Reyes still considered king of thieves

5/21/2008 - MLB

Peruse the Major League Baseball offensive statistics, and you'll find those home run-hitting, historically lead-footed Boston Red Sox traveling in unexpected circles: They are tied for sixth in stolen bases (40) and are first overall in success rate (85 percent).

It's a boon to manager Terry Francona's flexibility to have Jacoby Ellsbury, Coco Crisp, Dustin Pedroia and Julio Lugo on the roster, but the numbers reflect a philosophy that has permeated the organization from the minors through the majors. The Red Sox will run, but only if they're prepared and the odds are in their favor.

"We like to steal bases," said general manager Theo Epstein, "as long as we don't get caught."

The stolen base fell out of favor for a while as more teams embraced the notion that advancing 90 feet wasn't worth the risk of making an out in the process. But a combination of factors -- from declining power production to the scarcity of catchers who throw well -- might be fueling a comeback.

Last year the 30 clubs combined for 2,918 steals, the highest aggregate total since 2001. This year MLB is on pace to surpass 3,000 steals, and Boston isn't the only team looking to run. Consider the post-Barry Bonds San Francisco Giants, who rank fourth in the majors in steals, or the Toronto Blue Jays, who are more than halfway toward their total of 57 for the entire 2007 season.

That's welcome news to Phillies coach Davey Lopes, the Zen Master of base-stealing tutelage. Lopes stole 557 bases in the big leagues, and he was sad to see his craft so routinely maligned.

"We've taken some of the excitement out of our game and made it less appealing to the public," Lopes said. "Now I think you're starting to see the tide switch a little bit. You're seeing more teams emphasizing the stolen base and incorporating it into their games rather than sitting back and waiting."

So what makes an elite base stealer? Some practitioners rely solely on speed, while others are adept at studying pitchers and picking up little cues and "tells." Some dance off first base and make a show, while others simply get up and go.

With the stolen base on the rebound, this week's installment of "Starting 9" pays tribute to the top pilferers in the game. We call it our "Hail to the Thieves" edition.



Jose Reyes, Mets

1 It's not really trendy to stick up for Reyes these days. He was benched for a lack of hustle last year and has rankled opponents with his over-the-top celebrations. His offense has slipped, and his aggressiveness on the bases can cross the line to either recklessness or boneheadedness or both. He has 12 stolen bases in 17 attempts this season, which is nothing special in anybody's book.

But the overall portfolio is still staggering. Last year Reyes stole 78 bases, most in the majors since Marquis Grissom swiped 78 for the 1992 Montreal Expos. He became the first player since Kenny Lofton of the 1992-94 Cleveland Indians to steal 60 bases in three consecutive seasons.

Reyes is also efficient. He has a career success rate of 79.6 percent -- better than Lou Brock, Ron LeFlore and Maury Wills, among others.

As Lopes points out, the best base stealers do it with a purpose and crave the spotlight. "You're a great base stealer when everybody in the ballpark knows you're running, and you still run and you're successful," Lopes said.

Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman and Tim Raines were risk takers at heart, and so is Reyes. He feeds off the buzz in the stands and was born to unnerve pitchers and make catchers antsy.

Of course, Reyes' swagger was more pronounced when he was hitting .300 rather than .272, but let's not write him off just yet. Remember last spring, when Mets fans were fretting over David Wright's mystifying lack of power? Reyes is 24 years old, and perceptions can change in a hurry.



Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners

2 Ichiro shares Theo Epstein's cold-blooded view of base stealing. When Seattle manager John McLaren broached the possibility of a 70-steal season in spring training, Ichiro made it clear that he didn't think the extra bags were worth the extra outs -- not to mention the wear and tear on his body.

"Mac has a tendency to overexaggerate or say big things," Ichiro told Seattle reporters in February. "As a manager, I hope he gets rid of that tendency and becomes more coolheaded."

Three months later, with Seattle in an offensive rut, Ichiro is 21-for-23 in steal attempts and more inclined to stir the pot. In a 3-2 win over San Diego on Sunday, he singled in the first inning, stole second and third base and scored on a Jose Lopez grounder for Seattle's first run. The sequence was straight out of the McLaren playbook.

