With the news that MLB is moving its 2021 All-Star festivities to Denver this summer, one thing immediately came to our minds: An All-Star Home Run Derby at Coors Field is going to be really fun to watch.
Sure, the game itself will be a blast and the MLB draft in the same location as the Midsummer Classic will make July even better for baseball fans — but a long ball contest for the game’s best sluggers at 5,280 feet? Yeah, sign us up for that … and let’s maybe even take the baseballs out of the infamous Coors Field humidor for a night to see what these guys can really do in the thin air of Colorado.
With that HR Derby excitement in mind, we asked ESPN MLB reporters David Schoenfield, Jesse Rogers, Joon Lee and Bradford Doolittle to combine forces to pick their dream field of eight for the event along with predicting how many homers it would take to win the long ball battle and just how far the longest homer of the event might travel — hint: the first digit is going to be a 5.
What are you most interested to see when MLB All-Star week comes to Coors Field?
Schoenfield: Look, I don’t think it’s fair to say the game itself isn’t interesting. The last three games have all been one-run games, including two that went 10 innings (the American League, by the way, has won seven in a row), but it’s also fair to say the game simply is not as interesting as it once was. That is as much a reflection of the changing importance of All-Star Games especially with the nightly availability of highlights and games from across the country creating the opportunity for fans to watch star players every night.
Anyway … Coors Field is about offense, so of course we want to see the Home Run Derby — which HAS been spectacular the past three times (Aaron Judge winning in 2017, Bryce Harper winning in front of his hometown fans in 2018 and then the epic Vladimir Guerrero Jr.-Joc Pederson–Pete Alonso battle in Cleveland in 2019).
Lee: I want to see dingers, and lots of them. I want to see Vladdy Jr make his return to the derby. I would like to see Juan Soto hit lots of dingers in a derby. This would probably never happen, but I would love to see Shohei Ohtani in the derby as well. I want to see balls hit hard and hit far. I’m a simple man.
Rogers: The fences moved in. I’m kidding. How about a full stadium of fans? It won’t be quite the same if all these star players are entertaining in front of say 10,000 fans. A Midsummer Classic with COVID-19 conditions across the country at a level allowing for a full house along with a great tribute to Hank Aaron from MLB are the two things I care most about seeing. Of course, a home run derby in the summer at Coors will be more interesting than the game.
Doolittle: That’s three months from now and what I’m really hoping to see is Coors Field packed because it’s safe to do so by that point. I’m looking forward to businesses in downtown Denver getting a much-needed post-pandemic boost, especially the wonderful National Ballpark Museum at 1940 Blake Street. I’m looking forward to seeing who gets picked for the game because to be selected remains an honor. And I always like to see the newest lines on the historical registers for All-Star game results and MVPs. The tally right now is AL 45, NL 43, tie games 2. And of course I look forward to seeing Hank Aaron honored.
How many home runs will the winner hit?
Schoenfield: I’m going with 763, breaking Barry Bonds’ career record.
Lee: Enough so that everyone in the crowd goes home with a baseball.
Rogers: Are we using juiced balls, humidor-stored balls or some other concoction to enhance the drama (and results)?
Doolittle: Sixty-three. I have no real basis for picking that number, but it looks like it takes around 20 to win a round the last couple of years, barring a “swing-off” and I tacked on one per round for Coors Field.
What’s the longest home run we’ll see in the mile-high air?
Schoenfield: Let’s see … Guerrero hit the longest in 2019, at 488 feet. Javier Baez had the longest in 2018 at 479 (Harper had the next four longest). Judge hit a massive 513-foot moon shot in Miami in 2017. I think there’s a pretty good chance we’ll see MULTIPLE 500-foot shots this time around. Especially if we scrounge up a few baseballs from 2019.
Lee: I need to see someone crack 500 feet.
Rogers: It might come in the game itself if he doesn’t make the Derby. But Javy Baez will swing so hard his bat will travel 450 feet. The ball will land 524 ft from home plate.
Doolittle: This may be physically impossible, but even more than distance, I’ll be curious whether someone can reach the Rockpile seats in center field. Best I can tell, this Mike Piazza homer is the closest anyone has come to reaching them in a game setting. I did find an old article in which Walt Weiss claimed Mark McGwire hit the facing of that section in batting practice.
