Democracia y PolíticaDeportes

The Endangered Species of Baseball

sub-bunt-preview-master1050 (1)A new baseball season is here, and with it a dazzling array of possibilities. That is a reason we care, right? For all of its familiar comforts as our daily sporting companion, baseball offers so many surprises along the way. Just about anything is possible.

Well … maybe.

As baseball evolves, parts of it disappear. Good luck finding anyone wearing stirrups, or throwing a screwball, or plowing over the catcher at the plate. AstroTurf is nearly gone (hooray!) and it has been almost three decades since the last day game in the World Series (sigh).

Some numbers, too, are slowly and subtly sliding into extinction. Most of the endangered digits are not widely celebrated. Taken together, though, they sketch a portrait of a game in transition. The extraordinary is being redefined.


75 Stolen Bases

Last accomplished: Jose Reyes, 2007

Jimmy Rollins was born in Oakland in 1978, months before Rickey Henderson began his career with the A’s. When Henderson led off a base, the excitement rippled through the television and captivated the young fan.

“I used to steal bases with him in my living room,” Rollins said. “I’d slide into the couch and everything.”

In Rollins’s first full season, for Philadelphia in 2001, he led the National League in steals with 46. Henderson topped that total 14 times. Henderson is the stolen base king, of course, but his success — and that of contemporaries like Vince Coleman and Tim Raines — has taken the fun away from future generations.

“These slide steps, these defensive shifts, guys not wanting to ‘give away outs’ — they’re stopping the running game,” Rollins, who now plays for the White Sox, said. “They figure if you’re not safe 80 percent of the time, it’s not worth the gamble. And it didn’t used to be that way.”

Again, as Rollins suggested, the rise of analytics takes some of the blame — but only some. The first factor he mentioned is the most important.

“Guys have become better at holding runners, being quicker to the plate and giving the catcher a chance,” White Sox Manager Robin Ventura, who played 16 years in the majors, said. “They used to never worry about slide steps and times to home plate. They would just say, ‘This guy could probably steal it,’ and he would go. Pitchers have figured out that they need to be part of the process to stop a guy from running, and if they don’t do it, they’re stupid, because you’re just putting a guy in scoring position.

Teams combined for 2,505 stolen bases last season, the fewest in the 30-team era (since 1998) — and a startling 774 fewer than in 2011. But base stealing has tended to be cyclical throughout history. Between Ty Cobb in 1915 and Maury Wills in 1962, nobody stole 75 bases in a season — a much longer drought than the nine-year spell since Jose Reyes swiped 78 for the Mets in 2007.

A.J. Ellis, the Dodgers’ catcher, said the 75-stolen base season could come back.

“It just depends on how much Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton get on base,” Ellis said, “because they can outrun any catcher, and they can outrun any pitcher’s time coming home.”

Gordon has led the majors in steals the last two seasons, with 64 for the Dodgers in 2014 and 58 for Miami last year. He had a strong on-base percentage last season (.359), but Hamilton, the Cincinnati Reds’ speedster, managed 57 steals with a lowly .274 on-base mark.

Finding a player with the speed, plate discipline and instincts to steal 75 bases against today’s pitchers will not be easy. But Dayton Moore, the Royals’ general manager, believes faster players are on the way.

“We all know there was a period of time in our game that we’re not proud of: There were P.E.D.s, and the style of play has changed because of it,” he said. “We’re going to get more and more athletes playing our game as we go forward because of the commitment of Major League Baseball to grow the game at the grass-roots level. It’s going to take time, but I really believe we’re going to get a lot of our better athletes in this country playing baseball again. The game’s going to change. It’s going to be more of a speed game.”

250 Regular-Season Innings Pitched

Last accomplished: Justin Verlander, 2011

Early in spring training, by his locker in Kissimmee, Fla., Dallas Keuchel said his goal was always to pitch nine innings. If he makes 33 starts, as he did last season while winning the American League Cy Young Award for the Houston Astros, that comes out to 297 innings. Keuchel rounded up.

“Two-thirty-two is not my goal,” Keuchel, who led the A.L. with that many innings last season, said. “I figure my goal is about 300 innings this year. That’d be nice.”

That would also be a fantasy. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw led all pitchers last season with 232⅔ innings, the lowest total to lead the majors in a nonstrike year. No pitcher has worked 300 innings in a season since Steve Carlton in 1980, and 250 seems to be the new 300.

The five-man rotation has been established for decades. But with the exploding cost of veteran pitching — and the value to teams of healthy, productive starters who are young and cheap — limiting workloads, not increasing them, is the trend.

“We develop pitchers differently in the minor leagues,” Royals General Manager Dayton Moore said. “We’re cautious. We’re more protective.”

The Royals won the World Series last fall despite getting fewer innings from their starters than any other A.L. team. They made up for it with a stingy bullpen, and while Moore said the team needed more innings from its starters, baseball is a copycat industry. The Yankees — who have gone two full seasons without a pitcher reaching 200 innings — added another late-game reliever, Aroldis Chapman, but left the rotation intact.

