Michael Bourn could always run fast. In grade school, in middle school, in high school, he could always beat the other kids. Stealing bases, though, requires more than plain speed and that was something the Braves center fielder learned when he got to the Major Leagues.
04/10/2012 6:04 PM ET
Bourn a menace on the basepaths
Braves center fielder led league with 61 stolen bases in 2011
By Hal Bock / MLBPLAYERS.com
And the guy he learned it from was Davey Lopes.
Lopes was the longtime Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman and later a Major League manager and coach. He led the National League in stolen bases with 77 in 1975 and 63 in 1976. He finished his career with 557 steals, and he was on the Philadelphia coaching staff when Bourn reached the Majors with the Phillies in 2006.
The young outfielder came with impressive credentials. He played for the United States Olympic team that season and hit two home runs to help Team USA defeat Cuba in the gold-medal game. Then, Bourn joined the Phillies and Lopes took him under his wing to help him refine the craft of stealing bases.
"He taught me to stay low when you run," Bourn said. "That was key for me. He could read a pitcher better than anybody. He saw things others didn't. I think he could still steal bases today."
That might be a challenge because Lopes, now coaching first base for the Dodgers, will turn 67 in May.
Bourn took Lopes' advice to heart, though, and has become one of baseball's most dynamic base stealers. He led all Major Leaguers with 61 stolen bases last season, his third straight stolen base title. He stole 18 bases in 19 attempts in his rookie year with the Phillies, and, between 2008 and 2012, he led all Major Leaguers with 215 steals, 152 infield hits and 52 bunt hits.
So, what's the formula?
"Everybody uses his own method," he said. "It's a combination of speed and quickness. Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman were the quickest I ever saw.
"It's about knowing pitchers, reading pitchers and their body language. It's about knowing a pitcher's pickoff move and measuring your lead. It's tougher against left-handers because they're looking right at you. It's about knowing the catcher, his footwork, how he throws, how quick he releases the ball."
In other words, there's a lot more involved than just the old-fashioned speed Bourn has always possessed.
Then there is the matter of when to run. First pitch? Maybe. Deep in the count? Perhaps. Game situation? Of course. Bourn picks his spots carefully.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game between the runner and the pitcher," he said. "If you're ready to go, then go. Don't second-guess yourself. That's my philosophy."
Bourn's ability on the bases was central to the Braves' shipping four players to Houston to get him at the trade deadline last season. He gave Atlanta a fast leadoff man, something the Braves had lacked since the days of Otis Nixon and later, Rafael Furcal.
The trade paid immediate dividends. He joined the team Aug. 1 and led Atlanta with 60 hits and 22 stolen bases the rest of the season.
For Bourn, there was a bittersweet side to the trade. He had grown up in Houston and played college ball at the University of Houston. He was drafted by the Phillies and traded to the Astros after the 2007 season. It was a homecoming for Bourn, and he flourished with the Astros, showing off the lessons he learned from Lopes with 41 steals in 51 attempts.
He grew into an All-Star and a two-time Gold Glove winner, but the Astros floundered, and the trade to Atlanta sent him from an also-ran team to a perennial contender.
Now, Bourn leads off for the Braves and, thanks to some important tutoring from Davey Lopes, he is a constant threat on the bases.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.