The glory days of base stealing are long gone, but we know why
When Whit Merrifield of the Royals chats with a speedy opponent during a light moment of pregame schmoozing, sometimes Merrifield asks, “You’re too fast. Why don’t you steal more?”
The response he normally gets says a lot about the state of the stolen base in today’s Launch Angle Age. “Usually, I hear, ‘They don’t want me to run when so-and-so is hitting behind me,’” Merrifield says. “That’s the generic response.
“That’s an unfortunate philosophy,” adds the man who led Major League Baseball in steals in 2018. “Maybe it will change. But it’s where we are.”
More than a century ago, steals were an offensive staple in low-scoring times until the strategy took a hit from Babe Ruth and the birth of the Live Ball Era. Decades later, Rickey Henderson (pictured above), Tim Raines and Vince Coleman, among other speedsters, ushered in a renaissance during go-go careers that bloomed in the 1980s.
Now, 40 years after the 1979 season, when former stolen base king Lou Brock retired and his successor, Henderson, made his MLB debut, teams are swiping fewer bags than they have in decades.
In 2018, Major League crooks stole 2,474 bases, the fewest in a full season since 1973, when the then-24 teams combined for 2,034 steals. Merrifield, Kansas City’s second baseman, led the majors last year with 45 swipes, the lowest total for a player who topped the big leagues since 1963, when Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio both nabbed 40.
Since 1900, there have been 23 seasons in which a player stole at least 80 bases, but none since 1988, when Henderson had 93 and Coleman 81. In 2013, there were eight players who stole 40-plus bases; in each of the last two seasons, just three.
“The game is trending toward more home runs and strikeouts and fewer .300 hitters, fewer walks and on-base guys,” says Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. “You deduce what you can from that. If you live with the three-run homer and strike out all the time, the stolen base is going by the wayside.”
Baseball’s Information Age certainly has had an impact. Thanks to analytics, teams perhaps can gauge the risk-reward of the steal more intelligently. There are reams of available data for every player’s on-field movement in a stolen base attempt, and teams also generate their own analytics to figure out ways to gain an edge in a game in which the number of outs is finite.
“I just want to make smart baseball decisions,” says Yankees GM Brian Cashman, whose team was 25th in overall steals in 2018 with 63 but was 10th with a 75 percent success rate. “We don’t like to give away outs. It’s an assessment of risk. Analytics puts clearly in play the value of outs, so, obviously, the simple math of the pitcher’s time to the plate, the catcher’s release time and the runner’s steal times, you let it all play out to make it a highly effective weapon for you. Or not. I do think that our game, the leadership, has been educated, and that has allowed a transformation in smart, efficient decision making. That has led to a reduced risk-taking mode. There’s less riverboat gambling.”
So, Cashman is asked: What is the calculus that leads to favorable conditions for your club to attempt a steal? “I wouldn’t provide our secret sauce,” the GM says.
Another technology, instant replay, might also suppress steals, says Hall of Fame catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. With multiple camera angles pinpointing in hi-definition the nanosecond a sliding runner loses contact with a base, replay could increase the chances of being called out. “When I played, we didn’t have any of that,” Rodriguez says.
And deciding whether to steal goes beyond just risking an out on the bases to move up 90 feet. Mike Trout (pictured above) of the Angels is an excellent base stealer — he stole 24 bases in 26 attempts in 2018, a 92.3 percent success rate, tops in baseball.
But is trying to steal a bag worth the injury risk? Ask the Angels — Trout missed six weeks in 2017 with a torn thumb ligament injured while sliding.
Merrifield has his own take on today’s baseball technology — it helps on the bases. Of course, pitchers get to watch clips of base stealers and look for a thief’s tells, too.
Merrifield is devoted to studying video of pitchers and their quirks, using it before every game to further his education in larceny, a valuable tool for a guy who says he’s “always looking to go.”
Of the 45 bags he swiped last year, Merrifield says, “10 or 15 of them were purely speed. But the rest, there was video research. It’s the best resource I have. I try to find anything I can. There’s no reason, with all the technology we have, to not have a full game plan.”
Part of that plan is this: not fretting about the possibility of getting thrown out. Last year, Merrifield was thrown out 10 times, meaning he was successful stealing 81.8 percent of the time. The MLB average, according to baseball-reference.com, was 72 percent.
