Double trouble for Sox opponents
Ellsbury, Crawford provide a base-stealing dynamic Boston hasn't seen in years
BOSTON -- Clyde Milan was faster than Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, according to Cobb teammate Sam Crawford, so swift that another Hall of Famer, Chief Bender, the great Chippewa right-hander, nicknamed him "Deerfoot.''
Milan stole 88 bases in 1912, a big league record at the time, and the next season stole a league-leading 75 bases, with Washington Senators teammate Danny Moeller swiping 62. Why is that worth mentioning? Because it's the only time in American League history that teammates have stolen 60 or more bases in the same season.
And it's been done only once in the National League -- in 1980, when Ron LeFlore stole 97 bases and Rodney Scott swiped 63 for the Montreal Expos.
What, then, can we expect from the greatest combination of speed the Red Sox have ever had: 27-year-old Jacoby Ellsbury, who in 2009, his second full season in the majors, led the league with a club-record 70 stolen bases; and 29-year-old newcomer Carl Crawford, a four-time stolen base champion who in that same season stole a career-high 60 bases?
"It's going to be a dynamic Red Sox fans haven't seen in quite a while, if ever,'' said Tommy Harper, who held the Sox stolen base record until Ellsbury broke it. "It puts tremendous pressure on an opposing team, to have two base-stealers like that in the same lineup.
"But to predict a number? I'm not sure you can be definitive about that, because it depends on a lot of factors. But are they capable of stealing [60 or more]? Yes.''
The most prolific pair of base-stealing teammates in the last 20 years was Marquis Grissom and Delino DeShields of the Montreal Expos. Grissom stole 76 bases in 1991 and 78 in '92, leading the league both seasons, while DeShields stole 56 in 1991 (third in the league) and 46 in '92 (second).
"Wonder who coached those guys,'' said Harper, wryly posing a question to which he already knew the answer.
Harper was working for the Boston Parks Department, his coaching career in the Red Sox system having been cut short when he was fired in 1985 for complaining that the team allowed its white personnel to frequent a segregated Elks Club in its Winter Haven spring training base. Two years later, he was hired by the Expos as a roving base-running instructor.
He first became acquainted with Grissom, who was in the New York-Penn League, and DeShields, who was playing in the Class A Midwest League, in instructional league. "They give me credit,'' said Harper. "Grissom said, 'Hey, Harp, we don't know anything about base-stealing.' But the talent was there. I just accelerated it.
"We had tons of speed in Montreal. Larry Walker, Rex Hudler, Tim Raines, Otis Nixon -- we had five people who stole 20 or more bases. A team that has two or more is dangerous, because there's that constant threat that every time someone gets on base they might go. Pitching is about concentration, and a lot of pitchers just like to focus on the plate, throwing strikes. A lot of guys don't like throwing over to first base. It breaks that concentration.''
Grissom, while becoming the league's most feared base-stealer, called Harper a second father. "We talk about everything, not just baseball,'' he once told Sports Illustrated. "He knows so much. I learn things every day from him about stealing bases. About situations, when it's best to steal. About pitchers, about moves. There's just so much I didn't know.
"Tommy always says that the best base stealers are the ones who can steal the base when it's really needed, late in the game, when everyone is looking for it. I go along with that. No cheapies. I used to get really mad when I was thrown out. He's convinced me that there are times when you get thrown out and you can't do anything about it. The other team just makes a perfect play. You just have to tip your hat to them and try again."
Harper, who stole a career-high 73 bases for the expansion Seattle Pilots in 1969, set the Sox record four years later, in 1973, when he stole 54. He never had a partner in diamond larceny. In Seattle, an aging Tommy Davis was second with 19 stolen bases. In Boston, 39-year-old Luis Aparicio, playing in his third decade, was second with 13 stolen bases.
In Crawford and Ellsbury, Harper said, the Sox have two base-stealers who already have achieved elite status and are in the primes of their careers. How much they run this season, he reiterated, will revolve around a number of factors.
"The way I taught,'' Harper said, "was to steal within the framework of the game. Let the game come to you. If Dustin Pedroia, for example, hits third behind Ellsbury and Crawford, I'd tell him, 'Don't worry about me. I'll get my share of stolen bases. I don't want you to take any fastballs down the middle. It'll be more helpful to me if they throw you fastballs and you swing and hit some of those suckers off the Wall.
"'You do that, and then maybe they have to start throwing you first-pitch breaking balls, and that opens stuff up for me.'''
In Terry Francona's first three seasons as Red Sox manager, the team ranked 11th, 13th and last in stolen bases in the the AL. The '05 team stole 45 bases, the team's lowest total of the decade.
But with the addition of such players as Coco Crisp, Julio Lugo and Ellsbury, the stolen base totals rose before spiking to 120 in 2008, when the Sox finished third in the league, then to 126 in 2009, Ellsbury's breakout season. Last season, with injuries sidelining Ellsbury for all but 18 games, the Sox stole just 68 bases, 12th in the league.
"People in Boston complain that Francona doesn't run, doesn't hit and run, doesn't bunt,'' Harper said, "but you can't do those things if you don't have speed. You don't want David Ortiz on the front end of a hit and run, although Ortiz tried it once.''
Harper suspects that while Francona may have an idea where he intends to hit Crawford and Ellsbury in the lineup, he'll use spring training to experiment. With the Expos, DeShields led off and Grissom hit second, but the difference, Harper said, is that DeShields hit from the left side, Grissom from the right. Ellsbury and Crawford are both left-handed hitters.
"For a team like the Red Sox, with so many hitters, your stolen-base percentage will be more important. If you don't have a great-hitting team, you'll take more risks. A team like the Red Sox, you want to have a high percentage of success. You don't want to be running out of too many innings.''
Both Ellsbury and Crawford have shown a high success rate. Ellsbury is at 85 percent. Crawford, who last season became the seventh player in big league history to steal 400 bases before his 29th birthday, is at 82 percent.
How many bases Crawford and Ellsbury steal, Harper said, will also depend in part how often Francona gives them the green light to steal third base. "That's where the numbers can come, how often you steal third base, or if teams don't allow you to steal third base.''
In 2008, when he stole 50 bases, Ellsbury attempted 10 steals of third base and succeeded eight times. The following season, he was successful in 13 of 15 attempts. Only Baltimore's Brian Roberts, who was 14 for 14, had more.
"You could see Francona let Jacoby do a lot more once he was comfortable with his judgment," Harper said. "It's a great play when it works, one of the worst when it doesn't. You don't want to be thrown out at third with Kevin Youkilis or David Ortiz at the plate.''
In four of the last five seasons, Crawford was thrown out just once while stealing third. In 2009, however, he was caught four out of nine times.
Last season, when he stole 47 bases, was the seventh time Crawford has stolen 40 or more bases. The only exception was in 2008, when injuries limited him to 25. Harper sees little reason to expect Crawford to slow down anytime soon.
"How many times he runs, that's an interesting question,'' Harper said. "It depends on the player, what he is thinking, and also depends on the manager and the manager's strategy. We don't know what Francona's strategy is going to be, but age-wise, I don't think that's going to affect anybody. I was 32 when I set the [Red Sox] record.
"And Crawford is an athlete. Jacoby is an athlete. They both take care of themselves. And they can both do some special things.''
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.