In Randy Winn's earlier days with the Giants, he and his teammates were instructed to yield to Barry Bonds when they were on the bases. "With Barry, don't run into an out," Winn said recently. "If you run, they're just going to walk him. We'll take our chances any time he comes up."
In his past few springs, this year with the Yankees and before that with the Giants, the veteran outfielder noticed a change.
"There's more of an emphasis on getting a good secondary lead, going first to third," Winn said. "For a while there, not that they didn't want guys to run, but it was like, 'Give this guy a chance to hit.' It's been more an emphasis on, 'Let's push the envelope a little more. Let's get to second base. Let's get to third base, put pressure on the defense.' "
Baseball tends to evolve in fits and starts. Bonds is gone now, and gone with him - fairly or unfairly - is the vibe of the "Steroids Era." In its place, we see more all-around athletes and fewer slow-moving sluggers - and teams are making the adjustment.
A look at the game, whether from the ground level of being a player or the more global view of a statistical analyst, affirms a belief that - in conjunction with the increased testing of players for illegal performance-enhancing drugs - speed and defense plays a greater role now than during the height of the "Steroid Era."
John Dewan, the owner of Baseball Info Solutions, points out: "Back when guys were doing steroids, you had all of the boppers hitting home runs. Defense does matter more [now]."
Stolen bases on the rise
The numbers, as often occurs in such instances, do not necessarily back up these theorems in screaming fashion. Players still are hitting a lot of home runs.
In 2005, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 30 major league teams played a total of 2,431 games and hit 5,017 homers, producing 22,325 runs. Last year, in 2,430 games, the number of homers (5,042) and runs (22,419) ticked slightly upward, with some peaks and valleys in between. As multiple people around the game point out, the lack of individual players going deep 60-plus times has created the perception that it's less of a power game.
With stolen bases, there has been a steadier, clearer increase. Players stole a total of 2,565 bases in 2005 - an average of 1.06 per game - and 2,970 in 2009, an average of 1.22.
As Dewan said, "Speed and defense are directly proportional. For the most part, if you have speed, you're going to be a better defensive player."
And teams, in a strong and public fashion, have embraced defense in a manner unseen in many years.
Mariners better with 'D'
The Seattle Mariners posted a 61-101 record in 2008, and after the season, they hired Jack Zduriencik as their new general manager. Zduriencik, who helped build the Milwaukee Brewers into contenders by overseeing outstanding amateur drafts, moved All-Star Ichiro Suzuki from centerfield back to rightfield, and he acquired a new centerfielder, Franklin Gutierrez, in the same three-way deal that sent J.J. Putz to the Mets. In the middle of last year, the Mariners picked up defensively stellar shortstop Jack Wilson.
The result? An 85-77 record, the best improvement in the game. Not coincidentally, the Mariners were the most improved defensive club, too. According to Dewan's highly regarded calculations, the Mariners recorded 109 "runs saved," far and away the best mark in baseball. The Angels came in second with 65.
"I never looked at it like we were trendsetters," Zduriencik said. "This is what we thought we could do."
Economics played a factor in his strategic decision, Zduriencik said, as did the Mariners' home ballpark, pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. If he ran, say, the Reds or the Phillies, both of whom play in hitter-friendly ballparks, he might have tried something different, he said.
The Mariners built on their approach during the winter, signing former Angel Chone Figgins to patrol second base and the light-hitting Casey Kotchman to play first base. Yet, as Zduriencik said, "If someone called and offered me a cleanup hitter, I'd listen."
Bosox upgrade in field
In a similar vein, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein said, "We were driven by the pursuit of the same thing we've been pursuing since we've got here, which is balance. We've tried to build a team that's one of the best offensive teams in the league, one of the best pitching teams in the league and one of the best defensive teams in the league."
This past offseason, however, Epstein clearly prioritized defense, bringing aboard third baseman Adrian Beltre and shortstop Marco Scutaro to anchor the left side of the infield and signing centerfielder Mike Cameron, which moved Jacoby Ellsbury over to left.
"We weren't adequate defensively [in 2009]," Epstein said. "We wanted to fix that. The years that we achieved that balance, we won the World Series. The years we've fallen short, we haven't had that. Last year happened to be our defense and, somewhat, our pitching. We wanted to try to fix it without sacrificing offense."
Epstein paid reasonable prices for those three free agents - a total of five years' commitment for $38 million.
"There are defensive specialists who are above-average type players who are available for cheaper than their analog as an offensive player," Epstein said. "A player with league-average offense and plus defense is probably going to be cheaper than a plus hitter with league-average defense."
Yanks improve, too
The Yankees, too, have made a determined effort to upgrade their defense over the last few years. Johnny Damon's declining defense caused the Yankees to regard him as more of a designated hitter for 2010, which in turn lessened Damon's value and led to the highly publicized breakup. With Brett Gardner sliding over to leftfield, and Curtis Granderson replacing Gardner in centerfield, Brian Cashman believes he has continued an endeavor he started last year, when Mark Teixeira (Jason Giambi) and Nick Swisher (Bobby Abreu) served as upgrades over their predecessors.
"We've been trying to attack areas of weakness with what the market provides," Cashman said. "Between promotions, trades and free-agent signings, we've been getting younger and more defensive-oriented."
It seems like a simple enough trend, intelligent and logical. Speed makes for better defense and allows teams to capitalize more offensively. Defense helps pitchers. On the surface, there's every reason for teams to move in this direction.
"There's more of an awareness that there are multiple ways that a player can be valuable," Epstein said. "As that concept gets accepted, you're going to see the market be valued in a way that reflects that."
At which point small-market clubs like Tampa Bay - which credited improved defense for its 2008 American League pennant - and forward-thinking teams like Boston will look for the new underappreciated asset. And the game will move gradually in another direction.
Fast baserunners are currently en vogue. Fast-moving teams, though, always will be ahead.