Maybe if it’s a particularly warm night and the wind is blowing in the right direction and Giancarlo Stanton gets into the contest … but it probably can’t be done. If someone does, we’re talking at least 500 feet or so, perhaps more because the section is elevated. But let’s go with that figure.
Who are the two players we absolutely HAVE to see hitting bombs a mile above sea level in a Coors Field home run derby and why?
Schoenfield: I’m going with the rematch of the 2019 final: Guerrero and Alonso. At Coors. Oh yeah, baby. And Alonso better wear that chain from two years ago.
Lee: Shohei Ohtani and a healthy Giancarlo Stanton
Rogers: The sight of Juan Soto staring down his batting practice pitcher is too good to pass up. Oh, and those bombs he’ll be hitting. One of the young faces of the game has to be in it. And since Nolan Arenado knows all about hitting at Coors, he’s in it as well. A former star coming back to haunt Colorado ownership by the Derby in his old ballpark is a great narrative.
Doolittle: Let’s go with Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuna Jr. Two young superstars who are good at just about everything, but both have a penchant for long, majestic homers and a knack for flourishing in the spotlight.
That leaves us with a dream Coors Field Home Run Derby field of: Vlad Guerrero Jr., Pete Alonso, Shohei Ohtani, Giancarlo Stanton, Juan Soto, Nolan Arenado, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuna Jr. … Yeah, sign us up for that indeed.
Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony moved to Sept. 8
The Class of 2020 — Derek Jeter, Marvin Miller, Ted Simmons and Larry Walker — will have to wait a little bit longer to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, it was announced Wednesday.
The induction ceremony, which had been scheduled for July 25 in Cooperstown, New York, instead will be held at 1:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Sept. 8. It will take place outdoors in front of limited crowds as coronavirus restrictions ease.
“On behalf of our Board of Directors and our Staff, we are thrilled to be able to welcome our Hall of Famers — the living legends — and fans back to Cooperstown to celebrate the Induction of the Class of 2020,” Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark said in a statement. “Returning the Induction Ceremony to an outdoor event will provide the baseball community with the opportunity to visit Cooperstown and celebrate the Induction of four of the game’s Greats.”
No players were elected for induction in the Class of 2021.
An estimated 55,000 fans attended the 2019 induction ceremony. Last year’s event was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic — the first time since 1960 without an induction ceremony.
The ceremony will take place outdoors on the Hall’s lawn as a ticketed event, the Hall said Wednesday. Tickets will be available starting July 12.
The Hall’s award presentations will remain on July 24 as an indoor, television-only event. The presentations include the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Career Excellence Awards for 2020 to the late Nick Cafardo and for 2021 to Dick Kaegel, of the Ford C. Frick Awards for broadcasting excellence for 2020 to Ken Harrelson and for 2021 to Al Michaels, and of the 2020 Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award winner, David Montgomery.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Ke’Bryan Hayes loses home run after missing first base
PITTSBURGH — Ke’Bryan Hayes forgot to touch ’em all.
Hayes stung an opposite-field line drive in the first inning against the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler that narrowly cleared the right-field wall, just inside the foul pole. Running hard and with his eyes on the ball, Hayes missed touching first base with his left foot by two or three inches and kept on going.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts challenged, and umpires overturned the call after a short video review.
“Obviously, Ke’ got caught watching the ball,” Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. “It’s one of those things that Ke’ thought he caught the back corner of [the bag], and he didn’t. If he even thinks he misses it, he has to go back and touch it.”
The Pirates did not make Hayes available to reporters following the game.
Hayes was also thrown out at second base trying to tag up from first on a flyout to left field to end the third inning.
The 24-year-old Hayes — the son of former 14-year big leaguer Charlie Hayes — hit .376 with five homers in 24 games last season and entered 2021 as a heavy favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year. He sprained his left wrist in Pittsburgh’s second game and missed two months, finally returning to action last week.
Hayes wasn’t the only top prospect with a homer trot miscue Tuesday. Kansas City Royals minor leaguer Bobby Witt Jr., the club’s top prospect, was called out after an umpire ruled he missed home plate finishing out a homer for Double-A Northwest Arkansas. It would have been Witt’s second homer of the game.