“You can’t be worrying about that,” Merrifield says. “It’s like Aaron Judge coming up in the ninth [inning], down two, two men on. He’s trying to hit a homer. He’s not worrying about striking out. He’s not changing his approach. That might cause a strikeout. But it’ll also give him a chance to hit a homer and win the game.”
Merrifield laments the drop in steals, calling it “a lost art, in my opinion, because of how people view analytics these days. I guess they don’t like stolen bases or they don’t value the risk-reward in their algorithm.
“There is a lot more that goes into stolen bases than being successful or not. Numbers can’t really quantify that — a guy being on first base, taking the pitcher’s attention away from the hitter, getting the hitter more fastballs because they’re scared of throwing a slider and bouncing it. There are a lot of things that go into being a threat on the bases that benefit a team. People forget about it.
“But I haven’t forgotten about it.”
Stolen bases weren’t a big part of Jones’ game during his career, though the slugger had 150 career steals and twice got at least 20 in a season. But he agrees with Merrifield on the merits of a steal threat measuring his lead off first base.
“I would have much rather faced [Mark] McGwire or [Jose] Canseco in a clutch moment than I would to play defense with Rickey Henderson on base, 100 percent,” the former Braves star says. “Those guys had holes. They could be pitched to. Rickey could dominate a game. I felt the same way about Jose Reyes in his heyday. When he got on base, he wreaked havoc and it was disconcerting to have him on base.
“It just seemed worse than a solo homer. And that had to be the way it was when Rickey and Vince Coleman (pictured above) were creating havoc on the bases. How many rallies did they spark without hitting the ball out of the infield?”
Despite teams relying less on the stolen base, they’ve actually gotten better at it. The success rate on steals has been at least 70 percent each year since 2004, according to baseball-reference.com. From 1985-2003, there were only four seasons in which MLB had a 70 percent or better success rate. Forty years ago, in 1979, runners were successful on steal tries 65 percent of the time.
That’s all attributable to the increase in information, knowing how long it takes the pitcher to deliver the ball, the catcher to throw it to the base in question and the runner’s speed in getting there, according to Bill James, the baseball analyst who is also a senior advisor in the Red Sox baseball operations department.
“You’re not running into unknowns the way you were 40 years ago, so the success rate is somewhat higher,” James writes in an email.
Opponents know that a pitcher such as Noah Syndergaard, despite remarkable stuff, has trouble coping with the running game. A pitcher taking 1.4 seconds to deliver the ball to the plate is considered slow, and Syndergaard often is timed at 1.5 seconds. No wonder no pitcher allowed more steals than Syndergaard last year — 32 in 35 tries (91.4 percent).
Also, James adds, teams don’t use the hit and run as frequently nowadays in what is also a swing-and-miss age. A botched hit and run could lead to the runner getting thrown out and charged with a caught stealing, so those instances don’t impact the numbers as much anymore.
To no less an authority than Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, efficiency shows in part why teams should not abandon the steal, no matter what their analytics might say.
Even though today’s game is homer-happy — 2017 saw the most home runs hit in MLB history — the stolen base can still be a dagger, La Russa says, because some clubs neglect properly defending it. And, La Russa says, if your team can steal a base and your opponent won’t do it, perhaps you have an advantage, especially in a tight game.
“In a close game, it’s as valuable as ever,” La Russa says. “If you have guys who can run, the base can be there.”
La Russa says there’s a certain level of “disrespect” toward facets of the game these days as teams pursue a “crooked number” on the scoreboard — a multi-run inning fueled by the long ball. Those same teams, La Russa says, struggle to defend the smaller parts of the game, which smart teams can exploit.
The steal as a new market inefficiency? Maybe.
“Stolen bases are more possible with average runners now, until teams pay attention to it,” says La Russa, who is also a VP/special assistant to Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski. “It’s a skill. You can teach these things.
“Us old-timers scratch our heads and see the insistence on more strikeouts and hits. A leadoff double, we won’t waste an out getting him over. Us relics. It’s not understanding how hard it is to get a lousy base hit. You should still be interested in adding a run, but if they think the only way to do that is swinging from their [butts], they won’t.”
Even with steal numbers down, the strategy is not as frowned upon as it once was. In October, James put this observation on Twitter: “Did you know: The number of stolen bases per game in baseball was higher this season — HIGHER — than in ANY season of the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s or the 1960s.”
