There is a saying, borne from somewhere undetermined (at least to me), and maybe in a land far away that “speed kills”. Perhaps it was just an ad campaign that highway patrols across the country used to deter drivers from going fast. No matter it’s origins, people in sports have used the phrase over the years to explain the differences between winners and losers, or advantages over ones opponent. On the baseball field, speed certainly has it’s place. Whether it be running down a fly ball that most humans can’t get to, or scoring from first on a ball that doesn’t get to the wall, a baseball player with some wheels can have an effect on the game.
I’m not just talking about stolen bases either. There is a lot of back and forth on the subject of whether stealing bags really helps a team out, and I can conclusively say it is rather inconclusive. The thing about speed, and I am talking about elite speed, is the threat it presents. The psychological effect it has on a pitcher that has to divide his time between a batter and a runner. The effect it has on the pitch selection a catcher makes in trying to give himself time to throw a runner out. The effect it has on a hitter who has a sure double taken away by a guy running the ball down in a gap. Or how fast a guy at 1st base gets to 2nd on a grounder to break up a double play. All of these things are difficult to quantify in real numbers, but as a fan of the game, I can’t help but feel that speed can play a substantial role in America’s pastime.
Looking at our current Detroit Tigers, many, including myself, have lamented that the Tigers could use a little more speed in general on it’s teams. Tigers CF Austin Jackson is the only guy on the team that is any sort of base stealing threat or flat out good speed, and he isn’t the type of guy I am talking about. Jackson has only attempted 60 SB in two seasons with Detroit. Some of that we can chalk up to his aggressiveness, some of that we can chalk up to style of play by manager Jim Leyland. I’m talking about the type of player that when he gets on 1st base, he scares opposing managers. I’m talking about a guy that when he gets on 1st, he is looking to steal 2nd almost every time.
There is no doubt that the game has changed a lot. The 1980’s was really the last decade in which we saw guys consistently stealing 50+ bases in a season, and a decent amount of them. There are still guys that do it. Guys like Jose Reyes fit into the category who frighten teams on the bases. But with steroids being slowly phased out of the game and Ryan Braun‘s system, the running game could be making a comeback. And it is for some teams. Teams like Kansas City, Texas, Tampa and even the Yankees are using the SB again as a part of their offense.
Given that the Tigers don’t use the SB, or speed in general, as a weapon, I wondered when was the last time they had a real threat out on the base paths to utilize his speed to try and change the game?
To find this player in Tigers history, I should define what I am looking for. Basically, I am looking for a guy with top end speed first and foremost. Essentially, what would really considered to be 80 type speed on a scouting scale. I am looking for a guy that isn’t afraid to use it, i.e. stolen base attempts. And lastly, I am looking for a guy that has done it for multiple years in a Tigers uniform, and maybe even beyond.
Combing through the decade of the 2000’s is a pretty useless for the most part. One guy that could qualify, with the major exception that he couldn’t steal first base, was Nook Logan. Logan who only played two seasons with the Tigers was so light hitting, he didn’t make a lot of appearances on first base to begin with, but his top end speed was impressive. If and when Logan hit a ball down the line, or up a gap, he was standing on third in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately for the Tigers and Logan, his speed went vastly underused as he just wasn’t a good enough hitter to stick in the major leagues.
The Tigers did have a couple of burners in the late 80’s and the early 90’s. In 1991 at the age of 22, the diminutive, but speedy Milt Cuyler stole 41 bases in just 51attempts. It was Cuyler’s only year in which he posted numbers like that, mainly because like Logan, he just couldn’t hit.
Prior to Cuyler, the guy who actually stole 40+ bases in 2 consecutive years for the Tigers was Gary Pettis. Pettis was a legitimate burner who was also good at his craft. His success rates were very good, and he put his speed to great affect in the outfield, winning 5 Gold Gloves along the way. But Pettis was only doing that for a Tiger for two consecutive years, and while he was fast, he never posted a stolen base total higher than 56, and he topped 50 only twice. Not quite what I was looking for, but getting warmer.
I then thought of Kirk Gibson immediately, going back even further. In the mid-80’s, Gibson as I remember him was one of the more aggressive players around. Still, he just wasn’t the type of threat on the base paths that I was looking for. Gibson topped the 30 SB mark 3 times, but he wasn’t such a threat that he scared opposing defenses to the point of distraction.
Going back even further, I finally found my Tiger in the mid to late 1970’s. I don’t have too much memory of him playing until he got to 1980 or so, but he fits the type of elite base running threat I am looking for. For lack of a better term, the kind of guy who gets on first base and makes pitchers and catchers crap their pants. They knew he was going to take off, it was just a matter of time. That man was Ron LeFlore.
LeFlore was one of the most feared base runners in the game for a relatively short period of time. He combined top end speed with an aggressiveness that Tigers fans haven’t seen, well, since LeFlore put on a Tigers uniform 30 years ago. LeFlore led the league in stolen bases with 68 in 1978, and as a Montreal Expo in 1980, he stole 97 bases. He stole another 78 in 1979, and 58 in 1976. Those who got to see him know how fast he was. Heck, I remember my dad telling me excitedly when I was a youngster that I had to watch LeFlore because of his amazing speed.
Now, obviously there isn’t any guy out there right now posting 97 stolen bases in the major leagues right now, so this isn’t just the Tigers that we are talking about here. It is a part of the game that I miss though, because it is flat out interesting and exciting to see that confrontation from a base runner and a battery on the mound. The game has lost some of that, even if some teams are trying to bring it back.
I would hope the Tigers bring a little bit of the speed element back into their game. Not because it is going to automatically mean more wins, but simply because it brings an entertainment aspect to the game.
Speed may not necessarily kill in the game of baseball where “chicks dig the long ball”, but I have always rooted for the underdog. Here is to speed coming back from the dead. Especially in Detroit.