Earlier this season, the Pirates’ Will Craig made an egregious fielding mistake when all he had to do was tag Chicago Cubs baserunner Javier Baez or touch first for the final out of an inning. Craig has since been designated for assignment by Pittsburgh.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
‘Sorry you had to see that’ — How baserunning has become an embarrassing problem in Major League Baseball
Editor’s note: From rising strikeout totals and unwritten rules debates to connecting with a new generation of fans and a looming labor battle, baseball is at a crossroads. As MLB faces these challenges, we are embarking on a season-long look at The State of Baseball, examining the storylines that will determine how the game looks in 2021 and far beyond.
Six years ago, in a spring training game, the Mariners had a runner at first base with one out in the eighth inning of a blowout. Andy Van Slyke, the first base coach for the Mariners, told the runner, a young minor leaguer, that, given the score, there was no need to crush the shortstop or second baseman on a potential double play. Instead, just peel off toward right field. Then the batter struck out for the second out. The next batter hit a ground ball deep in the hole at shortstop. The runner on first base, not realizing that a double play was no longer possible, didn’t run all the way to second base. He peeled off toward right field. If he had kept running, he probably would have beaten the throw.
Van Slyke, astonished and confused, returned to the dugout.
“What the f— was that!?” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon asked him.
Van Slyke just shrugged.
“I have no idea what that was,” he said. “I didn’t think I had to tell him he had to run to second.”
That was another example, albeit extreme, of an on-field crisis that faces baseball today: bad baserunning, the worst I can remember in the 41 years that I have covered the game. The players today are spectacularly talented — bigger, stronger, faster and better than ever. They overpower the sport with their amazing physical gifts, yet too many of them have no instincts for the game. They have no feel for the game. They have less of an idea and an understanding of how to play the game than any time I can remember. And their most egregious mistakes are made on the bases, mistakes that happen in every ballpark, every night.
“Baserunning is terrible today,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “The two things we need the most work on is outfielders throwing and baserunning. Baserunning is just horrible.”
“Baserunning is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Van Slyke, who played in the major leagues from 1983 to 1995 and was one of the game’s premier base runners. “It started a generation ago, and it has gotten progressively worse. It’s the worst part of Major League Baseball.”
Hall of Famer Paul Molitor might be the best baserunner of his era — one of the best of any era.
“The value of baserunning has been diminished somewhat,” he said. “I watch the game. It’s a little hard to watch these days. And I see [baserunning] mistakes constantly. There are just too many instances where you say to yourself, ‘What is this guy thinking about?”’
Princeton baseball coach Scott Bradley, who played in the major leagues from 1984 to 1992, agreed.
“There are still some good base runners, but nowhere near as many as there used to be,” he said.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was a great baserunner. His famous stolen base against the Yankees in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series helped the Red Sox come back from a 3-0 series deficit. Then Boston went on to win its first World Series since 1918.
“Baserunning is not as valued today,” he said. “And it is not done as well as in past years.”
The Cubs’ Kris Bryant is one of the game’s best baserunners. When asked about baserunning in the majors, he tried to suppress a laugh.
“It is not talked about enough,” he said. “It’s gotten a little lazy. Baserunning is only about effort. But we do have some highlight baserunning that picks up the slack for others who don’t take it seriously.”
Buck Showalter managed in the big leagues for 20 years. No one loves the game more than him, and no one wants to see it played properly more than him.
“Baserunning, oh my gosh, I wouldn’t know where to start,” he said. “I do a couple of Yankee games a month (as a broadcaster for YES Network). I see two or three baserunning mistakes [per game]. Baserunning is the ultimate team play. If you don’t run the bases well, you are selfish. We have lost the shame of the strikeout in the game. We are losing the shame of bad baserunning.”
It is not necessarily the fault of the players. The industry, infatuated with home runs being the primary way to score runs in today’s game, has de-emphasized baserunning. It hasn’t taught it very well. It doesn’t pay for great baserunning. It doesn’t penalize bad baserunning. The industry has decided that the risk of getting thrown out trying to advance 90 feet is far greater than the reward for hitting a three-run home run. That was one of Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver’s philosophies 50 years ago.
But the industry has gone too far. It has taken one of the most exciting and most critical parts of the game and devalued it. In doing so, it has turned baseball into a slower game, one base at a time. It has become a game that, at times, can be spectacularly boring.
“[Former Twins manager] Tom Kelly had a conversation with [then-Yankees manager] Joe Torre 20 years ago and they agreed that other than starting pitching, they thought that baserunning was the important component for a team’s success,” Molitor said. “We have definitely gotten away from that. To take away an element of the game that has been such a huge part of the game’s history just doesn’t seem right. I hope we start moving backwards in that direction.”