What was James driving at? “I was trying to get people to understand that stolen bases now are not historically low; they’re just lower than they were recently,” James wrote in an email.
Will stealing ever soar again? Both James and John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, predict that one day we’ll see another speedster swipe 100 bags. Coleman was the last one to do it when he stole 109 in 1987, the last of his three consecutive years with 100-plus.
Merrifield actually has a prediction on who it might be — his Kansas City teammate, Adalberto Mondesi.
“He’ll steal 80 [this] year,” Merrifield says. “He’s got the talent to steal 100. Whether he gets the opportunity or not, we’ll see. He’s that fast. He’ll be able to get close, and that’ll be exciting to see.”
We’ve seen different cycles in baseball before. Consider what Ty Cobb said in the July 31, 1921, editions of the Detroit Free Press: “With the sluggers of today, base stealing is a back number,” Cobb said in the midst of a season in which Ruth would hit a then-record 59 homers. “But the hitting will pass,” Cobb added. “Then we will again return to the cycles of pitching and base running. Five years from now, my base running marks may be eclipsed by some youngster now in grammar school.”
It took years, and special players like Brock and Henderson, for stealing to approach the prominence it had in Cobb’s day. But never say never. “J.P. Morgan, the banker, was once asked, ‘What do you think the stock market will do?’” Thorn says. Morgan’s answer?
“Fluctuate,” Thorn says. “It’s true for baseball, too.”
By the Numbers
Top 10 Seasons, Stolen Base Totals
1914: 4,575 (2.43*)
1915: 4,107 (2.20)
1987: 3,585 (1.70)
1911: 3,428 (2.77)
1999: 3,421 (1.41)
1912: 3,384 (2.75)
1983: 3,325 (1.58)
1986: 3,312 (1.57)
1997: 3,308 (1.46)
1988: 3,301 (1.57)
Stolen Bases, Last 5 Seasons
2018: 2,474 (1.02*)
2017: 2,527 (1.04)
2016: 2,537 (1.04)
2015: 2,505 (1.03)
2014: 2,764 (1.14)
Think Before You Run
In 2018, these catchers had the fastest average pop times to second base, according to MLB’s Statcast on baseballsavant.mlb.com. The MLB average was 2.01, so every fraction of a second counts.
1. J.T. Realmuto, Marlins: 1.90 seconds
2. Yan Gomes, Indians: 1.93 seconds
3. Jorge Alfaro, Phillies: 1.94 seconds
3. Tomas Nido, Mets: 1.94 seconds
3. Austin Hedges, Padres: 1.94 seconds
3. Gary Sanchez, Yankees: 1.94 seconds
7. Welington Castillo, White Sox: 1.96 seconds
7. Willson Contreras, Cubs: 1.96 seconds
7. Roberto Perez, Indians: 1.96 seconds
10. Blake Swihart, Red Sox: 1.97 seconds
10. Martin Maldonado, Astros: 1.97 seconds
10. John Hicks, Tigers, 1.97 seconds
The Last Time
Someone stole 60 bases: 2017, Dee Gordon, 60
Someone stole 70 bases: 2009, Jacoby Ellsbury, 70
Someone stole 80 bases: 1988, Rickey Henderson, 93 and Vince Coleman, 81
Someone stole 100 bases: 1987, Vince Coleman had 109.
MLB Top 10 in Steals in 2018
1. Whit Merrifield, Royals: 45
2. Trea Turner, Nationals: 43
3. Mallex Smith, Rays: 40
4. Jonathan Villar, Brewers/Orioles: 35
5. Billy Hamilton, Reds: 34
5. Jose Ramirez, Indians: 34
7. Starling Marte, Pirates: 33
8. Adalberto Mondesi, Royals: 32
9. Lorenzo Cain, Brewers: 30
9. Mookie Betts, Red Sox: 30
9. Dee Gordon, Mariners: 30
MLB Team Leaders in Steals, 2018
1. Indians: 135
2. Rays: 128
3. Red Sox: 125
4. Brewers: 124
5. Nationals: 119
6. Royals: 117
MLB Team Leaders in Stealing Percentage, 2018
1. Angels: 80.18%
2. Red Sox: 80.13%
3. Brewers: 79.49%
4. Indians: 78.95%
5. Orioles: 78.64%
Runners with 40-plus Steals in a Season in the Last 10 Years
Runners with 50-plus Steals in a season in the Last 10 Years
—by Anthony McCarron