We’ve spent so much time moaning about the inability to bring another big hitter to these parts that we’re at risk of overlooking what we do have: two teams that will count on speed, which is more exciting baseball anyway.
The Dodgers and Angels are division favorites even though they won’t send many balls over the fence this season. That’s cool. Kind of old school.
In the 1980s you had the St. Louis Cardinals running wild. The most exciting moment in baseball was a walk to Rickey Henderson, because you knew what was coming up next.
But the stolen base isn’t hot anymore. It’s gone the way of Von Dutch caps. In 1986, the National League averaged 153 stolen bases and 126 home runs a team. By 2003, the trend had switched to 169 home runs and 81 stolen bases a team.
Fences have been pulled closer to the plate. The fans have spoken, the owners have written their checks. Power won.
As Maury Wills, the Dodgers’ guru of the basepaths, says, “The guys who hit the home runs drive big cars.”
By that rule, the player lots at Angel Stadium and Dodger Stadium should be filled with Ford Escorts. Last year, the Angels were 12th in the American League in home runs, the Dodgers 15th in the National League.
But their biggest off-season player moves resulted in leadoff hitters, not cleanup guys. So expect more basepath hustle than batter’s box muscle.
In spring training the Angels looked as if they were trying to qualify for the U.S. track and field championships, stealing 56 bases (18 more than the runner-up New York Mets).
“You create offense,” Scioscia said. “And some of it is necessary, where you may have to roll the dice to try to stay out of a double play or try to move a runner or scratch for some offense when we’ve been struggling. It’s a combination [of philosophy and necessity]. You definitely adjust to what your talent is on the field.
“We do have nice team speed throughout our lineup. I think we’ve got a nice blend throughout. It has to be part of what we do. Until our batter’s box offense really stabilizes and improves as it did the second half of last year, we really have to scratch.”
Even the terms sound unglamorous. Speed teams scratch and claw. It doesn’t reflect the athleticism and daring that goes into stealing a base, which gets back to the base nature of sports more than hitting a home run does. After all, standing, swinging and trotting is just golf at a faster pace.
There’s more pressure on the basepaths, where you’re expected to succeed, than at the plate, where failure seven out of 10 times is acceptable.
“It’s one of the greatest feelings,” said the Dodgers’ Juan Pierre. “Everybody in the park knows you’re going. The opposing pitcher knows you’re going. Defense, everybody knows you’re going. To be able to still go out there and steal a base is a feeling of accomplishment.”
Wills says it takes “courage” to go when 50,000 people are watching you. He wants basestealers to be successful 80% of the time. Pierre’s success rate is about 75%. But sometimes just the threat of stealing is enough.
“It’s one of those things where you can change the game so much by just getting on base,” said the Angels’ Chone Figgins, who stole 52 bases last year. “They know you might steal, they might try to get pitches quicker to the plate. Whoever’s hitting behind you, they might get something better to hit.
“Balls in the dirt, catchers have to be really worried about that stuff. Going first to third, we can do that better than any team. That’s stuff that you have to be prepared for.”
Of course, the biggest step is getting people from third to home. Even though the Angels led the AL in stolen bases last year, they were 11th in runs. But if they can’t increase their power, they’ll just try to get even more active on the basepaths.
“They kind of indicated to me they want me to run this year,” said second baseman Howie Kendrick, who stole six bases in 72 games last year. “I’m going to have the opportunity to run.”
There are a lot of terms for small ball out there, like “station-to-station” and “situational hitting,” but to Scioscia it comes down to “playing baseball.”
“Our deepest [power] team was 2000, and we still were just barely over .500,” Scioscia said. “There’s more to baseball than just that batter’s box offense.”
No, it’s not glamorous. And even the speedy guys wish they could have power, the way rappers want to be actors and actors want to be directors.
“If I had my choice I would want to be a home-run hitter,” said Wills, who was the first player to steal 100 bases in a season, getting 104 during his MVP year in 1962. “I didn’t want to have to run this much.
“I did it because I needed to do that in order to fit in, to be able to compete on the major league level. I would have preferred to be a home-run hitter. One swing of the bat and you’ve got a run. Home-run hitters are not the ones who win pennants for you, though. It’s the guys who are the good baseball players, do all the little things.”
“Speed is still speed,” Dodgers Manager Grady Little said. “It never goes into a slump.
“I can’t speak for all managers, but if I’m one that has some speed, we’re going to run.”
So with opening day upon us, maybe we shouldn’t say, “Play ball.” How about, “On your marks, get set ...”
J.A. Adande can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.