To be fair, there are some excellent baserunners today. Bryant is one. So is Javy Baez. So is Mike Trout.
“[Shohei] Ohtani is good,” Baker said. “He checks everyone [on the field], every time.”
The best might be Mookie Betts, who helped the World Champion Dodgers win two games in the 2020 World Series with brilliant baserunning.
The Padres, at least statistically, appear to be an exception. Through June 6, they led the major leagues in stolen bases by a wide margin. They went first-to-third more often than any team, and they had made fewer outs on the bases — eight — than any major league team, 20 fewer times than the Yankees.
“We feel that base running is a huge component of baseball,” manager Jayce Tingler said.
Not coincidentally, the Padres are 12 games over .500.
“There are a handful of games every year that are won solely on baserunning,” Bryant said.
This year, the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres scored from first base on an infield single. The Astros were in a severe shift. Third base and home plate were left unattended. Torres recognized that just by watching the ball and alertly circled the bases.
“That was nothing but awareness,” Bradley said. “No one was telling him or waving him.”
This year, the Padres’ Manny Machado broke up a double play by up-ending Cardinals second baseman Tommy Edman with a hard, clean, legal slide halfway to second base. But we have lost our way so badly on baserunning, some people thought it was a dirty play.
“Nothing dirty about that,” said Showalter. “That was an ultimate baserunning play because it was a team play.”
And to be fair, bad baserunning plays have happened in all eras. In 1908, in a pennant-race game, the Giants’ Fred Merkle was on first base in the ninth inning when the winning run was driven in against the Cubs. But Merkle, age 19, didn’t run to second because the fans were storming the field. Since it was a force at second and he never arrived there safely, the Cubs appealed the play. He was called out.
The Cubs eventually won the game, the pennant and the World Series. It has been forever known as “Merkle’s Bonehead” play.
In 1926, the great Babe Ruth made the final out of the World Series when he was caught trying to steal second with Bob Meusel (a .315 hitter) at the plate in a 3-2 game.
In 1959, in Harvey Haddix’s 12-inning perfect game, Joe Adcock lost a home run in the 13th inning when he passed Hank Aaron on the bases because Aaron thought the walk-off home run by Adcock had just hit the wall, and he ran off the field.
But there are more baserunning mistakes today than perhaps ever.
“Today,” Showalter said, “baserunning is a necessary evil.”
So, how bad is it? What began the demise of base running? Can we put a stop sign up on all these mistakes?
Where was he going on that play?
The mistakes aren’t just happening in meaningless, blowout games in spring training. They are happening in the biggest games of the season.
In the fourth inning of Game 7 of the 2020 National League Championship Series, the Braves had a 3-2 lead over the Dodgers. The Braves had runners on second and third with no one out.
Where was he going on that play?
Turner got him in a rundown, and with a headlong dive, tagged him out. For some reason, the Braves’ Austin Riley, who started the play at second base, decided to try to advance to third. Turner, from his back, threw to shortstop Corey Seager, who tagged out Riley for a bizarre and crippling double play that kept the Braves from going to the World Series for the first time since 1999.
It was the first time that a double play on a ground ball, with second and third and no outs, had happened in a major league game since the Mets ran themselves into a double play in July 2019. But the winner of that game wasn’t advancing to the World Series. The Dodgers came back that day to beat the Braves 4-3, and then went on to beat the Rays in the World Series.
“That play can’t happen,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.
But it did.
Does Molitor slap his forehead in amazement after seeing such poor baserunning?
“All the time,” he said. “I used to think when I was more directly involved that you could watch the postseason and bookmark about 15 plays that you could use in a video that when these things happened, they cost teams games on the biggest stage of the season.”
There were multiple other base running mistakes in the 2020 postseason, plays that simply can’t happen in games of that magnitude.
In Game 3 of the Braves-Marlins series, Atlanta’s Travis d’Arnaud was on third base with the bases loaded and one out in the second inning of a scoreless game. Markakis hit a line drive to left-center field. The Marlins’ Corey Dickerson made a diving, tumbling catch then got to his feet. But d’Arnaud didn’t tag up on the play; he should have scored easily.
In Game 2 of the Twins-Astros series, an elimination game for the Twins, Byron Buxton was sent in to pinch-run in the eighth inning, with the Twins behind 2-1. He was picked off at first base for the third out of the inning. The Astros won, 2-1, and advanced. The Twins went home.
