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The Running Man
ALBERT CHEN
July 27, 2009
The science of destroying your opponent one base at a time. Allow Carl Crawford to demonstrate
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July 27, 2009

The Running Man

The science of destroying your opponent one base at a time. Allow Carl Crawford to demonstrate

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He has been running ever since. In 2003, only 22 and in his first full season, he stole 55 bases and became the fourth-youngest player to lead a league in steals, behind Ty Cobb, Henderson and Raines. He has since topped 50 stolen bases three times. Last season he became the seventh player in history to reach 1,000 hits and 300 stolen bases before his 27th birthday, but 2008 was also his least productive season because of a nagging hamstring injury, an injury that actually turned him into a better base runner. At the end of last year Crawford was forced to add an extra step to his leads. He took better angles around the bases. "I watch him on TV, and it's subtle, but he's a different runner now," says his childhood friend Bourn, who led the National League in steals with 34 at week's end. "It's like he's smarter, but technically he's better too. He's not just relying on his speed."

The result is that Crawford is now a true difference-maker on the bases—at week's end he had contributed more than five runs with his legs alone, according to Fox, the second-highest total in the majors, behind Bourn. He is stealing bases at a career-high 86.8% rate (on 46 of 53 attempts) but also picking the most opportune times to take off. "Carl's not running just to run; he's picking the highest leverage situations to go, and that's what makes him so great," says Friedman. "Sometimes when you see guys with gaudy stolen base numbers, they're doing it when they're up or down big. He doesn't run just to run."

Maddon believes that Crawford's running game helps the team in ways that are still unquantifiable by the most advanced metrics. "The metrics are a very valuable tool. I look at them often, but they don't tell the whole story," says Maddon, who believes that good baserunning actually adds five to 10 wins to a team's record. "The part that is so hard to put a number on is what it means to a pitcher's head or where the pitch is thrown, what it means to the catcher before he puts his finger down. [Third baseman] Evan Longoria hitting behind Carl is seeing more fastballs because Carl's causing so much chaos. If the opposition is consistently trying to stop Carl's running game, a hitter behind him is going to see a better pitch, and that's something that's hard to define or quantify.

"Though I have no doubt," he adds, "that someday, probably soon, someone will."

Remove stolen bases from Fox's baserunning metric, and what remains is a measure of how teams run the bases in ways that aren't apparent in the box score. No team has been better this season at taking the extra base than the Rockies. They are, in one way, the anti-Rays. "Speed is not our greatest asset," says Colorado G.M. Dan O'Dowd. While they are not good at stealing bases—they ranked 22nd in the league with a 69% success rate over the season's first half—the Rockies are still an exceptional baserunning team. "When you have an awful season, like we did last year," says O'Dowd, whose team finished 74--88 after a World Series appearance in 2007, "you look at where you can make drastic improvements, and baserunning is where we thought we could make a difference."

The Rockies' lineup is full of examples of how you don't have to be a speedster like Crawford to take an extra base. On any pitch in the dirt they're ready to advance a base. "The coaches have hammered it home," says shortstop Clint Barmes, who despite his average speed was a top 15 player in EqBRR rankings at week's end. "When the ballpark's quiet, I bet half the stadium can hear [manager] Jim Tracy yelling from the dugout, 'Be ready for the dirt ball.' Then you get to first base and [first base coach] Glenallen Hill says into your ear, 'Get ready for the dirt ball.' Then he says it again. By then, you're like, O.K., where's that dirt ball?"

Coors Field, the Rockies' home park, was once a home run haven, a symbol of the game's power era, but now Colorado is scratching out runs with base hits and aggressiveness on the base paths. At week's end Colorado, according to Fox, had scored more runs strictly because of their baserunning (9.6) than any team in the National League. O'Dowd, whose team was only a half game out of the wild-card lead despite a 20--32 start, credits his team's turnaround to the bold baserunning. "When we started winning games, it seemed like every game it made a difference," he says. "[On June 22] against the Angels, [outfielder] Brad Hawpe singles in the second inning. There's a ball in the dirt, and he moves to second. There's another ball in the dirt, and he moves to third. The next hitter brings him home, and we're on the scoreboard." The Rockies went on to win for the 17th time in 18 games.

Carl Crawford is, of course, the kind of player O'Dowd and every scout and every coach is talking about when they say how a downsized game is becoming less about the hulking slugger and, once again, more a game for the pure athlete. Crawford may have once felt out of place in the game—"It's tough when you come from a sport where you play out of raw emotion, and you come here and have to be all mild-mannered and follow rules," he says. But he now feels at home on the baseball field, partly because he, too, feels that the game has changed. "I'm no stats guy," he says, "but I see what's going on. Teams aren't sitting back and waiting for the three-run home run. They're letting guys like me run wild and try to get runs another way. And maybe that's the wave of the future."

The baserunning guru agrees. "As the run environment shrinks, aspects of the game like defense and baserunning become more important," says Fox. Further technology will, of course, make measuring baserunning, and other heretofore unseen aspects of the game, more precise and comprehensive. Cameras used for digital tracking systems will not only measure the exact speed and location of the ball on the field but also the movement of players as well; who, for instance, takes the most efficient routes from first to third, or second to home? "That will change the conversation quite a bit," says Fox, who has been meeting with professors at Carnegie Mellon University about building such tracking systems for the Pirates. (A system is being tested in San Francisco.) "The metrics we have now are going to look like vast approximations of what we will have."

In the meantime today's brazen base runners have no intention of letting up. Not the Rockies, not the Rays, not Carl Crawford. They blaze ahead on the road to October, one, two, three bases at a time.

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