It’s one of baseball’s most intense showdowns. The pitcher comes set, tense but stone still. The runner comes square with home plate, wanting to be seen but not noticed as the batter waits patiently at the plate. It only takes a few seconds to play this tense game of chicken between the guard and the thief, but it can seem like an eternity. Sure, the pitcher can opt to throw over to first to keep the runner close, but ultimately, they both know he has to come to the plate some time, and that’s when the runner makes his move. The pitcher begins his motion, and the runner twitches toward second base. No turning back now. Head down, spikes back, he begins the 90-foot dash to the square of safety. The crowd gasps and points to second base. The catcher sets his feet, receives the pitch, and fires the ball to intercept the runner as he dives into the bag. **SNAP** and it’s all over. The umpire becomes the dealer of fate and decides whether the thief stays put, one step closer to home, or jogs slowly back to the depths of where his journey began, in the dugout.
As the game has evolved, so have the athletes that take the field to play it. A game once occupied by working men trying to escape manual labor is now primarily played by people groomed and conditioned to play it at the highest levels—from near infancy. The expectations of performance have never been higher, and it is reflected in the quality of baseball being played in the modern game. The truth is, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb would have been swallowed alive if they tried to play a game in modern times. Not because they were not amazingly talented players, but because the level of competition—even replacement level—has risen so dramatically that the baseline for occupying a Major League roster spot has become damn near insurmountable.
So what does this mean for the stolen base? In some ways, it’s a “zero sum” competition. Base runners are faster and more agile than before, but at the same time, pitchers are learning to better manage the running game, and catchers are throwing harder and unloading quicker than ever. It’s an arms race to prevent theft, and it seems like neither side is giving ground.
Per the above chart, we can see that while there are notable ebbs and flows in the overall number of “productive” base stealers (those who steal 20 or more bases in a season), there are also some trends. For example, 2017 and 2018 represent the first back-to-back seasons in the past 20 years where no player managed to swipe more than 50 bags in a season. This did occur in 2012 and also in 2002, but they were supported by a solid number of 20- and 30-steal players, by comparison. So in short, even though there weren’t any true standouts, there were enough contributors to make it less of a noticeable issue. Baseball also saw a dip in stolen bases from 2001 to 2005, but two things about that:
- Even though the total number of productive runners were down, there were still players racking up 50+ steal seasons.
- The makeup of the tiers was pretty similar, showing some stability in the strategy of stealing bases, and giving weight to the argument of “just general underperformance.”
Obviously, with a strike-shortened season, these numbers skew in fairly dramatic fashion. But that notwithstanding, the trend remains.
In baseball terms, crime is down—and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
What seems to be the cause behind this trend?
Who’s On First? Probably nobody.
The old baseball saying goes “you can’t steal first,” and after rigorous fact-checking, that remains true (for now, unless you’re Tim Locastro). As the 2000s have progressed, though, players would probably welcome the help, as getting to first seems to have become a more difficult task, overall. As on-base percentage has tumbled since 2000, opportunities to steal have declined, as well.
It isn’t a perfect correlation, and OBP is a bit of a broad stat to use in this case, but it does clearly show that players are simply not getting on base at the same rate as years past. A key contributor to this could be today’s increase in velocity from pitchers, as well as the overall quantity of hurlers, versus earlier in the century. Any base stealer will tell you that understanding the pitcher’s motion toward the plate is critical to a successful theft. And this understanding comes from knowing the pitcher via off-field study, but also from seeing the motion during the game itself. Having to see a new pitcher every time you get on base could understandably create some hesitation on the part of the runner, and in a game of split seconds and inches, it could mean the difference between going and staying. Factor that with fewer chances overall, and now you’ve got a much more difficult situation for the runner.
The Only Rule is that It HAS to work.
As we continue to make our way through the age of analytics, the trend of ultra-risk-averse front offices has taken root across MLB. Skippers who once embraced “small ball” style tactics are being replaced by analytically driven strategists who manage every aspect of the game in the name of avoiding outs—at all costs. Massive improvements in how game data is gathered and utilized have brought on an entirely different look at how the game is played, including how teams value outs. Once mundane and accepted instances, such as sacrifice bunts, are being viewed as foolish or ill-advised. Getting thrown out while stealing has morphed from a well-intentioned move that just didn’t work to a poorly thought-out misstep. This puts the manager in a particularly difficult spot; making an out carries a heavier weight of failure versus the potential success of advancing a runner one base.
Oh, and Money, of Course.
It’s baseball, so you know it’s only a matter of time before money becomes part of the equation. Take a tight free agency market, mix in the contentious nature of arbitration, add the increasingly limited window that players remain “desirable,” and you’ve got a serious stress cocktail for players. Making outs, while acceptable in the batter’s box (as strikeout rates continue to climb), is frowned upon when you’re on the base paths. In the new baseball world, where (as mentioned above) data is used in equal parts to help teams win games and keep player salaries down, the golden rule continues to reverberate: DON’T. MAKE. OUTS.
Outs cost you money. Outs cost you playing time. So from a player’s perspective, in a game where home runs seem to be the emphasis of hitting, does it matter if you’re on first or second if you’re just going to jog home anyway? As rosters continue to fill with various platoon options and matchup combinations, space for the traditional speedster gets smaller and smaller. Players like Billy Hamilton and Jarrod Dyson continue to find this out, either bouncing from minor league deals or accepting low-value contracts to stay employed.
So, What’s Next?
This is one trend I’m unsure about predicting. It seems as though modern attitudes toward analytically constructed rosters, and disdain for outs not noted as a K, are pretty firmly rooted in the league today. So I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Where we do see glimmers of hope are in the increased emphasis on player development in the lower minors, producing more “all around” and complete players who could bring some extra spice to the running game as time goes on. One thing about data-driven approaches, too, is that they tend to point out weaknesses and ways to exploit the game to your benefit. As the stolen base becomes less common, it’s reasonable to think that teams could use this as a way to gain an advantage, reviving the lost art of the steal.
Besides, it’s only stealing if you DON’T get caught.