The 2021 season began embarrassingly for the defending champion Dodgers. On Opening Day, Cody Bellinger hit a drive to deep left field. Justin Turner, the runner on first with no outs, took off, rounded second base and was a third of the way to third base — that’s too far, he should have stopped at second to see if the ball had been caught — when Rockies left fielder Raimel Tapia just missed making a leaping catch at the wall. The ball went over the fence for a home run. But Turner thought the ball had been caught, so he re-touched second and headed back to first — all the while with his head down. On the way, he passed Bellinger on the bases. Bellinger lost a home run and was credited with a single.
“It was a confusing play,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.
Our players today, for all their talent and greatness, are confused far too often on the bases. In spring training 2019, Yankees manager Aaron Boone, during infield drills, instructed his players that when the Yankees are in the field, if there’s an infield fly rule, his fielders should consider intentionally letting the ball drop because it might totally confuse the runners on the other team. They might not know what to do, and they might run themselves into another out.
A couple weeks later, on Opening Day against the Orioles, the Yankees had runners on first and second with one out when Gary Sanchez hit a towering pop-up — infield fly rule, batter is out automatically — that Orioles catcher Jesus Sucre dropped. Luke Voit, the runner on second, got confused and took off for third — even though he didn’t have to go anywhere. He was tagged out in a rundown for a double play.
The next day, Boone separately texted the three broadcasters who did the game on ESPN.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” he wrote.
In 2017, the Phillies’ Odubel Herrera was on third base when the hitter walked, loading the bases. Herrera, thinking the bases were already loaded, started to walk home. If not for third base coach Juan Samuel, Herrera would have been tagged out going home on a walk.
“I watch two baseball games a day, sometimes three,” said Pete Rose, who played in the major leagues for 24 years. “One week this year, I saw three games in which the team was running off the field with only two outs. How can you run the bases well when you don’t know how many outs there are?”
Seemingly every night, someone gets doubled off a base on a line drive when that runner is taught to freeze, then start edging back to the bag until he sees the ball go through the infield.
On May 23, the Cardinals’ Harrison Bader led off the fourth inning with a double. Justin Williams hit a relatively soft line drive to Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner, who was playing in shallow right field because of a shift. He made a leaping grab, set himself and doubled Bader off second.
“I hear it all the time, a guy gets doubled off on a line drive, and they say, ‘There was nothing he could do about it.’ Bull—-!” Showalter said. “My coach in college and high school would have said, ‘Where in the hell are you going!?’ They [players today] don’t know how to freeze on a line drive and start the momentum back. The only double-off you should ever have is when you’re on first base and a line drive is hit and the first baseman is holding the runner. That’s it. I don’t want to hear any other excuses. None.”
Seemingly every night a runner makes a poor decision to advance to the next base — or not advance to the next base.
On May 10, the Astros lost 5-4 to the Angels. The final out of a one-run game was made when Houston’s Yuli Gurriel, who was on second base, ran to third on a ground ball to third baseman Phil Gosselin, who would have had to make a semi-difficult throw to get Carlos Correa at first. But Gosselin didn’t even have to throw because Gurriel ran into an out at third. All Gosselin had to do was reach down and tag him.
“I didn’t say anything to him, he knew he made a mistake,” Baker said. “And he’s one of our best baserunners. You make that mistake in Cuba, you might not eat for a week. But there are no repercussions [here] for making a mistake like that. No one is going to take your job.”
On May 2, the Braves’ Ozzie Albies reached base on a throwing error by Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette. But Albies lost track of the ball. He thought he was out, so he slowly turned into fair territory and started walking to second base. He was tagged out. Then he glared at his first base coach, Eric Young, for not telling him where the ball was.
On May 30, the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez reached on an infield hit in the eighth inning. He took off for second when the ball skipped past Tigers first baseman Jonathan Schoop, but the ball bounced right back to Schoop. Sanchez inexplicably stopped running halfway to second, then started again, but it was too late. He made the last out of the inning, down four runs.
“Here’s the other part of the baserunning drills that they don’t do anymore: Every time you run to first base and run through the bag, you hit the bag, and you were taught to immediately look to your right to check for an overthrow,” Showalter said. “Every time.”