Dave Dombrowski, the new president of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox, signed the ace starter David Price for seven years and $217 million. Price led the majors with 248⅓ innings in 2014 — plus eight more in the playoffs for Dombrowski’s Detroit Tigers.

The Tigers are the last team to use a pitcher for 250 regular-season innings: Justin Verlander, who logged 251 while winning the A.L. Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards in 2011. Would the Red Sox ask Price to work 250 innings in the first season of an expensive contract? Actually, they might.

“I guess I’m kind of old-fashioned,” Dombrowski said. “It really doesn’t concern me that much. Now, it might concern other people. But I have lived with people that have done more than that and been healthy. So I think it’s: How do you put those 250 together? If you’re pitching every five days and not pitching an abundance of pitches every game and you’re not overexerting, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

Price is 30, though, and Dombrowski conceded that he would not want a 21-year-old pitcher to handle a 250-inning burden. History is littered with pitchers who burned out after throwing too much, too soon, and the industry has responded conclusively.

No pitcher has thrown 250 innings in a season at 25 years old or younger since Milwaukee’s Cal Eldred in 1993. Eldred had Tommy John surgery two years later, and in 2000 he needed a screw inserted in his elbow to stabilize it from stress fractures. Eldred was 32 then and started only three games the rest of his career.


100 Relief Innings

Last accomplished: Scott Proctor, 2006

Paul Quantrill will never forget the feeling of pure exhaustion at the most important moment of his career. It was the fourth game of the 2004 American League Championship Series, at Fenway Park, with the Yankees trying to finish a sweep of the Boston Red Sox. The teams were tied, 4-4, heading into the bottom of the 12th. It was Quantrill’s 100th relief inning of the season.

“We were done,” Quantrill, now a special assistant for the Toronto Blue Jays, said. “We were wrecked. We battled, but we just weren’t where we needed to be.”

Quantrill pitched all season with knee pain but had led his league in appearances for the fourth season in a row. This time, though, he allowed a game-winning homer to David Ortiz. A year later, Quantrill’s career was over.

Another right-handed Yankees setup man, Dellin Betances, was the only reliever in the majors to throw more than 80 innings last season, with 84. In 1999, that total would have ranked in a tie for 19th. Six relievers topped 100 that season. Nobody has done it in 10 years.

“We only had five guys in the bullpen,” said Bob Stanley, who had four seasons of at least 100 relief innings for Boston in the 1980s. “Now there’s seven or eight. Everyone’s got more guys out there to do it. Back in the day, if you went in in the seventh and you got ’em out in the seventh, you’d go on to the eighth. If you got ’em out in the eighth, you’d go on to the ninth.

In 1982, Stanley worked 168⅓ innings in only 48 games — an average of almost 11 outs per appearance. Only one pitcher last season, Anthony Bass of Texas, had more than three appearances with that many outs. All of Bass’s outings came in a mop-up role with the Rangers far behind.

Velocity can get relievers to the majors, and as long as they make only brief appearances, they can keep their best fastballs without needing to develop many other pitches. But with starters throwing fewer innings, bullpens need to work more. The solution, teams have found: Build a bigger bullpen.

“Everybody’s basically one-inning guy now,” Toronto Manager John Gibbons said. “They all throw hard now, and I think maybe to maintain that, they can only go one inning. So it’s kind of evolved this way. I don’t know how it can ever go back.”

The Cleveland Indians set an American League record for team relief appearances in 2014, with 574. The Indians make sure to carry a bench player who can handle the outfield and the infield because they prefer to carry 13 pitchers. The days of 10- or 11-man pitching staffs are apparently over.

“Tito would like to carry about 15, if we could,” Indians General Manager Mike Chernoff said, referring to Manager Terry Francona. “He maximizes his bullpen to get platoon advantages, to get a guy out at the right time if he’s fatigued and get a new pitcher in there. I think a lot of managers are doing that with specialized roles in the bullpen.”

Some managers, like Joe Girardi of the Yankees, would love to see baseball adopt a 26th roster spot, with one player — probably the previous night’s starter — inactive for each game. Small-market teams would probably argue against that, but with managers always needing fresh arms, for shorter and shorter stints, it is an intriguing idea.

40/40 Club

Last accomplished: Alfonso Soriano, 2006

Four people in baseball history have hit 40 home runs and stolen 40 bases in a season. The first three were Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez — three of the most notorious figures of baseball’s steroid era.

There is no credible evidence showing Bonds and Rodriguez used steroids in their 40/40 seasons — Bonds’s was in 1996, Rodriguez’s in 1998 — but with those two, nobody knows for sure.

In any case, the 40/40 club, requiring a sublime combination of elite power and speed, has been shuttered since Alfonso Soriano joined in 2006. Nobody has even posted a 30/30 season since 2012, when Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun and the Angels’ Mike Trout did it. This is the first three-year stretch without a 30/30 man since 1984 to 1986.

“It’s tough because that’s a lot of wear and tear on your body,” Trout said. “Diving all the time, stealing bags. Obviously you’ve got to have some power just to combine both of them, and it’s tough. The biggest thing is to stay healthy. If you don’t do that, it’s not possible.”

