Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
Bob Ryan, a "retired" Boston Globe writer, seemed to strike a nerve with his May 18 column "Do baseball fans care about new breed of stats?"
Over the course of 1,100 words, Ryan harped on the uselessness of wins above replacement while contemplating whether "New Breed Stat Guys ever actually enjoy a game, because they are so obsessed with what the manager is or isn't doing, based on the data in front of them."
Jonah Keri, a writer for Grantland and a major advocate of baseball's movement toward analytics, took exception to that. In response, Keri said "If anything devoting yourself to understanding every event of every game speaks to a sky- high level of passion, and love, for the game."
In a way, they're both right. From the purist's perspective, there's nothing nostalgic about statistics like range factor or BABIP. But at the same time, this isn't 1972. We have more information at our disposal than ever, so why not take advantage of it? There are pros and cons to each way of thinking and the right approach probably lies somewhere in between both schools of thought.
But for all the chatter we've heard about WAR and on base percentage, neither side has really weighed in on the stolen base issue. Except for Billy Beane, or at least the fictionalized version of Beane we see in the 2011 film "Moneyball." Here is a conversation we see about halfway through the movie.
BEANE: Another thing. No more stealing.
OAKLAND PLAYER: That's what I do. That's what you pay me to do.
BEANE: No, I pay you to get on first, not get thrown out at second.
So there you have it. Beane, the general manager who brought sabermetrics to the mainstream in the early 2000s, is not in favor of the stolen base. But has his way of thinking caught on?
Yes and no. True to his word, or Brad Pitt's words, the A's finished dead last in stolen bases in 2002. They repeated this feat in 2005 and then again in 2007.
But this year Oakland ranks 14th in steals and as recently as 2010, the A's were in the top-three. So is Beane a big hypocrite or is this all part of the plan?
The plan, assuming Beane ever had one, changed drastically when Sports Illustrated's groundbreaking "Confessions of an MVP" cover hit newsstands in June of 2002. The story highlighted Ken Caminiti's steroid use during his MVP 1996 season and brought the issue of widespread PED use to light for the first time. Congressional hearings, Jose Canseco's best-selling book "Juiced" and the Mitchell Report were soon to follow.
The point is, back in 2002 when a significant portion of the league was using steroids, the long ball was a way of life. That's no longer the case, which means teams have to use speed to manufacture runs.
Last season, Pedro Alvarez and Paul Goldschmidt led the National League in home runs with 36. That total would have been good for ninth-best in 2002.
That's no coincidence. Try this on for size. In 2003, six teams stole 100 or more bases during the regular season. Nine years later in 2012, that figure ballooned to 19 teams.
This year, 13 teams are on pace to eclipse the 100-steal plateau. That's a noticeable drop-off from 2012 but still significantly higher than the steal totals we saw in the early 2000s when Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa were hitting home runs at a record pace.
When we're talking about individual players, the benchmark for a successful base stealer is usually 20 steals in a given season. As of now, 38 players are on pace to reach that threshold this season. That's two fewer than last season but 12 more than we saw in 2003. In the list below, you can see the Steroid Era give way to a new golden age of base stealing.
Players in MLB with 20 or more stolen bases since 2003
And the best is still to come, at least for one base stealer. Though Billy Hamilton is often tabbed as this generation's Rickey Henderson, Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon leads all of Major League Baseball with 30 steals this season. That puts him on pace for 90 thefts, which would be the most in the majors since Henderson swiped 93 bases for the Yankees in 1988. Gordon's 90.9 percent success rate (he's only been caught three times) is actually a little higher than Henderson's in '88 (87.7 on 106 attempts).
Of course, the reason Beane championed analytics in the first place was because he thought it gave Oakland the best chance to win games. So are teams that emphasize stealing more successful than teams that don't?
History says yes. Since 2003, only one team has finished with a losing record while leading the league in steals (the 2011 Padres). Five of those teams have gone on to make the playoffs with two advancing all the way to the World Series (Marlins in '03 and Rays in '08).
Home runs will always be relevant but the steal movement is quickly gaining momentum. By the way, Jonah Keri just booked a guest for his podcast next week: Bob Ryan. Get ready for sparks to fly.