How much does team speed matter?

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The Cubs have two. 
Intentional walks? No. 
Wins in their last at-bat? No. 
Okay, I know, the title and the picture give it away--I'm talking about stolen bases. 
Because the Cubs were taught by their parents at a very young and impressionable age that stealing is wrong no matter what the situation, they understandably refuse to take extra bases this season. Given that they finished last in the majors in bases burgled each of the last two seasons, this is not altogether shocking. 
But how much do stolen bases matter? Surely they used to be a larger part of the game. While teams didn't steal a ton in the 30s, 40s and 50s, speed played a larger role starting in the 60s. But then of course the Steroid Era came about in the 90s because, well, chicks dig the long ball, not the excellent jump off of first.
The active career leader in stolen bases is Juan Pierre, and he ranks 30th on the all-time list. Next is Carl Crawford, who ranks 63rd. Unless we see another dramatic shift in the way the game is played, there probably aren't any more Rickey Hendersons, Lou Brocks or Vince Colemans coming along anytime soon. While some of today's players may have just as much speed as those legendary base stealers, managers are unlikely to give them the green light anywhere near as often as was once the case. Here's an example of how the game has changed: in 1912, both New York teams (that would be the Giants and the Highlanders, by the way) stole home at least 17 times. 
So given the Cubs' seemingly epic lack of speed (their current starting eight totaled 33 stolen bases in 2010), are they screwed? Are their hopes dashed if they can't dash around the bases? While this won't provide a full answer to these questions, let's take one objective measurement by looking at the recent playoff teams to see whether stolen bases were a key part of their arsenals.
*The number represents the team's major league ranking in stolen bases. Teams in bold reached the World Series.
Phillies 10
Reds 15
Braves  27
Giants 30
Rays 1
Rangers 7
Yankees 12
Twins 26
2010 average ranking: 16
Phillies 7
Dodgers 8
Rockies 12
Cardinals 23
Angels 3
Red Sox 5
Yankees 11
Twins 18
2009 average ranking: 10.9
Phillies 4
Dodgers 6
Brewers 10
Cubs 15
Rays 1
Angels 5
Red Sox 7
White Sox 25
2008 average ranking: 9.1
Generally speaking, teams that have reached the playoffs in the last three seasons have had at least average team speed, if not above average. However, five of the 24 teams did rank in the bottom third of the majors. In terms of World Series teams, only last year's Giants reached the promised land despite very limited speed, thanks in large part to their majors-leading staff ERA. 
Of course, stolen bases are just one measure of team speed. Speed also shows up in going from first to third on a single, coming home to score on a medium-depth sac fly, etc. And even the threat of stealing comes in handy as it often distracts the pitcher or forces infielders to play in to defend a possible bunt. 
While Castro and Byrd have decent speed, neither is a true base stealer and no other Cub is a real threat to run. That results in a lot of station to station baseball and requires long balls--or at least hits--with runners in scoring position in order to get guys home. The Cubs currently rank 20th in the majors in home runs and are batting an atrocious .194 with runners in scoring position (granted, small sample size). Those stats won't get it done no matter what, but they're especially unacceptable given the team's complete lack of speed.
So how much does team speed matter? It would appear that having a few guys who can steal provides a significant boost to your playoff chances. If you don't have speed on the roster, you'd better be able to mash or dominate on the mound. Neither of those descriptors seem to apply to the Cubs, so their dearth of speed is likely to continue to slow them down in their pursuit of runs--and wins.

Filed under: Cubs, MLB

Tags: Cubs, MLB


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  • I really agree with your conclusion. If you're going to win with pitching or power, you better have a lot of it. The Cubs don't. In the absence of that, you need more ways to score. Speed helps, it can get you that extra base that could mean another run. God knows how many times guys like A-Ram slows down a rally by running one base at a time. Having speed on the bases sometimes means getting that extra base and needing less hits to get that run home.

    I like teams that put pressure on the other team's defense. Force them to make plays and, hopefully, some mistakes along the way. One thing I loved about Shawon Dunston, for example, is that he ran 100 mph to first every time he hit the ball. I wish I had been keeping track of how many errors infielders seemed to make whenever Dunston hit a ground ball, but it seemed higher than anyone else on the team.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that speed helps in a lot of ways that don't always show up in the box score or even in advanced stats. We saw a little bit of it yesterday with Castro and Barney at the top of the order getting on base and then being aggressive on the basepaths once they got on.

  • This is your blog at its best! I completely agree with you, speed is an important part of the game both offensively and defensively. It's the reason Soriano got his money from the Cubs because he was a 40-40 guy who would be able to play center field and turn doubles into singles. In fact, that is why Carl Crawford got a power hitter's ransom even though he has never hit more than 25 home runs in a season. Following the money often helps to answer baseball questions.

    Well done!

  • I also liked that Byrd turned an out at first into a triple because he was hauling down the base line. Not only does speed help win games but it is exciting to watch!

    Great post Brandon!

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