This past season’s offensive environment would have been hard to predict four years ago. The 2014 campaign was a pitcher’s paradise. That year, teams scored fewer runs per game than in any season since 1981 and posted the lowest slugging percentage since 1992. Home runs were down, strikeouts were up, and people were left wondering what the future held. Many in the game were of the belief that baseball was entering a new era, one in which speed would play an increasingly important role.
Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead we’ve seen an explosion of power (accompanied by a continued rise in strikeouts). For the majority of teams, speed has become less, not more, of a priority.
I asked a selection of MLB managers about this at the Winter Meetings. Prefacing my question with a mention of the post-2014 predictions, I solicited their opinions on the role of speed in today’s game.
Jeff Banister, Texas Rangers: “There are two elements to speed. There is speed on the bases and speed on defense. I see it every day. It’s a really nice concept on television with Statcast — we can track guys now at a greater rate. I think the element of speed is crucial in the game, whether it’s on defense or offense.
“You’ve got to be able to score, whether it’s from first base, second base, or third base. You don’t want to have all guys who are just all home run, no run. When the home runs don’t show up, you’ve still got to be able to do something to put runs on the board.”
Bud Black, Colorado Rockies: “[You] have to go into the depths of amateur baseball to see if there are guys who can run playing our game. I’d like to think that speed will always have a place in our game. Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon — these guys are game changers how they play. I think it helps our game.
“I hope there are kids who have speed, who are younger and playing our game, that can develop into major-league players. I do know that, in general, athletes are getting bigger and stronger through strength and conditioning, nutrition. Power is happening at a greater rate. I think you can build power.
“It’s just common sense to me that power is coming into the game because you can build it as a young player, as an amateur. You can’t build speed. So for speed to stay in our game, or increase in our game, we need fast guys to be playing as kids. So let’s do that. Let’s get them off the soccer field, get them off the lacrosse field. Let’s get them on a baseball diamond. If you guys see young fast guys out there, get them a baseball glove for Christmas!”
Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants: “It plays a critical role in the game. Speed isn’t just stolen bases; it’s on defense, it’s [taking] an extra base. I think every team, when you talk about getting athletes… usually you’re talking about speed there. Speed can disrupt a game, especially when you get to the playoffs.
“Speed is always going to be a part of the game. Sure, the power is talked about now, and it’s all over the game. It’s what we’re looking for, too, but there’s nothing like having speed. That’s still going to be a big part of our game as we move forward, because we’re not a team that tries to slug it out with you. We’re trying to get more athletic.”
Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers: “That’s a good question, because I really felt like speed would be a bigger part of the game, too. But I still think athleticism is a big part of the game, a really important thing to have. The problem is, it’s one of the harder things to really define the value of. It’s hard to get to a number that puts value on athleticism.
“We point it out to our players often. We’re an aggressive running team. The threat… what does the threat to run do to a pitcher? If Jonathan Villar is on first base and we get to a 2-0 count because the pitcher was in a slide-step delivery and [the batter] hits a double in the gap, there is no stolen base there. Nothing happened from that perspective, but was it the threat to run that got the hitter in the 2-0 count and got him in a good pitch to hit?
“That’s why I’ll always value athleticism. I think we’ll always push the envelope in the running game, because I do think those threats, although tough to quantify, matter.”
John Gibbons, Toronto Blue Jays: “Well, yeah, you’re right. People would talk about how the game is going to go back a little bit to more of the old-fashioned type game — but then you look at this year and the number of home runs hit. There’s talk about the ball. For us, personally, you have a roster that’s put together, and those are your guys. There is also our particular division — we play in a home run-hitting haven, all the teams in there. It’s a slugfest, so you have to be able to do that with them.
“There is a lot of value to having some guys who can really run. We’ve had our troubles manufacturing runs over the last couple years. At times that’s cost us. But there are trade-offs, too. The game exploded last year with the home runs hit, and of course you had the blister issues on certain guys. It’s a big question: is the ball different and what have you.”
Bob Melvin, Oakland A’s: “There is still a dynamic for speed, definitely. I mean, with power pitchers now who are maybe a little bit slower to the plate, you want to try to take advantage of being able to steal bases at times when it’s the optimal time to do it. Power has certainly come to the forefront recently, [but] I don’t think that makes us take away from where we want to be as a baserunning team.
“Teams like the Orioles are built just purely for power, but we have some guys in our organization now where we feel like we can take advantage of the baserunning part of it — guys like [Jorge] Mateo are coming — and we’re going to be a little more athletic probably than we’ve been in the past.
“I do sit here every year and say we’re going to run more, hit and run more, and so forth and so on. [But] it’s based on the type of team that you have. When you go into spring training, you don’t want to completely turn that part of it off, because when you’re a young team like us that doesn’t want to rely solely on power — and I don’t think we can rely solely on power — there are different avenues that you can be productive in. I still think baserunning is one of those areas.”
Rick Renteria, Chicago White Sox: “I think if you’re going to limit the scope of what your club can do… I don’t know if that really makes a lot of sense. I get it. A lot of home runs… a lot of strikeouts. We, as the White Sox, love home runs. But we also want guys to be able to make contact with two strikes. We also want them to be situationally able to take care of things that the game is asking of you. Sometimes a home run isn’t what you need. If I’m down by five runs and I need to start a line, a solo home run isn’t going to do a lot. I know you score a run, but I want baserunners to get us going.
“I think to eliminate any element of the game would be foolish, but then again, it depends on what your club is made up of — what kind of structure does your team have? Do you have guys with speed? Do you have guys who are base to base? A lot of those things determine what you’re going to be able to do and how important that aspect of the game is for you.”
Scott Servais, Seattle Mariners: “People who saw us play last year saw the value of speed, certainly in our outfield, turning a lot of balls in gaps into outs. The athleticism, the speed defensively, has been huge.
“Where the power is come from in the game — obviously we’re going to focus on it. You see guys… I call it ‘hunting their pitch.’ They’re shrinking the strike zone and trying to drive the ball out of the ballpark, trying to get the ball in the air more consistently. I think that’s the biggest change. Hitters are more aware, mechanically, of their swings — what they need to do to get the ball in the air. And not chasing pitches, but sitting on their pitches and trying to pull the ball in the air. The result has been more home runs.”
Brian Snitker, Atlanta Braves: “I like having guys that can run. Having speed, it’s just… you play these teams and it’s like if you get a ground ball sometimes it’s almost like a mistake. It’s either a broken bat or a mis-hit ball because guys are going up there trying to… launch angles and all that. There’s a lot being made of it. Guys are big — strong guys that can hit it a long way — and that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. It’s like guys don’t care about striking out that much any more.
“It’s just going to depend on the makeup of your club, how it’s put together. For us, we’re going to need the speed. We’re going to need to be taking the extra base and going first to third on singles, run the bases smart — things like that, because if you look at our club, we don’t have a lot of power. We’re not one of those teams, so athleticism is going to play a part in us being successful.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.