The love affair with speed has spread even to Oakland, where the A's, who are on the cusp of the franchise's first postseason appearance since 2006, have complemented their power (they rank seventh in the AL in home runs) with aggressive baserunning. Led by Coco Crisp's 34 stolen bases, they are sixth in the league in steals with 115, their fourth straight season with at least 100—a mark they didn't come close to between 1999 and 2008. "Look at the A's right now," Maddon says. "They used to be an easy team to plan against because all they were going to do was bludgeon you at the plate. They were going to take pitches, and you wouldn't have to worry about what they did on the bases. Now they cause all kinds of problems for you."
Moneyball, contrary to popular belief, was never about on-base percentage or out-of-shape ballplayers who took walks—the book was about a small-market team exploiting market inefficiencies and finding undervalued players. Teams such as Oakland and Tampa Bay—which have the two lowest payrolls in the AL—regard speed as the game's current undervalued asset. "Of course we'd love to have a lineup where guys hit a lot of home runs," says the Rays' Martinez. "We don't have guys who are going to knock in runs from first base, so we have to take advantage of what we have. Speed is one of the advantages of the club."
The stolen base has become a more popular weapon because teams are stealing more successfully—the major league stolen base success rate of 74.2% is the second highest since 1920. "Players and teams are just a lot smarter about it," says former major leaguer Dave Roberts, now the first base coach of the Padres. "Organizations are teaching the craft early in the minor leagues. And there's so much more information out there since I was a player. Not only do you have detailed times of catcher throws and how fast a pitcher is to the plate, but you also have incredible video of pitchers and their tendencies that gives a base runner every tip he could possibly want."
Says Rays infielder Elliot Johnson, "Whatever information you want, you can get. You know that a guy like [Orioles catcher] Matt Wieters is 1.85--1.90 [seconds] to second base. You know how fast the pitcher throws home—the fast guys are 1.3 or lower, the slow guys, that's 1.35-ish." The math is simple. With a good lead and jump, Johnson, one of the faster Rays, can get to second in 3.3 seconds. (Teammates Jennings and Upton can get there a tick below, at 3.1 seconds.) "If a pitcher is 1.30 or lower [to the plate]," says Johnson, "I don't go."
Stealing bases is just one part of aggressive baserunning—the Rays also want to take extra bases as often as possible. During spring training Martinez directed players to go from first to third on singles to centerfield. "Guys who never thought they'd make it started to make it—Carlos Peña made it," says Martinez of the slow-footed first baseman.
Martinez, a former major leaguer who became bench coach before the 2008 season, immediately pushed the team to be more aggressive on the bases. At first many within the organization, which is one of the most statistically savvy in the game, cringed. But soon they started to see the unquantifiable effects of how burners can influence games. The general rule of thumb has long been that stealing bases isn't worth it unless you're successful 75% of the time. The Rays' success rate at week's end was barely at that threshold (75.1%), but that doesn't bother Maddon. "Of course you want to be at 80 percent," he says. "But there's all this stuff that you need to factor in that no one talks about. The part that's immeasurable is the impact it has on defense and pitch selection. The game drips with intangibles."
On a recent September afternoon, as the greatest baserunning season in the history of the game was winding down, Billy Hamilton sat in the home dugout of the Double A Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He was wearing shoes frayed along the toes, the cleats chipped and scraped like mangled teeth. They were his eighth pair of the season. His knees were covered with purplish gashes that belonged in a horror movie; his left thumb, banged on the dirt during a mistimed slide, was so badly bruised it looked as if it had been dipped in tar.
No one seems to know precisely how fast Hamilton is—not even the Reds, who drafted him in the second round out of Taylorsville (Miss.) High in 2009. He's never been timed in the 60-yard dash. He refuses to race his teammates. (The last time he recalls racing was in third grade.) Cincinnati officials have timed him going from first to second in less than three seconds, and earlier this year he hit an inside-the-park home run and circled the bases in a preposterous 13.8 seconds (according to Guinness, the record is 13.3, set by a Reds player named Evar Swanson in a contest held in Columbus, Ohio, in 1932)—even though on video it's clear that he eased up about halfway to home plate. (The opposing team didn't even bother trying to throw him out.)
Pensacola manager Jim Riggleman says that when his leadoff hitter is at first or second base, opposing pitchers throw fastballs "95 percent of the time. Billy is very much in the pitcher's mind when he's on base." Pitchers became so predictable this season that the Blue Wahoos' number two hitter, outfielder Ryan LaMarre, made a deal with his table setter. "I told [Hamilton] I would take on every first pitch that I saw, to let him run, even if it was straight down the middle," says LaMarre. "It didn't matter if I was down a strike, because I knew what was coming on the next pitch. Unless Billy was on third, that pitch was going to be a fastball."
The lengths to which opposing teams would go to slow Hamilton was "sometimes pretty ludicrous," says LaMarre. After Hamilton beat out a routine grounder to second earlier this year, the Cubs' Double A affiliate began playing the infield in against Hamilton every time he stepped to the plate—even when there was no one on base. "That's something I've never seen before," says a scout. "What's crazy is that I'm not sure it's a bad strategy."