Even in an instance when a player like the Cubs’ Javy Baez, makes a clever base running decision, it exposes the game’s lack of knowledge about running the bases.
Javier Baez helps the Cubs steal a run from the Pirates with some fancy footwork.
On May 27, Baez hit a ground ball to the third baseman with two outs and a runner, Willson Contreras, on second. The throw pulled Pirates first baseman Will Craig off the bag. Baez stopped before he could be tagged, then got in a rundown between first base and home, which is entirely legal.
Craig could have just tagged the bag and the inning would have been over. It’s a force play! Instead, he chased after Baez, then flipped the ball to catcher Michael Perez to try to get the runner, Contreras, who was sliding across the plate. Craig apparently didn’t know the rule that no run can score in that situation if Baez doesn’t safely achieve first base.
And maybe Perez didn’t know, either. After motioning that Contreras was safe at the plate, only then did Baez run back to first, which he reached safely because second baseman Adam Frazier was late covering the bag. It was a comedy of errors, one of the stupidest plays in baseball history.
Sadly, though, it confused so many players.
“I learned something on that play,” Bryant said. “I didn’t know the rule.”
On June 4, the Phillies were trailing the Nationals 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Rhys Hoskins hit a leadoff double. Travis Jankowski pinch-ran for him. A 2-2 pitch to J.T. Realmuto was bobbled slightly by Nationals catcher Alex Avila, who never lost control of the ball. With no outs — where was he going on this play? — Jankowski got trapped off second base. Avila ran right at him, and eventually tagged him out for an exceptionally odd catcher-unassisted putout. Avila made a very smart play, but it was assisted by terrible base running by Jankowski. The Phillies lost the game 2-1.
Baserunners have a lot to learn, about rules, about cutting a bag, about anticipating. They are so athletic and so fast, they should run the bases better than any era in history. Still, it’s fair to say that we don’t have nearly as many great baserunners as we used to. We have few who can compare to Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Molitor, Robin Yount, Cal Ripken Jr., Rickey Henderson, Don Baylor, Phil Bradley, Larry Walker, Don Mattingly and Scott Rolen.
“Baserunning is an art and it is a skill,” Van Slyke said. “It takes time and emphasis to make it important. But it’s not important today because no one cares about baserunning.”
Why run when you can jog?
Partial blame for bad baserunning goes where partial blame always goes, fairly or unfairly, these days — analytics.
“It’s the three outcomes: walks, strikeouts and home runs,” Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said. “Guys don’t get on base as much. They’re not used to running the bases. And they don’t think it’s important. But it is. They figure they can make up for it with home runs.”
The numbers support it. In 1980, there were more stolen bases per game than home runs per game. 1.56 to 1.47. There were .51 triples per game. By 2000, things had changed dramatically. There were 2.34 home runs per game, 1.2 steals per game and .39 triples per game.
In 2020, they had changed drastically again: 2.57 homers per game, .99 steals per game and .27 triples per game, the lowest rate in any season in history. So, 40 years ago, there were more steals than homers per game. Now there are nearly three times as many homers as steals per game. And even though stolen bases are only a small part of baserunning, it shows how much the game has become about power and slugging rather than running.
“We walk back to the dugout [a strikeout] today and circle the bases [a home run] more than we ever have,” Van Slyke said. “The emphasis on exit velocity and launch angle has eliminated the nuances of the game. They have blown up the equation on base running.”
Molitor is quick to identify one of the issues.
“We have all these formulas to score runs,” he said. “But there’s an art to scoring runs. And part of that art is being able to know where you can get 90 feet whether it’s a passed ball, a ball in the dirt, a missed relay. If you leave 90 feet out there too often, it is going to hinder your chances to win games. We have re-thought, probably to a fault, the value of an out, and where those outs should come from. If you are losing too many outs to calculated risks on the bases, it’s going to cost you. The amount of singles has dwindled. Do you have as good a chance of scoring today from first as you do from second? In some ways. . .”
In some ways, yes. And that’s a problem.
And what about getting the extra base?
“One of the most important things in baseball is going first to third on a base hit, knowing when to go,” Bradley said. “It goes back to the Branch Rickey theory: The best baserunners go two bases at a time. If you’re on first, you should be thinking about going first to third. Now, if you’re on first, you’re waiting to see if the guy is going to hit a homer. Then you can jog.”
It’s about perception, too.
