When new St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny began to outline his vision for the 2012 team, one of the most notable ways he differed from former manager Tony La Russa was his desire for players to be more aggressive on the basepaths.
It's not as though the Cardinals were terribly conservative under La Russa—Jose Oquendo is among the most aggressive third base coaches in the game, and Albert Pujols was notorious for his daring nature on the basepaths—but the running game went dormant in 2011, with the Cardinals swiping only 57 bases all year. Only the Detroit Tigers stole fewer bases last season.
The cause for the low total was two-fold. Managing a team with some of the most dangerous 3-4-5 batters in baseball, La Russa often erred on the side of caution with stealing bases at the top of the lineup, hoping for an extra-base hit rather than trying to manufacture a run. The personnel on the Cardinals didn't lend themselves to opening up the running game much, either; Pujols, arguably the second-slowest member of the club, was second on the team with nine stolen bases.
With Pujols gone and Carlos Beltran in, along with a full season of Rafael Furcal and the opportunity to get Tyler Greene regular playing time at second base, the 2012 Cardinals are better equipped to swipe more bags. Still, Matheny said his intent isn't to run with reckless abandon; rather, he wants his team to make smart decisions using well-timed aggression. In an April 7 piece on Cardinals.com, Matheny clarified his goal:
"We have a couple guys who have a good history of being able to take a base in the right situation and have good instincts with that," Matheny said. "We'll continue to be aggressive when it makes sense."
That smart baserunning has already manifested itself 18 games into the season. Through Friday, the Cardinals were 15-for-18 in stolen bases; they ranked fifth in the league in FanGraphs' baserunning statistic, with a score of 1.3. They finished 2011 with a baserunning score of 4 and a 59-percent success rate on stolen base attempts, worst in the league.
It's coming from unexpected sources, too. Carlos Beltran leads the team in stolen bases, and "Sugar" Shane Robinson leads the team with a baserunning score of 0.8. Eight position players currently have a positive baserunning score.
An example of what Matheny was talking about showed up in the Cardinals-Reds game on April 18. With Beltran on second base and Lance Berkman on first, the pair executed a double steal, taking advantage of Reds pitcher Mat Latos's indifference. It was a play almost certainly ad-libbed by the two veterans, the exact kind of play Matheny wants his team to make when given the opportunity.
The Cardinals need look no further than last year's team for cautionary tales regarding a team's ability to go downhill quickly. Despite the ugly finish, the 2011 Cardinals were 11-for-14 in stolen base attempts through their first 17 games. Even with the added ambition on the bases, this team won't rank near the top of the base-stealing category when all is said and done. But that's not the goal, and it's not what Matheny is preaching. If they can continue to make smart, aggressive baserunning decisions, though, Matheny will be well on his way to distancing himself from his former manager.