Rob Rains’ Inside Baseball: Cardinals Need Speed

Vince Coleman will celebrate his 50th birthday in September, and he is still confident that he could lead this year’s Cardinals in stolen bases.

“There’s no doubt in my mind I could do it,” Coleman said by phone this week from his home in San Diego. “Have them call me. I’d be glad to go out there and steal a base or two.”

It would not take many more than that for Coleman to become the team’s leader in stolen bases, which has dramatically become a lost art to anyone wearing a St. Louis uniform.

They came within three games of setting a franchise record for the most consecutive games without a stolen base earlier this year, going 33 games in a row without a steal, and since June 4, have stolen a combined five bases as a team in 55 games – with 13 caught stealing. Their season total of 39 steals in 115 games is only one more than the Cubs, but add in the fact that they have had 28 runners thrown out trying to steal, and their success rate of 58 percent is the lowest in the National League.

The last stolen bases they have had out of the leadoff spot in the order came on May 6. The team has a combined seven steals out of that spot, the lowest total in the league, and has had six runners caught stealing.

The individual leader on the team, Tyler Greene with nine steals, has spent almost as much time in Triple A as he has on the major league roster. Of the players on the current roster, Albert Pujols leads the team with six steals. There are 57 players in the NL with a higher total.

What in the name of Coleman and Lou Brock is going on here? A franchise which once stole 314 bases in a season, and had those two players top 100 by themselves, can’t steal more bases than this?

Coleman thinks part of the reason is that the art of stealing bases is not taught in the minor leagues, as it was in his day in the 1980s, and that baserunners in the major leagues do not study the pitchers as and his teammates did in the 1980s.

“If Don Blasingame had not been an instructor in the minor leagues I wouldn’t have learned how to read pitchers as well as I did,” said Coleman, who stole 549 bases in his six years as a Cardinal between 1985-1990. “I knew what to look for and passed that knowledge on to my teammates. Whitey (Herzog) gave us the freedom and the green light to run at will. 

“Every pitcher has a flaw, and I don’t think today they study that and see what the flaw is.”

Coleman disputes the notion that the development of a “quick-step” move by pitchers slowed down the running game in the majors. He said pitchers who try that generally fall behind in the count, and then have to change to try to throw strikes in order to not walk the next batter.

“It just meant I would steal on the third or fourth pitch instead of the first or second,” Coleman said.

The Cardinals have had successful teams which did not steal many bases in the past. The World Champion 2006 squad stole only 59 bases for the season, and the next year’s total fell to 56 – the fewest by any team managed by Tony La Russa in the last 33 years. This year’s team already is ahead of the franchise record for fewest steals in a season – a meager 17 by the 1949 Cardinals.

Despite their lack of steals, which also includes the inability of going from first to third base on a single to the outfield, the Cardinals still lead the NL in runs and hits. Just think how much better off they would be even if they were at least average in the baserunning department? Think they might have grounded into a fewer double plays if they had players who could steal second?

To their credit, the scouting and player development personnel identified speed as an area they would like to improve in this year’s draft. Three of their first 10 picks in the June draft were described as speedy, athletic outfielders with a chance to develop as basestealers.

In addition to the lack of speed on the major-league club, there are only seven players (eight if you add Tyler Greene’s major league and minor-league totals together) out of the close to 200 in the minor league system with more than 10 stolen bases this season. Tied for the organization lead through Saturday’s games were Memphis outfielder Adron Chambers and Johnson City outfielder Steven Ramos, each with 17 steals.

Coleman, who worked briefly as a base running instructor in the minor leagues for the Cubs after his playing career, believes if a player doesn’t learn how to steal bases in the minors he is not going to be able to do it successfully in the majors. 

The lack of players who have the ability to steal bases also makes it hard for Coleman to watch games these days.

“There is no one out there who excites me,” Coleman said. “When fans came to watch the Cardinals in the 1980s the one thing they knew they were going to see was stolen bases, if they didn’t see anything else.

“I patterned myself after Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock. Those guys excited me when I watched them play and steal bases. I learned from watching guys like Joe Morgan when I was growing up. I don’t see that many complete ballplayers in baseball today. When we got on base it was exciting.”

As the Cardinals attempt to add more speed to their lineup, the question is where it will come from – with the two corner outfield spots, the two corner infield spots and the catcher position all unlikely sources – there are really only three choices, shortstop, second base and centerfield.

Newly acquired shortstop and leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal was supposed to add that dimension to the team, but he has not even attempted a stolen base in his first eight games as Cardinal. Jon Jay, now the regular centerfielder, has five steals but also has been thrown out four times. Now splitting time at second base, Skip Schumaker has no steals and two caught stealing, and Ryan Theriot has four steals and has been thrown out attempting to steal five times.

Head over to Rob Rains website to check out Rob’s thoughts on the National League Central race coming down to two teams and his notes on Major League and Minor League baseball.

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