“Baserunning is not cool (to today’s players),” Showalter said. “They think, ‘Who cares? No one steals bases any more. You hit a homer, I trot home. You hit a single, I trot 90 feet.”’
There is too much jogging and too much trotting in today’s game.
“Good baserunning is only about effort. It’s a pet peeve of mine,” Bryant said. “When you don’t run hard to beat out a double-play grounder, that doesn’t look good. It is so easy to run as hard as you can for four seconds at a time. My dad always reminded me that baseball is hard, you get frustrated when you make an out, so you take out your aggression by running as hard as you can. I have embraced that. I ground out to shortstop, I am so mad, I run as hard as I can to first base. Now we have fans back watching us play. You don’t want to dog it to first base on a double play, someone bobbles a ball, and they still get the double play. You beat out the double play, and it might be a big run in the game.”
Bryant was taught well. But we have stopped teaching players the intricacies of baserunning.
“[Some players] look at you like you have two heads when you talk about baserunning,” said Showalter. “My last year [as the manager] in Baltimore (2018), we had a young player. We were talking about a delayed steal. He had no idea what I was talking about.”
Our coaches and instructors today are different. Many of them didn’t play in the big leagues. Some didn’t play professionally. Some didn’t play collegiately. Some didn’t play at all.
“It needs to be taught,” Baker said, “but the guys who can teach it aren’t in the game anymore … Vince Coleman, guys like that.”
No one taught the game, especially baserunning, better than the late George Kissell. He was a player, manager, coach, scout, instructor and mentor for the Cardinals for 59 years.
“I never talk about my career — never — but I was a great baserunner because I cared,” Van Slyke said. “George Kissell taught me to care about base running. He would tell me over and over again: 90 feet really matters, 90 feet is imperative in his game — 90 feet, 90 feet, 90 feet.”
Showalter is a great teacher of baserunning.
“We were taught to hit the bag with your left foot, to cross over with your right,” he said. “Now, these guys hit the bag with the wrong foot. Hit it with your left foot it’s worth half a step. Players today have no idea what you’re talking about. We used to have a guy who stood at first base, and if you hit the bag with the wrong foot, he would whack you with a fungo.”
Nobody today, Van Slyke said, thinks ahead.
“You have to think about the next base first,” he said. “But players today are not thinking about two and three bases ahead. They don’t anticipate. They don’t ask, ‘What do I do if it’s hit softly? What do I do if it’s hit hard? Does the outfielder have a good arm or a bad arm?’ These are the questions, the nuances, that have to be asked before the ball is pitched. But today’s player waits until the ball is hit, then he decides. Too many of our players are thinking after the ball is hit, ‘How am I going to celebrate when I get to third base?”’
Another huge change in the game is the leadership, the counsel provided from veteran players.
“When I was a young player with the Yankees, Don Baylor was on our team. He was a great baserunner,” Bradley said. “If there was a ball where maybe he thought you could go first-to-third, or made a double on, when you got back to the dugout, he would let you know. He’d say, ‘What were you looking at? Did you see where that guy was playing you?”’
Being a great baserunner is about instincts and feel and anticipation.
“Speed is important, but it is not a prerequisite,” Molitor said.
Rolen ran pretty well, but he was a great baserunner. Mattingly ran pretty well, but he was an exceptional baserunner. The worry in the game is if a player doesn’t have instincts on the bases at age 27, will he ever have them?
“I think you are past the chance of having a great influence,” Molitor said. “There is an innateness to it. I think with a guy who is 27, you can eliminate poor decisions. But you might not be able to create a good decision.”
The way home
There is a way out of this.
There is a way to fix this.
It’s going to take time.
“It has to start at the youth level,” Bradley said. “When I was a kid, we played a game called ‘Running Bases.’ ‘Pickle.’ Those are base running games. I don’t even know if they exist anymore. Kids are getting better these days with all the coaching they get. And that’s great. But it’s all about them improving their swing. It’s about their private pitching coaches.”
Molitor called it “Hot Box.”
“That used to kill a couple hours every day playing a little Hot Box,” he said. “I didn’t want to get in a rundown in the big leagues, but when I did, it gave me flashbacks to the playground. If you can get out of a big league hot box, that was a pretty good accomplishment.”
Kudos to all of our Little League coaches teaching kids to play the game, but. ..
