SURPRISE, AZ - MARCH 12: Matt Kemp #27 of the the Los Angeles Dodgers dives into third base to steal during the first inning of the spring training baseball game against the Kansas City Royals at Surprise Stadium on March 12, 2011 in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
I don't know about you guys, but few players get my blood bubbling more than those that can combine shellacking power with electrifying speed. I just don't like having to choose between one or the other. I mean, everyone loves power. It's just so... sexy. But few things can make the game more exciting than a player with truly game-changing athleticism. I suppose you could just say I'm greedy.
But what can I say? We live in the peak era for these kinds of players. Sure, we all remember the days of Willie Mays, Bobby Bonds and Andre Dawson. Back then, if you were stealing bases and hitting home runs, everyone took notice. It was like being the kid that's 5-foot-8 in fourth grade. But now we've progressed and hit middle school, and suddenly being 5-foot-8 isn't so peculiar. Yeah, you're still taller than practically everyone else, but you're not the lone giant among boys. You actually have some competition when you play your peers in basketball.
These days, the player that can hit homers and steal bases is still a commodity, of course. But over the past 30 years, the improving athleticism of elite players combined with an increasingly scoring-friendly environment have made that kind of player more common than ever. From 1901 through 1954, there were just seven total instances of a player stealing 20 bases and hitting 20 homers in a single season. That's not seven different players. That's literally seven different times, done by six different players, over a 54-year span.
Compare that to Willie Mays, who posted 20/20 numbers SIX times in a six-year span from 1955 to 1960. Or Hank Aaron, who did it six times in an eight-year span from 1961 through 1968. Or even Vada Pinson, who did it five times in a seven-year span from 1959 to 1965. Before 1954, there really weren't any players that stole bases and hit homers. You were either Jimmie Foxx and you smacked homers, or you were Eddie Collins, prime-time base thief. But even after 1954, only the best of the best were capable of reaching that lofty 20/20 status.
Then came the beginning of the Steroid Era, and a whole host of players that could combine power and speed like we had never seen before. Beginning in the late 1980's, with the likes of Ellis Burks, Joe Carter, Eric Davis and Ron Gant, we were seeing non-elite players consistently hit the 20/20 mark. These guys weren't bad players by any means; at different points, you could probably have qualified each those guys as very good regulars or even stars. But these guys definitely weren't on the same caliber as the guys that were doing it in previous generations, like Mays, Aaron, Pinson and Frank Robinson. Suddenly, you didn't need to be a superstar to join the club.
And over the next 25 years or so, we've seen more and more of these kinds of players. Remember that ridiculous figure I mentioned before, that there were just 7 instances of a 20/20 season from 1901 to 1954? Well, from 1985 through 2010, the average number of 20/20 players in any given season is an incredible 9.5. Outside of 1992 and the strike-shortened 1994, there have been seven or more 20/20 players in every single season since 1985. Already this season, you've experienced more 20/20 seasons than someone who watched every single MLB game over that 55-year span.
Now, let's wonder for a moment why this is happening. Presumably, one aspect of this whole emergence of 20/20 players is the rapidly changing perception regarding player roles in baseball. Once upon a time, you were a power hitter, or a slappy, base-stealing lead-off hitter. But now, we're seeing an incredible number of players that combine hitting skill and power with raw athleticism. Surely this can be partially explained by the generally increasing athleticism of professional athletes around the world, but I think that players have changed their approaches, too.
Back in the day, lead-off hitters were supposed to put the ball in play and use their speed, while middle-of-the-order hitters were expected to have the power to push them around the bases. But with an increasing appreciation for the value of on-base percentage and power production, lead-off hitters are being encouraged to take more pitches and really rip at the ball rather than focus on putting it in play to take advantage of their speed.
This can be seen even when looking at this year's 20/20 players. Among those players, you see names like Jacoby Ellsbury, Andrew McCutchen, Curtis Granderson and Ian Kinsler; all of these guys have been lead-off hitters at some point in their career, and you really don't know how teams would've utilized their talents differently 50 or 60 years ago. Just look at all of the players that could end up hitting 20 homers and stealing 20 bases this season: Ellsbury, McCutchen, Granderson, Kinsler, B.J. Upton, Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, Dustin Pedroia, Justin Upton, Carlos Gonzalez, Chris Young, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shane Victorino and even long-shot candidates like Jeff Francoeur, Melky Cabrera, Ben Zobrist, Ryan Roberts and Alex Gordon. This is far from a who's who of the game's best players.
Back in 1999, a shocking 19 different players reached the 20/20 plateau; at this point, we're probably going to end up with a mark closer to 15 this season, but that would still qualify as the second- or third-highest mark in MLB history. Even during a period of low-scoring relative to the past 20 years (MLB run-scoring is down for the fifth consecutive season in 2011), we're seeing more and more 20/20 players than ever.
Is this the future of baseball players, where they're more well-rounded and capable of doing more than ever? Honestly, you have to believe so. Every year, we see more and more players that combine a good swing with raw power and athleticism; cover the Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus Top-100 lists, and you'll surely see numerous players that have that kind of speed/power potential.
The past 20 years don't appear to be a blip on the screen, where the change can mostly be attributed to the effects of the Steroid Era. This appears to be a genuine difference in the way that baseball players are developed these days. No longer can a potential skill be left alone, like a stone unturned. If you're a big-time power hitter that happens to be a pretty athletic guy, why not see if you're capable of being an efficient base-stealer? Just look at Ryan Braun, or even Bryce Harper and his 26 steals on the season.
We can point out a bunch of different places where the application of sabermetrics and progressive thought have affected the way teams run, from building bullpens to filling out lineup cards. But we don't always talk about how these new manners of critical thinking affect the way that we develop players. One of the obvious instances is how we develop pitchers, as we've focused more on pitch counts and limiting workloads while building up arm strength.
I'm just wondering if we can add another example to the list: encouraging power hitters to steal bases when it's a mathematically sound risk to take. Given the increasing frequency with which power hitters are stealing bases, you have to wonder who's been encouraging them.