Need for speed on basepaths? Not always
On-field quickness often takes a backseat to instincts and smarts
The adage tells us "you can't teach speed." But folks around baseball know there's a whole lot more than just "speed" that goes into a stolen base, an extra base or a first-to-third trek.
Speed and good baserunning are by no means synonymous. One is a natural ability some players are blessed with, and one is a skill that can be honed, polished and perfected.
"A lot of [baserunning] is instinctual, but more of it is a will to want to become better," said Padres first-base coach Dave Roberts, who was known as one of the game's best baserunners during his 10 seasons in the big leagues. "You've got to have players buy into the fact that that's a team aspect of the game, because a lot of it doesn't show up in the box score."
Roberts constantly uses the word "anticipation" with his baserunners. On a ball in the dirt, he says it's rarely "speed" that gets a runner to second base. Instead, taking that extra bag comes down to whether a player reads the break of the pitch as it approaches the plate, or whether the runner foresees a certain pitch, given the count and situation.
Speed always helps, of course, and Angels outfielder Mike Trout has about as much of it as any player in the game. But simply having wheels isn't enough for one of baseball's brightest young stars.
"A good baserunner, to me, knows the situation every time," Trout said. "Know what you're going to do before the ball is hit, and don't run into outs."
It's not something shown on TV very often, but before every pitch, Trout -- like every other good baserunner -- will check the depth of the outfielders and the positioning of the infielders, going over the situation in his mind so he can gauge his approach based on what pitches might be thrown and what plays might unfold.
To some, it may seem like overthinking, but after a while, it becomes instinct. And eventually for veterans, those instincts take over for the speed time takes away.
"When you're a younger player, and you've got the ability, you get all the answers you need because you're faster, and you can steal a base," Roberts said. "But as you get older and you start to understand you've lost a step, to still have that same production, you've got to study pitchers and tendencies and things like that."
Baserunning often comes down to organizational philosophies. Certain teams teach their players to be more aggressive than others, and it shows. Trout's Angels have long been one of those clubs.
"We're just challenging the outfielders to make a good throw every time," Trout said. "It's definitely good to have baserunning as one of your tools."
Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford had his baserunning instincts instilled in him by a Rays ballclub that is known for its aggressiveness.
"It all starts with how the organization teaches it and preps you for it," Crawford said. "They were real big on that kind of thing. You'd see a Kelly Shoppach or a Carlos Pena going first to third. In some organizations, they'd hesitate a second."
That's a mindset that some clubs strategically instill in their players. For power-heavy teams, the chance of making an extra out on the basepaths just before the multimillion-dollar slugger comes to the plate isn't worth the risk.
But Roberts is adamant that even those teams -- the ones who may be a bit more tentative on the basepaths -- aren't putting enough emphasis on an aspect of the game that can be the difference between winning and losing.
"There's different philosophies, but it's more so that some organizations stress it and see the importance of it," Roberts said. "Others might not. The Padres -- it's a big part of what we do as an offense."
In his time, Roberts said he always admired Larry Walker's ability to run the bases, even though he didn't have the greatest raw speed. Now, Roberts said, he feels the same way about his third baseman, Chase Headley.
Padres outfielder Will Venable noticed the same thing, calling Headley a 20-base stealer, "if he didn't hit so many homers." He also added Reds first baseman Joey Votto -- by no means a track star -- to his list of the National League's top underrated baserunners.
"There's a mental part of it, there's technique, there's timing -- there are so many different factors that are involved in what a good baserunner is," Venable said. "Recognizing situations. There are a lot of guys that are just fast. It doesn't necessarily mean they'll steal as many bases as they should or do what they should on the bases."
Players blessed with speed will tell you that it needs to be honed before it translates to the basepaths. Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp didn't get miraculously faster from 2010 to '11. But he did go from stealing 19 of 34 bags to stealing 40 of 51 a year later.
Roberts said the biggest difference-maker is the wealth of information that is available to a ballplayer these days. There are scouting reports on just about everything -- a pitcher's move, a catcher's transition time, an outfielder's arm strength.
Once that information is digested, it comes down to a player's mentality when he gets on base.
"Fearlessness, not being afraid to make mistakes, but also really understanding game situations," Roberts said when asked to describe his ideal baserunner. "I think outs, innings and score all dictate different things to a baserunner."