But baserunning can make a difference. Over a typical season, Fox concluded, the difference between a good baserunning team and a bad one was on the order of three wins. "That can be very significant," he says. "If you are in all other ways a team with a true talent level to win 87 games, that is probably the difference between going to the playoffs and not going to the playoffs."
For the Pirates, who are trying to get to the 87-win level, any improvement helps. Every week Fox e-mails a baserunning report to Pirates third base coach Tony Beasley. "At first I was skeptical," says Beasley. "Now I think [Fox is] a genius. The numbers reveal things you don't really see with your eyes. You see that last year [first baseman] Adam LaRoche didn't go from first to third a lot and didn't take a lot of chances in general. Now he's being more aggressive and is one of our best base runners. These numbers give the players something of substance to work for. Players want to hear the truth as long as you can back it up. And now we have numbers to back up everything."
The Phillies, who finished first in the NL East in both 2007 and '08, by a combined total of four games, were the best baserunning team in baseball during those two seasons, according to Fox's data. Two big reasons: the stolen base efficiency of shortstop Jimmy Rollins (he swiped 88 bases with a 91% success rate in '07--08) and the extra bases taken by second baseman Chase Utley (in '07 and '08 he went from first to third on a single 22 times in 43 opportunities, nearly 10% more successfully than the average major leaguer). Philadelphia's baserunning excellence may have been overlooked by many, but not by Maddon, whose Rays lost to the Phillies in five games in last year's World Series. "That was a very big reason why they weren't just a very good team—they were a great team," he says.
Last year the Rays were a bad baserunning team, ranking 25th in the majors in EqBRR. Says Maddon, "Our efficiency on stolen bases was not high"—the Rays had a 74% success rate—and "we were also too passive taking the extra base." At the team's first spring training meeting this year, Maddon spoke to the players about how this year's team could improve upon a season in which they won 97 games. Atop his list was baserunning. A disciple of Angels manager Mike Scioscia, whose 2006 team rates as one of the top 10 baserunning outfits of all time according to Fox, Maddon vowed that the Rays would play with more abandon. "We err on the side of being aggressive," says Maddon, even though that makes the front office squirm a bit. Click, who was a Baseball Prospectus analyst before becoming Tampa Bay's baseball operations coordinator, cowrote a 2006 book called Baseball Between the Numbers in which he argued that Henderson's historic 130-stolen-base season in 1985 was effectively just two runs better than lead-footed slugger Pete Incaviglia's that year because Henderson was caught stealing so often (42 times). "Taking the extra base is good," Click concluded, "but getting on base, not getting thrown out and eventually scoring is better."
Says Friedman, "Any concerns that I had [about Maddon's philosophy] are gone. The execution has been nearly flawless." The Rays' 81.3% success rate in steals at week's end was second only to the Rangers'. Tampa Bay has been just as impressive in other baserunning situations; for much of the season the Rays have been the American League's top baserunning team, according to Fox.
No one has made a bigger difference on the bases this season than Crawford. In his prime Henderson went from a standing lead at first base to second in 3.2 or 3.3 seconds. According to bench coach Dave Martinez, Crawford reaches full speed after two strides and covers the same ground in 3.1 seconds. On May 3, at Tropicana Field, when Crawford tied the modern-day record for steals in a game by swiping six in a 5--3 win over the Red Sox, Boston manager Terry Francona noted that his starting pitcher, Brad Penny, had thrown twice to the plate in 1.28 seconds on pitches that Crawford reached second on, and catcher Jason Varitek had gotten both balls to the base in 1.9 seconds. "Can't go faster than that," the manager said.
If Crawford resembles a football player running the bases, it is because, at heart, he is. Growing up in Houston's Fifth Ward, Crawford always thought football would be his meal ticket. ("And everyone around me thought so too," he says.) When Carl was 13, his father, Steve Burns, wanted him to focus on football, but Carl's Little League coach, Ray Bourn, the father of Astros outfielder Michael Bourn, visited the Crawford home to persuade Burns not to pull Carl from the team. "I think there's something special here," the coach said. "You might regret it someday if you do."
As a senior at Jefferson Davis High, Carl signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at Nebraska, but when the Rays took him in the second round of the 1999 baseball draft and offered him a $1.55 million signing bonus, he changed his mind. ("I still remember watching video and seeing the sick athleticism," says Turner Gill, who was then the Cornhuskers' quarterbacks coach and recruited Crawford. "Carl was a natural-born playmaker on the level of [Nebraska quarterbacks] Eric Crouch and Tommie Frazier—but he was a better passer."
Says Crawford, "If the money weren't there, it would have been football."
It wasn't until his first year in the minors that Crawford even realized the value of baseball larceny. "The first game I ever started I hit in the five hole, and on a ground out I ran pretty fast to first," he says. "When I got back to the dugout the coach said, 'Man, you're pretty fast. You should steal some bases here.' The next day I was hitting leadoff and stole my first base."