to alienate its fan base. Over time, someone tainted by steroids will be inducted in MLB’s Hall of Fame and then I think “healing” will take place.

In the meantime, the game is changing. Offense is down, and I think it will continue to be in decline for a few years. I believe the new wave of “defensive statistics” will get some of the credit, whether that credit is deserved or not. I really feel the decline will come as a result of the negative short-term public backlash to steroids and the home run.

There has been a new trend in baseball offense. I’m going to stick with the National League here since it’s the league where the Reds play, and there’s not enough DH activity to skew the numbers. Team batting average is down, as is team OBP, runs scored per game, and home runs per game. I had expected to see steals per game to rise, but that hasn’t happened yet. I think it will, but the teams are retooling and I think steals will slowly begin to increase from this point.

Baseball has changed it’s offensive structure many times. I researched the National League averages back to 1876 and the chart below will show years of change and the related change in offensive production.

National League Offensive Analysis
Year R/Gm ERA/G UER/G BA OBP HR/G St/G Notes
1876 5.90 2.31 3.59 0.265 0.277 0.08 n/a 1st NL year
1892 5.10 3.28 1.82 0.245 0.317 0.23 1.74 50 ft mound
1893 6.57 4.66 1.91 0.280 0.356 0.29 1.75 60’6″ rubber
1906 3.57 2.62 0.95 0.244 0.310 0.10 1.19 Deadball era
1919 3.65 2.91 0.74 0.258 0.311 0.19 1.04 World War I
1921 4.59 3.78 0.81 0.289 0.338 0.38 0.65 Lively ball!!
1930 5.69 4.97 0.72 0.303 0.360 0.72 0.39 Most offense
1945 4.46 3.80 0.66 0.265 0.333 0.47 0.42 World War II
1946 3.96 3.41 0.55 0.256 0.329 0.45 0.38 Veterans home
1956 4.25 3.77 0.48 0.256 0.321 0.98 0.30 Home Runs!!
1968 3.43 2.99 0.44 0.243 0.300 0.55 0.43 Lowest offense
1969 4.05 3.57 0.48 0.250 0.319 0.76 0.42 Mound lowered
1976 3.98 3.50 0.48 0.255 0.320 0.57 0.70 Big Red Machine
1987 4.52 4.08 0.44 0.261 0.328 0.94 0.95 Most balance?
2000 5.02 4.64 0.38 0.266 0.342 1.16 0.63 The Steroid Pinnacle
2006 4.76 4.49 0.27 0.265 0.334 1.10 0.58 HR decline
2007 4.71 4.44 0.27 0.266 0.334 1.04 0.60
2008 4.54 4.30 0.24 0.260 0.331 1.01 0.57
2009 4.55 4.24 0.31 0.257 0.330 0.99 0.58 Unearned Runs?

R/Gm Runs/Game
ERA/G Earned Runs per game
UER/G Unearned Runs per game
BA Batting Average
OBP On Base Percentage
HR/G Home Runs per Game
St/G Steals per Game

Looking at the chart, you’ll notice how runs scored by team have varied over the years. The most consistent variable has been the decline of unearned runs per game, until this year. I think it’s just an anomaly. Batting averages tend to stay around .260, except for the outlier years when changes are enacted.

Home runs have taken a drastic step forward since the 1970’s. Did home runs spark the steroid era so that more homers could be hit, or did steroids spark the home run era?

Whatever you think, I believe you’ll see that home runs will continue to decline as will overall offense. You may notice that changes in steals per game do not greatly affect overall offense. I think it’s a pretty important concept to understand. A steal is one base; a home run is four bases plus base advances for whomever was already on base at the time of the homer.

That’s why the home run and OBP are important, even in the deadball eras. I’m certain everyone heard about Dunn’s 300th home run over the weekend. He’s the fifth fastest ever to reach that plateau. Those faster were Babe Ruth (1920’s), Ralph Kiner(40’s), Harmon Killebrew(60’s), and Mark McGwiree (90’s). Those were unique hitters, and all were power hitters, who walked a lot and struck out a lot, and only Ruth hit for high averages. Since the introduction of the lively ball in the 1920’s, home run rates and OBP have pretty much dictated the level of scoring in baseball, and not stolen bases. It will be very interesting to see how many home runs baseball is willing to lose, since “chicks dig the long ball.”

I am a bit surprised at the steals rate. Stolen bases took longer to increase in the 1960’s than I thought, and seem to have been a need created to go along with the artificial turf and cookie cutter stadiums at the time. Or, steals could have been necessitated by the lack of the offense of the 1960’s before the pitching mound was lowered. The strike zone is said to be smaller than during those days also, leading to more offense. However, I get the impression that offenses are more balanced today than at previous times in the game’s history, which puts the game today at an uncertain crossroads.

Welcome to the return of havoc!! It will be very interesting to see the direction major league teams take in the next few years. Specialized skills may be more important than ever.