Trout stole 49 bases as a rookie in 2012, and his totals have declined ever since, from 33 to 16 to 11. His home run totals, in those same seasons, have gone the opposite way: from 27 to 36 to 41.

Nobody is complaining. Last season, Trout’s on-base plus slugging percentage was .991, the best in the American League and the highest of his career. He has said he wants to steal more bases now, but it is hard to imagine the Angels letting him get back to 30 or more. Trout, 24, is too valuable a force in their lineup to risk the grind on his body. As a center fielder, he already plays a tiring defensive position.

“Mike Trout can do it because he’s gifted,” Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto, the former Angels general manager, said. “But what we found out there was: The other side is awesome, too. If he wants to steal 15, throw up a .950 O.P.S. and be the best player in the game, that’s O.K.”

The best chance for a 30/30 or 40/40 season would seem to be with a first- or second-year player still seeking to establish his identity. Legitimate power threats are so rare now that once a player proves he can hit 30 homers, teams will usually prioritize that skill.

Since Soriano’s career year in 2006, only two players have had multiple 30/30 seasons. One was Ian Kinsler, who did it in 2009 and 2011. The other was Braun, in 2011 and 2012. Braun tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in the first of those seasons.

20 Sacrifice Bunts (for a Nonpitcher)

Last accomplished: Juan Pierre, 2007

For an individual player, 20 sacrifice bunts in a season has been notable for decades. In the 1950s, for example, there were five seasons when nobody reached that mark. A truly far-fetched number would be 30: No player has reached that total since Pittsburgh’s Jay Bell in 1991.

But overall sacrifice bunts plummeted last season, and the leading position players in 2014 and 2015 put down just 13 apiece. Total sacrifice bunts (officially called sacrifice hits) have fallen each year since 2010, to 1,200 last season — an average of 40 per team, or one every four games.

“I’m not a fan of the sacrifice bunt,” Scott Servais, the Seattle Mariners’ new manager, said. “I don’t really think that increases your odds a ton, when you’re giving up an out. Outs are precious.”

Servais, a former major league catcher, said he saw some wisdom in moving a runner from second to third with no outs. But after spending the last several years in a front-office role, he reflects the basic opinion of modern executives: swing away. Other former players are dismayed by the trend.

“It’s hard for me to believe that the way I was taught to play the game is all wrong,” the former outfielder Juan Pierre, who led his league in sacrifice hits four times, said. “You’ve got a guy batting .230, .240, he’s making a lot of outs. So if there’s a guy on first, I’d bunt him, especially with maybe a guy who can’t run, a high double-play guy, on base. Any time you move a guy up 90 feet, I believe you have a better chance of scoring that guy — and that’s probably old-school and archaic right now.”

When Pierre reached the majors with Colorado in 2000, his manager, Buddy Bell, told him he would have to learn bunting if he wanted to stay. Pierre did the work, bunting four or five buckets of balls every day, and lasted 14 seasons.

The night before the first game of the 2003 World Series, when he played for the Marlins, Pierre had an inspiration: he would open Game 1 the next night by bunting against the Yankees’ David Wells. Pierre did just that, reaching first on a single and coming around to score.

The Marlins won that game by a run, and for the rest of the World Series, Pierre noticed, the Yankees pulled in their second baseman when he came to the plate. Facing Wells to lead off Game 5, he bunted again — and Wells injured his back reaching down for the ball. The Marlins beat the Yankees’ scrambled bullpen and went on to win the title.

“So much can happen off a bunt,” Pierre, who was a guest instructor at Marlins camp this spring, said. “So many holes could open up for me. I believe it can be taught, but you’ve got to want to do it.”

There could always be an outlier these days, but it seems unlikely. A player would need Pierre’s uncommon work ethic and an organization that encourages him to apply that work to a lost art: purposely making outs for the good of the team.

A Cubs Championship

Last accomplished: 1908


The Royals won the last World Series, their prize for a methodical rebuilding effort. If they can win, with a modest payroll in a small market, then why can’t the Chicago Cubs?

That’s a multilayered question, with history and heartbreak as a backdrop. But the Cubs won 97 games last season and advanced to the National League Championship Series. They added premier free agents over the winter, and have the talent, the money and the will to make impact trades this summer.

The Cubs even have a new Wrigley Field clubhouse — the second largest in baseball, after Yankee Stadium’s — and ghosts were not invited. So how do they handle their strange new role: World Series favorites?

“It’s only different if you let it be different,” Manager Joe Maddon said. “If you want to be in awe, and really absorb or take to heart the fact that everybody’s picking you to be like this No. 1 team, then it can be impactful. But you just go about your business like you normally do, and understand that means nothing.

“I think what it does mean is that other teams come after you harder, possibly, and that’s what I’ve been talking about: embracing the target.”

The Cubs would like to make a target of their own: that infamous billy goat, whose curse was said to fall on the team in 1945. Are the baseball gods finally lining him up for extinction?

As another season begins, we can’t wait to find out.

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