“Our kids on the Little League level, even through high school, are literally told when to run, when to stop. They are never left on their own to trust their own instincts, to know when a ball might drop,” Bradley said. “It’s like, ‘I’m not going to run unless the first-base coach tells me to go.’ If you are waiting for the coach to tell you, it’s too late. I’ve talked to coaches. We need to trust our kids to make decisions on their own. Find ways in practice. Don’t have base coaches in practice. And tell the kids why you don’t have base coaches in practice. Play situations where the players can figure it out on their own.”
It starts with education. But the focus of the education is a big part of the problem.
“When I taught it, and when I coached and managed at the major-league level, I encouraged players that making your own decisions is critical to being a good base runner,” Molitor said. “I do have to rely on the coach when the ball is behind me, but what drives me crazy if when you’re on first base with one out, you should be thinking first-to-third anyway. Say there’s a ground ball up the middle to the center fielder. You should know where he’s playing, you should know how he throws, but as the runner approaches second base, even with the play right in front of him, he looks over at the third base coach.”
Willie Mays didn’t need a coach. Neither did Jackie Robinson. Neither did Molitor.
“I had the freedom throughout college, the minor leagues and even when I got to the big leagues — I had the green light right out of chute as a 21-year-old player,” he said. “You earn that trust. Look at all the great baserunners, you won’t find one who wasn’t an independent thinker. It’s like a basketball player with great court vision, or Gretzky behind the net. There are some people who are just going to see the whole field. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens.”
Bryant earned that trust soon after arriving in the big leagues in 2016.
“I learned to run the bases in high school, but it was mostly watching, doing base running drills,” he said. “But when I got to college, we really got into the ins and outs. My coaches at The University of San Diego really helped us develop our IQ on baserunning.”
After we re-teach our Little Leaguers how to run the bases, the next step is to work with high school players. Their goal is to play collegiately, or professionally, and the best way to do that is to attend showcase camps. But there, they emphasize individual skills, especially power for a hitter and velocity for a pitcher. They don’t specialize in teaching baserunning.
“If they aren’t testing it,” Showalter asked, “do they care?”
It is time to care about running.
MLB is so concerned about base running, or lack thereof, it is experimenting with several rule changes at different levels of minor league baseball. At Class AAA, the base size has been increased from 15-by-15 inches to 18-by-18 inches. The thinking is, the shorter distance between bases could mean a higher rate of success on stolen bases as well as lead to more infield hits and bunt attempts.
In High-A Leagues, a rule that was used in the Atlantic League in 2019 will be adopted: Pitchers will be required to completely disengage from the rubber before throwing to any base. Using that rule, the Atlantic League saw a significant increase in stolen bases.
In Low-A Leagues, pitchers will be limited to two step-offs or pickoff attempts during any plate appearance — a third pickoff attempt will be ruled a balk unless it results in a successful pickoff. By reducing step-off and pickoff attempts, in theory, players might have a greater chance to steal a base.
“I think there are a lot of people who are starting to understand that there are ways to make the game more aesthetically enjoyable,” Molitor said. “A return to prioritizing baserunning is starting to be re-kindled, it makes me very happy. I think a return to that will make our game more appealing.”
It is up to the industry to make it happen, to lessen the value of the home run and increase the value of baserunning. Pay for good baserunning. Penalize for bad baserunning.
“The stolen base has become so obsolete,” one National League coach said. “Teams aren’t trying to stop the running game like they used to. They don’t even care if you run.”
Molitor lamented that runners, especially when in a rundown, no longer practice trying to draw an obstruction call. Yet on May 30, the Diamondbacks’ Tim Locastro, stuck in a rundown, tried to draw an obstruction call. It didn’t work, he was called out, but at least he tried.
We are bunting more often. Slowly. It is happening with old-school managers such as Baker, the Indians’ Tito Francona and the Angels’ Joe Maddon. On May 29, Baker had his rookie catcher, Garrett Stubbs, bunt twice in one game. One was a squeeze play, perfectly executed. It was the 11th RBI bunt of this season. That’s not very many. But it provides hope for the future.
Van Slyke was the first base coach that day when the young player, with two out, peeled off into right field instead of running to second. Van Slyke has hope for the future of base running.
“Remember,” he said, “that was a major league game, not a high school game. But if MLB really cares about the product on the field, we need to get the Players Association in on this, we need to bring the instincts back to the game of baseball. The only way this will turn if things are done incorrectly so many times, you finally correct it.”
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