Can Anyone Save the Stolen Base?

Can Anyone Save the Stolen Base?

Billy Hamilton #6 of the Cincinnati Reds steals third base in the first inning during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on August 7, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

SourceJustin Berl/Getty

Why you should care

Because the stolen base is being purged from modern baseball. 

Staring down another lonely off-season, the Boston Red Sox campaign was about to end, courtesy of a four-game sweep by the hated Yankees. For 86 years, Boston had failed to capture a World Series title and now, down three games to none in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 — with New York closer Mariano Rivera on the hill — hope was dwindling. Then Dave Roberts got to first base.

Roberts hadn’t played in 10 days, but when he came on to pinch run, the tension shifted. Rivera was now the uncomfortable party. After three pickoff attempts, Roberts stole second and then scored the game-tying run. Boston went on to win their first of eight straight games during the magical World Series championship run of 2004.

The stolen base, as a tool, has game-changing capabilities. So why is it disappearing from today’s game?

Thirty-six years after Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in a season, only one team in 2017 stole 130 bases.

With 136 swiped bags, that team was the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The clubhouse leader? Cameron Maybin with 29. Seattle’s Dee Gordon led the majors with 60 stolen bags for Miami last season, followed by Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton (59). After that the drop-off is steep — Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield led the American League with 34 steals.

Rather than a steal sign, we give a red light or a green light.

Gabe Kapler, manager, Philadelphia Phillies

As big data increasingly dictates the intricacies of in-game operations, the functionality of a stolen base is changing. A high number of attempts has been replaced with a measured, opportunist approach. The name of the game today: a low number of attempts and a high rate of success. Only problem? As increasing value is attached to power pitching and hitting, base stealers are being asked to choose their spots less frequently. “There’s less guys in the league like me, that’s for sure,” Hamilton said after a two-steal game against Philadelphia in April. “It’s all about finding ways to change the game.”

Hamilton possesses the type of otherworldly speed that strikes fear in opponents. When he gets a good jump on a stolen base, it’s not uncommon for the catcher to just hold on to the ball. Rickey Henderson possessed the gift too: In addition to his 1,406 career steals MLB record, he holds the record for runs scored (2,295).

But those days have passed. Only 17 players stole 20 bases or more last season — half as many as in 2012. And in 1999, when home run hitting was just as important as it is today, 44 players stole more than 20 bags. As recently as 2011, nine teams surpassed the Henderson Line (130). And it had been 55 years since anyone led the AL with as few steals as Merrifield. That was Luis Aparicio, with 31 way back in 1962, during a much slower-paced era.

And it’s not just today’s front office infatuation with power hitting that is driving out base stealers. More flamethrowing pitchers make successful base stealing a tall task. The increased pitch speed is one thing, but more frequent rotations of relief pitchers force runners to discern the habits of a deep and varied pool of opponents.

And on the flip side, the wealth of knowledge sharing has never been greater. “Teams have pitching and hitting strategists — in addition to the pitching and hitting coaches — studying every opponent,” says MLB Network host Brian Kenny. That data increase makes it nearly impossible for subpar runners to even sniff a stolen base.

Still, a few new-age managers remain committed to applying pressure from the base paths. Led by first-year skipper Dave Martinez, Washington is averaging just over one steal per game at a 93 percent success rate. Phillies manager Gabe Kapler speaks often about the importance of allowing for some freedom in today’s information age. “Rather than a steal sign, we give a red light or a green light,” says Kapler. “We talk about how important their out is in certain instances, but we’re putting a lot of this in the hands of our players.”

In the same April game that Hamilton swiped two bags for Cincinnati against Philadelphia, Phillies shortstop César Hernández singled to break up Homer Bailey’s no-hitter in the sixth inning. He then swiped second base to set up the game-tying run. “That just shows how much confidence [Hernández] has,” says Kapler. “And we’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”

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