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Davey Lopes helped the Phillies steal history

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The Phillies’ former first base coach helped them use speed and timing to complement their power.

Milwaukee Brewers v Philadelphia Phillies

At the moment, Major League Baseball is very concerned about speeding up the game. But now that Davey Lopes is retiring after 45 years, it seems more likely than ever that baseball is going to slow down.

Watching the Phillies in 2007, you may have noticed the Phillies stealing bases all the damn time. In 162 games, they stole 138 bases in 157 tries, for a success rate of 87.9%, which is the best stealing percentage in MLB history. The 2007 Phillies were the best, ever, at base stealing. While Lopes was in command, they never finished lower than third in total steals, and continued to see success percentage-wise with a 84% success rate in 2008, 81% in 2009, and 84% in 2010 (he also served as first base coach and outfield coordinator).

Lopes played 16 years of pro ball himself, leading the league in stolen bases twice in 1975 (77 SB) and 1976 (63 SB). He may have set a record for number of errors committed in a six-game series with six in the 1981 World Series, but he also stole four bases and was, according to Mark Gallagher in The Yankee Encyclopedia, “a terror on the base paths.”

This pinpoint base running precision translated well into coaching, and Lopes has been an invaluable commodity for coaching staffs ever since. His specialty is taking the base-stealing decision out of the dugout, with his intelligence and attention to detail allowing him to operate independently on the field in collaboration with his base runners. Using a stopwatch to time pitchers’ deliveries, he was able to determine the width of a runner’s window of opportunity in swiping an extra bag. He had the 2007-10 Phillies stealing third base at a more rampant pace as well, a more subtle contribution to the overall monstrous offense for which those teams were known.

That level of accuracy can lead to some cool things, like stealing two straight bags in a desperately tense playoff series in which every runner is precious.

But leading all of baseball in stolen base percentage wasn’t enough to convince the Phillies that Lopes was worth a raise. They might have been the only ones who thought so. In retrospect, Lopes was worth just about any number he asked for, as the Phillies faded from scoring position in the following seasons.

He credited his success in Philadelphia to hitting that sweet spot, coaching-wise: having “tremendous athletes” who bought into what he was teaching. With base runners like Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Chase Utley at his disposal, his arsenal was stocked. Lopes’ decision to depart seemed to come after another off-season of wrestling with himself, having finally concluded that it was time to get compensated for what he believed he was worth, not what his employer wanted to give him, telling reporters that the Phillies’ offer was fine, but just not enough; he had then likely pointed at an easel with the Phillies’ base stealing statistics from the last four years on it.

The Phillies managed to briefly sustain Lopes’ philosophies after his departure, but we are now many seasons removed from his time here. It didn’t take too many Cesar Hernandez gaffes and Odubel Herrera bungles to think back to an era when Phillies baserunners were identifying and exploiting weaknesses between plays, working themselves into the walls, and never giving the other team a break. And it wasn’t difficult to figure out what the missing piece was.

It’s easy to recall Lopes’ impact when his job was to whisper in a Phillie’s ear to take an extra base. Yet he has been through four and a half decades of baseball not just as a player, coach, and manager (2000-02 Brewers), but a survivor, having lived through prostate cancer and the loss of his brother.*

Success on the field takes an orchestra of moving parts, working in unison; players playing to their strengths, absorbing necessary wisdom, and finding production between pitches. Success in life takes a broader approach. Somewhere between the tufts of dark hair popping out from under his batting helmet and the gray five o’clock shadow currently grizzling his face, Davey Lopes learned one of life’s inevitable truths: “You don’t do this thing alone.

Thankfully, we won’t have to know what the 2007-10 Phillies would have been like without the base running prowess of Lopes in the first base coach’s box, and had he decided to put off retirement for another year, another young team would have been lucky to have him. As the game gets faster, it’s not hard to imagine Davey Lopes keeping up.

*100 Things Phillies Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, Bill Baer