18 Responses

  1. Matt Steele

    I totally agree that defense will start to become more and more valued and defensive metrics will become more advanced.

    I’m not sure that stolen bases will return though, at least not like the numbers they were at previous junctures in history. The game definitely goes in cycles and steals may come back but it will only come back with players with a good OBP. I don’t think we’ll see OBP become less important again.

    Here’s a good article about the retun from last year

    http://www.sportingnews.com/mlb/article/2008-04-02/the-stolen-base-back-baseball

    I agree that Jocketty was trying to improve the defense but he totally overreacted with signing Taveras. Tavera’s defense was nowhere near enough to justify his offense nor his leading off.

    Creating “havoc” is good when used correctly and not at the expense of creating runs. You need to pick your spots and still have guys be able to get on base. The only havoc we’re creating right now is on our pitching staff and bullpen. If “Creating Havoc” is really the Reds corporate mantra, I’m going to be very sad because we’re going to waste so much talent on our team while barely getting over .500

  2. RiverCity Redleg

    That’s an interesting article, Matt. A base stealer must be successful at least 75% of the time to justify an attempt. Did you notice that his list of 5 players who stole 80+ bases and was successful at least 80% over the last two years, included our boy Corey Patterson.

  3. Jimmy

    Maybe the decline in offense is because the balls are not being stitched as tightly, as the opposite was one of the offerings for why home runs exploded during the steroid era. Seriously, what about human growth hormone? Couldn’t it become the new steroid? Isn’t it virtually impossible to detect?

  4. pinson343

    Steve, You’re right the trend toward speed vs. power has been a pendulum all thru the history of baseball. In the Dead Ball era hitting 10 HRs would lead the league, it was all about getting on base by bunting or punching the ball and then stealing bases. Ty Cobb held the single season (96) and career records for stolen bases.

    Babe Ruth changed all that. His power numbers are VASTLY underrated, given the era in which he played. Cobb hated Ruth for changing the game to an inferior brand.

    Jackie Robinson and other African American players (plus Mickey Mantle and the Go-Go White Sox of Luis Aparicio) reintroduced speed into the game, but it took a while to take hold in terms of stolen bases. In the ’50’s it was a big deal when Willie Mays stole 20 bases in a season. Star players like Mantle and Hank Aaron were told by management not to steal, for fear of injury.

    As you say, things progressed slowly in the 60’s. My man Vada Pinson was in the top 5 most years from ’59 thru ’65 by stealing 20+ bases. His being a 20-20 SB/HR man was a big deal and had only been done by a few players (Frank Robinson was also a 20-20 guy one year).

    Maury Wills was the first in that era to steal lots of bases and employ a highly aggressive base running style, he was considered a revolutionary player. The Dodgers won the WS in 1965 without a single power hitter, which shocked people. Brock came along then too.

    As you say in the 70’s,with artifical turf baseball, came big outfields and a big emphasis on speed. Power of course didn’t go away. The Reds were the great team of the 70’s: power, speed, and defense.

  5. pinson343

    I agree that WJ has had the right idea with speed but the wrong man with Taveras.
    Of course you need OBP and power guys.

    There will be more emphasis on manufacturing runs with speed,etc. but there will not be a complete return to pre-sterios baseball.

    Scoring runs is still mostly about OBP and slugging pct.

  6. per14

    Any return to the Havoc of old will not be wise and the teams that DON’T get suckered in will benefit. Havoc generally does not pay off in the long run: going for the extra base, hitting and running, stealing bases, bunting are generally not good ideas because the risks of an out outweights the benefit of the extra base. This has been proven a lot. Like the article says, if you steal at even a 70% clip, you’re actually hurting the team in the long run.

    That said, if you can find guys that can truly be successful at Havoc, then that’s great. But I think those guys are hard to find. It might be boring but I’d rather have a bunch of guys who can walk and hit three run homers (and are slow), than have fast guys without power.

  7. Steve Price

    (if you haven’t already…) If you like havoc, or want to read about true havoc in baseball, scroll a little further down and read about the King of Havoc, Hall of Famer King Kelly, who started his career with the Reds. If only Willy or Brandon, or even Dusty, were this entertaining, havoc would be fun…

  8. BenL

    It’s probably true that the game will move back towards speed and defense in the post-steroid era. Just because there will be less 40 HR hitters doesn’t mean that those guys are any less valuable, however. That’s an important distinction, and I hope the Reds understand that.

  9. Kurt Frost

    ‘Havoc generally does not pay off in the long run: going for the extra base, hitting and running, stealing bases, bunting are generally not good ideas because the risks of an out outweights the benefit of the extra base.’

    Don’t tell that to the Angels.

  10. David

    Ken Macha preaches that a runner is statistically more likely to score from 1st with no outs as opposed to second with one out. Many managers follow this logic and shy away from the sac bunt. It has its place for sure, but I don’t see a fundamental shift to small ball because of stats like this.