Ichiro broke Julio Cruz's Seattle franchise record with his 291st career stolen base Sunday. He also holds the American League record with 45 successful steal attempts in a row.

Stylistically, Ichiro's approach mirrors the rest of his game. He's perfectly still around the bag, but you can see the wheels spinning in his head as he dissects the pitcher's move and calculates the odds of success. Once he takes off, he's all business.



Carl Crawford, Rays

3 The average pitcher delivers the ball to home plate in 1.3 to 1.35 seconds. Your typical catcher releases the ball and gets it to second base in 2.0 seconds. Crawford might make the trip in 3.2, which means no amount of slide-stepping, stepping off or throwing over is going to make a whit of difference.

Crawford's best attribute is the ability to accelerate from a dead stop to "oh my gosh" in a mere step or two. The University of Nebraska football people recognized that gift when they recruited him as an option quarterback.

"I don't think Carl is one of those guys who gets great reads off pitchers," said Blue Jays catcher Gregg Zaun. "He just outruns the ball. If he gets the jump he's supposed to get, there's really no defense for it."

Crawford's speed is a weapon whether the trip is 90 or 270 feet in duration. He has 77 career triples to go with his 289 stolen bases.



Hanley Ramirez, Marlins

4 Ramirez's flair for larceny is almost a sidelight to his other contributions. When a shortstop produces 200 hits, 120 runs and a slugging percentage above .500, who expects 50 stolen bases as a bonus? That helps explain why the Marlins just signed Ramirez to a six-year, $70 million contract extension.

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins spends a lot of time glancing out of the corner of his eye when Ramirez is leading off first base.

"Hanley's fast, but he isn't blazing fast," Rollins said. "But he gets good jumps and good reads, and he doesn't give it away. He definitely knows how to steal bases."

At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Ramirez is built more like a defensive back than a greyhound, which makes you wonder how long he'll maintain his 50-steal pace. If the Marlins keep him in the No. 3 hole, he'll concentrate more on hitting homers and driving in runs than swiping bags. So far, the shift from the leadoff spot hasn't worked out too well for him.



Brian Roberts, Orioles

5 Roberts is the quintessential pest once he reaches base. Marlins starter Mark Hendrickson found that out this spring when Roberts stole two bases in an early Grapefruit League game. After Hendrickson expressed his displeasure, Roberts told reporters, "That's what you do in spring training, last time I checked."

In contrast to, say, Ichiro, Roberts attracts everybody's attention as he prepares to take a base. He'll mix in some jumps, starts and "false breaks," and try to build momentum to shave valuable hundredths off his arrival time. One AL coach said Roberts' technique is "head and shoulders" above many players on this list.

"He's always looking for ways to push the envelope," said Seattle bench coach Sam Perlozzo, Roberts' former manager in Baltimore. "He's relentless."

Roberts is also the most prolific stealer of third base in the game. He led the majors with 19 steals of third last year, and is 35-of-38 since 2006.



Jimmy Rollins, Phillies

6 During the Phillies' recent homestand, Rollins spent 15 minutes at his locker discussing the ins and outs of base stealing. He addressed the merits of the head-first slide versus the feet-first approach, the attributes of assorted base stealers, and Atlanta pitcher Tim Hudson's alleged penchant for balking when he "breaks" his back leg in his delivery.

Stealing bases has fascinated Rollins since he grew up near Oakland as a huge Rickey Henderson fan. Rollins knows he's not a burner in the Michael Bourn mold, so he studies pitchers and taps into Lopes' wealth of knowledge to help get himself an edge.

Rollins has surpassed 40 steals three times and has a career success rate of 81.4 percent. But when you're 5-8, 175 pounds and play an average of 157 games a year at short, you learn to pick your spots out of self-preservation.

"If I'm feeling good on a particular day, I don't care what you're doing -- I don't think you're going to throw me out," Rollins said. "I guess that's how the really fast guys feel all the time."



