Mike Trout leads the way to a new paradigm.
If you watched "Moneyball" last year, you might have come away with the impression that we statheads were all Jonah Hill clones who didn't give a damn about speed and defense. I'd like to tell you that you were misinformed, but the description was actually pretty damned accurate for a time. Back in the day, so-called sabermetricians had tremendous difficulty quantifying defense and were, in many cases, convinced that a poor defender wasn't worth that much less than a good one. We also minimized stolen bases and baserunning prowess (with the exception of those committed by sabermetric-god Rickey Henderson and his acolyte Tim Raines) in favor of players taking walks and moving from station to station. I blame Matt Stairs.
As our colleague Rob Neyer pointed out on many occasions during the take-and-rake era, that kind of baseball was inherently boring, as fans had to wait around through pitch after pitch for something, anything to happen. Some say that the chess match between a pitcher and a hitter is the best part of the game, but we live for the moments when the ball meets the bat and players around the diamond react, covering bases, setting up the cutoff, and backing each other up. Triples, sacrifice flies, stolen base attempts, sprawling catches, diving stops, and leaping grabs- while the Three True Outcomes are beautiful in their simplicity, baseball is at its best, and its most exciting, when it's complicated.
More recently, we've made some strides in understanding defense and baserunning. While we still have too many competing statistical systems and continue to struggle with how to understand catcher and first base defense, overall we have a far better sense of how many runs a given player adds or subtracts on the field today than we did even five years ago.
More importantly, baseball teams do too, and as a result we've seen a speedy defender renaissance featuring younger players such as Ben Revere, Andrelton Simmons, Desmond Jennings, Austin Jackson, Norichika Aoki, and Carlos Gomez. Veterans Jose Reyes, Elvis Andrus, Michael Bourn, Denard Span, and Coco Crisp continued to be excellent in the same vein. The next generation features wunderkinds Jurrickson Profar and Billy Hamilton-and we haven't even mentioned the speedsters' new warrior-king, Mike Trout.
Trout took the return of speed and defense to a whole ‘nother level in 2012, supplementing his power (30 homers), patience (67 walks), and propensity to strike out (139) with eight triples, 49 stolen bases (only getting caught five times), prolific infield hit percentage (11.8 percent of his total), and ridiculous, highlight-heavy defense:
The combination of ridiculous defense and his terrific offensive contributions catapulted him into the national consciousness, made him the unanimous Rookie of the Year, and the most valuable player in all of baseball. He reminded us that speed can kill. He made it clear that we're better off with dynamic young stars like him in the game, and he made the world stand up and take notice that defense and baserunning are back.
Surely we need no greater proof of the new vogue than the increasingly out-of-touch BBWAA refusing to give him the MVP award he earned-the greybeards are always obsessed with yesterday's fad, hanging at least two cycles behind the cutting edge.