The Chicago Tribune has a story about the White Sox new third base coach, former A’s “slugger” Jeff Cox. The White Sox want to “get back to” doing what they supposedly were doing in 2005. I find it interesting that a team that finished dead last in the Majors in On Base Percentage (despite having a DH with a .400+ OBP as opposed to a pitcher) feels that the problems stem from what happened to guys after they reached base, rather than the more obvious problem of a severe lack of guys on the basepaths to begin with.
There is nothing wrong with good baserunning, proper bunting technique, hitting cutoff men, etc. The thing is there’s a reason why they call them the ‘little things.’ All of it can get canceled out by a three run homer in a hurry. When it comes to ‘doing the little things,’ being able to do the ‘big things’ probably needs to come first.
That said it’s important to note that this is the Chicago White Sox were talking about. In 1928 Lou Gehrig had an off year and only hit 27 Homers. That was three more than the White Sox did that year. This is a team that’s been around since 1901 and Jose Valentin is 10th all time in the team Home Run list. In 1987 Harold Baines set the All-Time White Sox Home Run mark, breaking Bill Melton’s record, when he hit his 155th home run of his career. Every player that’s ever hit 40 homers for the White Sox has played for the team within the last 10 years. Ozzie Guillen is 9th all time in total bases. The White Sox franchise spent 1921-1976 resisting Babe Ruth with varying degrees of seriousness until 1977 put an end to that fruitless endeavor.
The old time White Sox fans always viewed “wait for the homer” baseball to be the flavor on the north side and felt it was beneath them. They’d cheer sacrifice flies the way the Cubs fans cheered home runs. I think there may be just a tiny little bit of that era still lingering where a few of the White Sox faithful long for the return of the most consistently successful White Sox teams ever: the Go Go Sox of the 1950s and early 60s. Guys running all over the damn place is exciting, there’s no doubt about that. However, it’s worth noting that teams of that ilk often win more than “expected” due largely because those teams also tend to play exceptional defense.
So I think if you really wanted to bring that type of baseball back to the South Side, and actually win with it, here’s a better recipe than going from first to third on singles:
a) That type of baseball is almost always a young man’s game. Losing a step doesn’t matter much, when you’re trotting around the bases. But even the best fielders lose a little when they hit their 30s. There are of course exceptions, but mostly you want younger players. The end result is that you need a strong farm system to replenish your team as players age.
b) The glovework up the middle is absolutely critical. The guys at SS, 2B and CF have all got to go get them. Aparacio, Fox and Landis were all Gold Glovers and outstanding defenders. There’s an absolute ton of runs out there to be saved at those three positions. The glovework elsewhere also matters (only to a lesser extent).
c) If you find baserunning to be exciting, it only stands to reason that actually getting on base should be a necessary component of that plan. You could do a Nellie Fox: work counts, foul pitches off, take a dozen or so a year for the team, and hit .280-.310. Or you could simply concentrate on finding good defenders who also tend to get on base (sacrificing home runs possibly to do so). I don’t know how good of a baserunner Juan Uribe is, he’s never on base for me to find out.
d) Leverage your basestealing and baserunning. Don’t just steal a base or take an extra base because it’s there, do it because it improves your chance of winning. For example, think Dave Roberts in the 2004 ALCS. Tied or down a run, late in the game, strategies that try and take the extra base are often more valuable than your random 1st or 2nd inning steal. Yes the opposition is looking for it then, but if you’re building a team that actually is good at this, that’s no deterrent.
e) There’s always trade offs, and in this case the trade off between throwing strikes and striking people out is obvious: keep the ball over the plate and in the park, and let your exceptional defense do what it’s designed to do.
f) And as with any winning strategy, data is everything. Sure leveraging your base stealing is important, but you actually have to know when those leveraged situations are. Having great defenders is great, how well do your scouts do at identifying them? Wanting that type of team is great, but what team do you actually have? If the middle of your lineup is Konerko, Thome, Dye, Crede and Pierzynski, that’s an awful lot of renovating you’re going to need to do to get there.
It’s an extremely entertaining form of baseball when done well (more so IMO than 11-10 slugfests), but doing it poorly doesn’t entertain anyone except the opposition and their fans. Simply running into a bunch more outs on the basepaths without reducing the number of outs you make at the plate? Well that qualifies as ‘doing it poorly’ in my book.