ATLANTA — Lou Brock caught everyone’s attention when he stopped by Turner Field before a game this week.
Hmmm, maybe the Go-Go Braves were looking for yet another guy who can steal bases — though, in fairness, the 72-year-old Hall of Famer probably has lost a step or two since his playing days.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re gonna get a little more speed in there,” Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said with a smile, looking at Brock sitting a few feet down in the dugout.
All kidding aside, teams throughout baseball have gotten serious about the running game in this pitching-dominated, post-steroids era. Just look at the Braves, who used to be known for their one-base-at-a-time, wait-for-the-homer offense. Now, after trading for NL stolen base leader Michael Bourn and calling up speedster Jose Constanza from the minors, Atlanta is suddenly running its own little track meet.
“When the power’s not working, you can go to the running game,” said Brock, who ranks second in career stolen bases and was in town for a speaking engagement. “The running game never goes into a slump. It’s there at all times.”
The Braves aren’t the only team that’s running, running and running some more.
According to STATS LLC, stolen bases through the first three-fourths of the season were up 11 percent per game over a year ago, which would be the largest single-season increase since a 20.7 percent jump in 1976.
Not so coincidentally, Major League Baseball was on pace for its lowest ERA since 1992 and fewest home runs since 1995. Scoring is at a premium, which largely explains the increase in not only stolen bases, but more teams daring to hit and run and trying to take an extra base.
“If you’ve got good pitching, one thing is not gonna happen: You’re not gonna hit home runs,” Brock said. “So you’ve got to do something to counteract that. The only thing I know of that can counteract that is either a lot of hits or hit-and-runs.”
Or just swipe a base clean.
The San Diego Padres are leading the majors in steals (147 going into Friday’s game), an absolute necessity given they play in pitcher-friendly Petco Park and don’t have even one hitter with as many as 10 homers.
“You don’t have those games where you have a number of guys with big power in the lineup, where you wait for the homer,” Padres manager Bud Black said. “More teams are conscious of the overall lack of power. Because of the uptick in pitching, you have to try and get to second base, you have to try and get to third base any way you can to help manufacture runs. It’s something we know, especially in our park. We have to do that to help us score runs.”
Chicks may dig the long ball, but baseball has cracked down on the steroid use that contributed to all those outrageous home run totals in the 1990s and early 2000s.
With the threat of hefty suspensions looming over those who test positive for performance-enhancing drugs, more players are relying on their legs to generate runs.
“I think that is part of it, absolutely,” Black said. “PEDs did increase power and now with the more stringent testing, it has placed more emphasis on speed.”
Cameron Maybin was leading the Padres with 32 stolen bases, but that’s only the most obvious benefit of the speed game. A fast runner can distract a pitcher from his main goal: getting the hitter out. There’s also the havoc he causes for a defense, which may have to shade its infielders closer to the bag to keep the runner close, thereby leaving a larger hole for the hitter.
“It was a mentality that was here when I got here, to force the issue a little bit, try to create pressure on the defense and give ourselves opportunities,” Maybin said. “We are definitely a team that plays small ball. I realized when I came here, you have to buy into it, you have to believe it.”
Of course, speed alone doesn’t guarantee success. Just look at the Padres, who are last in the NL West.
“The pitcher has to get the hitters out and not worry about who’s on base,” Florida manager Jack McKeon said. “To me, it’s overrated sometimes. You lead the league in stolen bases and you’re in last place. That’s like leading the league in home runs and being in last place. It’s an odd combination to me.”
Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones has never been much of a stolen-base threat — certainly not now, at age 39. Through most of his long tenure with the Braves, he’s played on teams that relied on knocking the ball over the fence, not running faster than everyone else.
But that changed just before the trade deadline, when the Braves acquired Bourn from Houston — the team’s first prototype leadoff hitter since Rafael Furcal left after the 2005 season. Bourn led the NL in stolen bases the last two years, and he’s out front again with 45 going into Friday night’s game against Arizona.
Around the same time, the Braves made another move that didn’t generate much attention but is sure paying huge dividends. Constanza, a career minor leaguer, was called up from Triple-A after Nate McLouth went on the disabled list.
Only 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, Constanza has been a huge surprise. He’s focused on putting the ball in play and letting his legs do the rest. Sometimes, he’ll drop down a bunt, even though infielders have learned they must play well up on the grass. Other times, he’ll slap at the ball and take off down the line, a blur covering 90 feet in 3.8 seconds.
Constanza was hitting near .400 and already had a half-dozen stolen bases, earning more playing time than last year’s rookie star, Jason Heyward.
Jones likes what he sees from the two newcomers.
“You can’t sit back and wait for the three-run homer every night. There’s too much good pitching in this league,” Jones said. “Those guys, it seems like at least one of them beats out an infield grounder every night.”
Bourn has the green light to run just about any time he wants.
“It’s a different era,” he said. “There’s no reason to just sit there. You might as well get in scoring position. You can create a run like that.”