The Lost Art of the Stolen Base
It wasn't all too long ago that stolen bases were an integral part of the game. Guys like Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Vince Coleman, Tim Raines and Ichiro were terrorizing the basepaths, and tormenting pitchers across the league. What has changed in the past 10 seasons that would cause such a dramatic drop in stolen bases across the league? Let’s take a look at the numbers first. In 2015 the MLB saw their lowest steal total since the strike in 1981. There hasn't been a 70 steal season since Jacoby Ellsbury in ‘09, and nobody has come close to 100 steals since Vince Coleman did it in ‘87. Yes kids, that was not a typo. There was once a time where players could, and would have 100+ steals in a single season. 2016 was the last time the AL and NL steal leaders COMBINED for 100 steals when Jonathan Villar led the NL with 62, and Rajai Davis led the AL with 43. Combined, that is 105 steals. Vince Coleman had 109 in 1987. When Whit Merrifield led the entire league with 45 steals in 2018, that marked the lowest season leader since 1963. He leads the league in steals currently with 21, and is on pace for 46 through the season. Ronald Acuna, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Fernando Tatis Jr. , and Trea Turner are all tied for second with 15. Yet another season with sub-par steal numbers is currently underway.
Throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s we saw the greatest display of speed and timing on the base paths that has yet to be seen since. Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman made a mockery of pitchers and catchers throughout the league. They were a different kind of animal, the kind we're not used to today. You can't intentionally walk them, you can't try and get them to ground out. They would out run the throw no matter how good the arm, and you had to do whatever you could to keep them off the basepaths. Rickey and Vince both surpassed 100 steals in a season 3 times throughout their careers, but the closest we have come to that outrageous number was in 2007 when Jose Reyes had 78. I truly don’t believe we will ever see another 100 steal season, but the question remains. Why?
Let's start with the main reason, and that reason being analytics. In an analytic driven time period, teams weigh the risk-reward of everything, including stolen bases. The risk-reward ratio of stolen bases is a ratio that rarely deems a stolen base a “worthwhile risk” in today's baseball. Now let's talk about the risk-reward for a minute. The Risk? An unnecessary out which takes a baserunner off the paths. The Reward? More runs. If a player swiped 40 bags over this year's full season, the expected run gain is 2.3 runs. This same player would have had 2.9 expected runs gained in the 1980’s, when runs were scarce and more valuable. This number decreases, as total runs per game increase. The league has transformed into a Home Run or nothing league, where only a small number of teams continue to rely on small ball. You steal bases so you can knock guys in easier. What would normally take a triple, is now a double. A double, a single. But when your lineup is set up to hit a HR every other at-bat, the risk of stealing bases seems to be unnecessary to many managers. Even if a player is very good at swiping bags, if he has a power bat behind him, most managers will say “I don't want you running if so and so is at the plate”. Managers and the front office would still rather go for the two or three run HR, rather than steal a base or two and play small ball.
Baseball is a sport where a handful of the all-time records won't be broken, strictly because of the longevity of the sport. The MLB was founded in 1869, 152 years of records to be broken. But when Rickey Henderson retired in 2003, he finished with a record that will never be touched, nobody will come close. 1,406 career steals, my ‘lanta. To give you an idea of how unimaginable that number is, the great Lou Brock is second of all time with 938. Vince Coleman is 6th with 752, and the player from most recent history is Juan Pierre, who finished his career with 614 steals, good enough for 18th all time. The highest active player on this list doesn't even break the top 100 of all time, Dee Strange-Gordon sits at 127th all time with 333. When Rickey said “Lou Brock was the symbol of great base stealing, but today, I am the greatest of all time.” He MEANT that. Rickey entered the league, broke Lou Brock’s record in ‘91, and did not retire until 2003.
Rickey Henderson will always be the greatest base thief of all time, and I don't believe anybody will come close. The fact of the matter is the Stolen Base as we know it is dying, it's going extinct. It is the White Rhino of the MLB, and it's a shame because I believe it's one of the most exciting and clutch plays in the sport. Every sport will change as years go by, and baseball is no different. Years from now, baseball will revert back to it's old ways and small ball will make it's way back into the game. Until then, it's go big or go home. Home Run or nothing, and that's fine with me.