Now I know I am old, but I remember when the stolen base was an effective offensive weapon. It was exciting to watch the runner take off and beat the catcher's throw. I grew up a Cardinal fan watching Lou Brock then Vince Coleman. It was exciting when they got on base. You knew they were going to go, and you didn't know when.
You could see the pitcher tense up, and the catcher shifts his stance ever so slightly. The Second baseman and Shortstop cheat toward the base. The runner is looking for the slightest tell of what the pitcher is going to do. Base stealers like Tim Raines, Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, and Vince Coleman "kept book" on pitchers.
In an ESPN article in 2015 by Anna McDonald, Vince Coleman said every pitcher "has a tell" that would tip off what the pitch was or if they were going to throw it over to first.
“Pitchers’ moves are predetermined,” Coleman said. “They are creatures of habit. We had a book on them. That was our sabermetrics, our analytic numbers.”* "Doug Drabek would turn his toe in, as would Charlie Nagy," said Coleman, "when they were about to throw home instead of to first base."* “There were so many different things we knew about pitchers that gave us an edge,” said Coleman.* “You don’t have to be fast to be a great baserunner,” Coleman said. “You just have to be smart, alert, aggressive, and [able to] anticipate.”*
Has modern day sabermetrics suppressed the stolen base? In 2018 there were 2,474 stolen bases, the fewest since 1973 when there were 2,034 stolen bases (There were six fewer teams. 1973). Today analytics have the timing down to the pitcher's delivery, how fast the Catcher gets out of his crouch and throws to the base. However, are these analytics to be believed? Not if you listen to Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa.
"The stolen base can still be a dagger," La Russa says, "because some clubs neglect properly defending it. And, 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.^
Whit Merrifield RF for the Kansas City Royals also wonders what has happened to the Stolen Base. He says when he asks other players why they don't steal more, he hears that teams don't want to take away from the big bats. “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.”^ Merrifield led the majors in 2018 with 45 steals. That was the lowest total for a player to lead the big leagues since 1963 when Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio both nabbed 40.
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 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 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. Many things go into being a threat on the basepaths that benefit a team. People forget about it."^
The ups and downs
In the early 1900s, the American League used the Stolen base more often than the National League from 1900 to 1920. The NL averaged 1,123steals per year, while the AL averaged 1,313. After 1930 there was a gradual decline almost by decade. The thirties saw an NL avg drop to 414 and the AL to 495. in the 50s, the NL avg 349, and the AL was down to 355. Then the 60s started the resurgence with Maury Wills, Louis Aparicio, Lou Brock, and Bert Campaneris leading the way. By 1970 teams rediscovered the stolen base, and it was back to near 1920 levels overall, but there were more teams, so in real terms, the rise in stolen bases is explainable and not an increase or comeback in the stolen base at all. Since 1900, there have been 23 seasons in which a player stole at least 80 bases. The last time it was done was 1988, when Henderson had 93 and Coleman 81. After that, there were still guys stealing 60 or 70 bases per year. The last to steal 70 bases was Jacoby Ellsbury in 2009.
The trends have shifted in the early 1900s. It was the fundamentals base hits running, stolen bases. Then came the power hitters Ruth, Gehrig, and others continuing through the 50s. Then the stolen base made its resurgence with guys that could steal morphing into guys that could hit and steal. Hall of Famer Chipper Jones is more known for his power but also managed 150 stolen bases. Nowadays, according to Jones, “The game is trending toward more home runs and strikeouts and fewer .300 hitters, fewer walks and on-base guys. 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.”^
Of the 45 bags in 2018 that Merrifield stole, he says, “10 or 15 of them were purely speeding. 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.”^ What else goes into that game plan? What is the risk of being thrown out? In 2018, Merrifield was thrown out ten times, Which led to an 81.8 percent success rate. The MLB average, according to baseball-reference.com, was 72 percent. So one could draw the correlation that just like Vince Coleman having a book on pitchers pays off.
Of course, from the baseball exec's point of view, the Stolen Base is high risk. Yankee's GM Brian Cashman had this to say:
“I just want to make smart baseball decisions. 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 think that our game, the leadership, has been educated, which has allowed a transformation in smart, efficient decision-making. That has led to a reduced risk-taking mode. There’s less riverboat gambling.”^
Interesting side note, according to Baseball-Reference .com, In the late 1880s and 1890s, several players are credited with over 100 steals. In 1887, Hugh Nicol stole 138 bases, Artie Latham stole 129, Charlie Comiskey 117, John Montgomery Ward stole 111, Pete Browning 103, and Jim Fogarty 102. in 1888, Artie Latham stole 109, and Hugh Nicol swiped 103 in 1889 Billy Hamilton 111. In 1890 Billy Hamilton 102 In 1891 Billy Hamilton 111 Tom Brown 106, 1894 Billy Hamilton 102.
For whatever reason, the stolen base has lost its luster. I, for one, hope we start seeing more guys like Merrifield who do their homework. Will we ever see 100 plus steals by a player again? According to Merrifield, the player to watch for that is Adalberto Mondesi. 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.”^ To me, the Stolen Base is just as exciting and sometimes more demoralizing than the Home Run. No matter how the runner gets on for him to successfully outwit the Pitcher and the Catcher and advance a base to put himself in a better scoring position is more exciting than waiting for someone to hit one over the fence. At least that is the way I see it. As I said, I am old school. I like action on the field, not waiting around playing station to station baseball.
Those are my thoughts. What's yours?
*ESPN Where have all the stolen bases gone? Vince Coleman has a theory Anna McDonald 03/14/2016
^Athlon Sports "Why baseball players rarely steal bases anymore" 03/26/19