    Also wOBA to me is a better indicator of a player’s worth than straight OBP which weighs a homerun and walk equally. While wOBA has its flaws too, I think it is better sounded than OBP.

    I’ve made this argument before but a low AVG/high OBP guy is not who I want batting in the middle of the lineup. To me AVG is a better measure in the middle of the lineup because a single will drive in a RISP, whereas a walk will not. A walk is better than an out, just not better than a hit.

  11. Chris

    Lots of stuff going on here, Steve. My opinion: A speed-based team is still at a disadvantage, even with the recent decline in HR. It could make sense, IF the speed came cheaply, and IF it came along with excellent defense. In a sense, it’s the Moneyball philosophy – buy what’s undervalued.

    Instead, as you note, Jocketty paid a premium price for a mediocrity in Willy Taveras. You can’t just will Havoc into being a viable offensive strategy.

  12. earl

    I’ve definitely noticed looking around at other teams stats and rosters that everything is starting to look kind of like the 1980s in the numbers. The thing that is wild is that these numbers are still depressed and there are big hitters parks all over the place these days and 40 pitchers that would have been in the minors 20 years ago.

    The fact that the parks are setup to hit home runs and outside a few parks astroturf has been banished to the history books, I don’t think it is going to go back to running game like the 80s. That being said, if you can get a club that can get on base all the time and be able to make the most of its opportunities like those Herzog Cardinals clubs with some good pitching, it might work.

  13. Steve Price

    I disagree with the fact that pitchers today would have been in the minors 20 years ago.

    I feel that pitching, as well as every other aspect of player performance, has improved steadily over time. The best indicator is how the number of unearned runs has declined over the time (see the chart in the article).

    Fielding is the one area that is most difficult for baseball to “regulate.” Improvements in fielding come from improved equipment (moreso in the early days of baseball), conditioning, and practice. Pitching and hitting can be regulated by strike zone size, ballpark size, size of foul territory, domed stadiums, height of the pitching mound, and the manufacturing and make up of the balls and bats, as well as conditioning and practice.

    More people from ALL over the world play baseball than ever before. Scouting networks reach parts of the world never reached before. Information about the game and training is better than ever before. Medical improvements have allowed players to play longer into their careers than ever before. Players and teams have more reason to protect their investments and income opportunities than ever before. To think that baseball players are a “scarce” commodity, even more scarce than before, doesn’t really match up with the stark reality of the talent pool.

    Runs per game change because baseball regulates this (or may be it’s the fans?) by what sells the most tickets. When runs were disappearing in 1968, baseball reacted by lowering the mound and shrinking the strike zone. When the AL was slower to come around than the NL, the AL implemented the DH. Runs over history has changed (up and down) since 1876, actually varying rather wildly. This change is dictated by the fans and controlled by the game itself.

    Several researchers have also proven that expansion has not hurt the talent pool. There are some players who have been given the opportunity to fail, but, if anything, there’s a one year bump in offensive performance, which falls back into line the next year. Furthermore, the one year “bump” sometimes has as much to do with park design as the players themselves. The Angels began in California’s “Wrigley Field” which was a home run band box. The Seattle Pilots began in an undersized stadium, the Colt .45’s had an old fairgrounds that was changed, Montreal had Jarry Park.

    As much as I despise having 13 pitchers on a roster, that’s not even an indication of poor pitching…it’s the result of managers and GMs (over) responding to platoon studies, how the strike zone is called, and may be even salary structure since middle relievers tend to make less than average hitters.

    It is just change…and how the teams respond.

  14. Dan

    Well, the “pitchers in the minors” comment is just a numbers thing, not a statement of ability.

    20 years ago, there were 26 MLB teams, and let’s say they carried 14 hitters and 11 pitchers on average. By that math, there were 364 hitters and 286 pitchers in the majors.

    Today there are 30 MLB teams, carrying (I think) an average of 13 hitters and 12 pitchers. That’s 390 hitters and 360 pitchers in MLB.

    That means there are (roughly) 26 hitters and 74 pitchers in the league today that would’ve been in the minors 20 years ago. Who knows how much that’s affecting overall numbers, but there’s no denying that with extra teams, “the bar” is a little bit lower than it used to be.

  15. Jimmy James

    I don’t know if we can assume that the bar is lower than it used to be. You have to consider that the pool of players from which these pitchers are drawn is much larger than it used to be.

    Nowadays, teams are getting players from all over the globe. Obviously, it wasn’t always like that.

    So, yeah, there are more jobs available as a pitcher in MLB now, but I don’t think it’s clear at all that the worst MLB pitcher now is worse than the worst one of the past.

  16. Jimmy James

    After rereading, I may have misread what you meant there, Dan, when you’re talking about “the bar.”