Juan Pierre, Dodgers

7 In 1998, Pierre and Chone Figgins were teammates for Colorado's Class A Northwest League club in Portland, Ore. They ate hot dogs by the box because they couldn't afford anything else, and talked wistfully of playing in the big leagues while watching "SportsCenter."

Ten years later, Pierre ranks first among active big leaguers with 407 steals, and Figgins is at 215 and counting. Not too shabby for a couple of dreamers.

Pierre, as you might expect, approaches base stealing from every conceivable angle. He spends hours studying video, knows which tracks are the quickest, and works to refine his jumps during batting practice. No detail is too trivial for his consideration.

That 45-for-69 effort in Florida four years ago doesn't look real good in hindsight, but Pierre has become more efficient with maturity and time.

Given his .373 career slugging percentage, he needs all the help he can get turning singles into doubles.



Chone Figgins, Angels

8 Mike Scioscia's Angels are ultra-aggressive on the base paths, to the extent that they keep detailed charts on their success at advancing from first to third on singles.

No player embodies the Angels' freewheeling mind-set more than Figgins. He stole 155 bases from 2005 through 2007, and that total would be higher if not for the 47 games he missed last year because of injuries.

Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter don't run as often these days, so Figgins, Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar are the Angels' principal threats to steal. The team's 74-percent success rate is middle-of-the-pack, but Scioscia would rather live with a few outs than temper his players' enthusiasm.



Willy Taveras, Rockies

9 Taveras was born on Christmas Day, 1981. He shares that birthday with another, far more accomplished base stealer -- Rickey Henderson.

In reality, Taveras is the Brett Butler of his generation. He's the major league leader in bunt hits since 2005, and he beat out a whopping 169 infield hits in the three seasons before this one.

The Astros turned Taveras loose in the minor leagues, and he slashed and ran his way to three 50-steal seasons in a row. He's on a similar pace this year in Colorado, but he'll have to improve upon that .227 batting average if he plans to be more of a threat.

Newcomers Division

Michael Bourn, Astros
"There are three stages of speed: Fast, really fast and Mike Bourn," said Jimmy Rollins.

The long-term question is, will Bourn reach base consistently enough to take advantage of his speed? You wouldn't know it by his .196 batting average with Houston this season.

Before Bourn left Philadelphia in the Brad Lidge trade, Lopes told him that base stealing was his ticket to a long and lucrative future in the game.

"I told Michael, 'Run to the bank. That's your moneymaker,' " Lopes said. "If Michael hits, he will be the dominant base stealer in the game. Without question."

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Ellsbury was a menace on the base paths at Oregon State, and he picked up lots of valuable pointers in the minors from Red Sox development consultant Tommy Harper. He's likely to return the favor one day by breaking Harper's single-season franchise record of 54 stolen bases.

Ellsbury, who was successful on his first 25 steal attempts in the majors, is more about speed than refinement at this point, but he's a quick learner. Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills said he soaks up knowledge "like a sponge."

Said Epstein: "He has all the ingredients of a great base stealer -- quick burst, raw speed, efficiency in his actions, fearlessness and instincts."

Not to mention exceptional timing. With his first postseason steal last fall, Ellsbury won a free taco for everyone in America as part of a Taco Bell "Steal a Base, Steal a Taco" promotion.

Carlos Gomez, Twins
Another pure burner. The folks who plan the All-Star Game festivities could do worse than a match race featuring Bourn, Gomez, Carl Crawford and Joey Gathright.

"He's a 90 runner," a National League executive said of Gomez. That's pretty impressive considering the scouts' rating scale only goes from 20 to 80.

Others of Note

Rafael Furcal, Dodgers; Eric Byrnes, Diamondbacks; Ian Kinsler, Rangers; Kaz Matsui, Astros; Curtis Granderson, Tigers; Grady Sizemore, Indians; Omar Vizquel, Giants; Carlos Beltran and David Wright, Mets; Johnny Damon, Yankees; Nate McLouth, Pirates; Rickie Weeks, Brewers.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.