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The Death of the Stolen Base

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the art of stealing bases was on full display. From 1970 until 1995, at least one person across Major League Baseball stole at least 60 bases, with the 1980s in particular being the golden age.

With guys like Tim Raines, Vinny Coleman, and Ricky Henderson regularly topping 70, 80, 90, and even 100+ stolen base seasons, it made the game incredibly fun to watch. The strategy of opposing pitchers and managers who had to try to contain their speed, and the fact that everyone in the ballpark knowing that, if any of those guys got on base, they were immediately taking second, it was the personification of the saying “Speed Kills.”

But, as the years went on, and speedsters like Juan Pierre, Jacoby Ellsbury, Willy Taveras, Jose Reyes, and Carl Crawford have come and gone, we have officially hit the low point in stealing bases. And it’s downright baffling.

Baseball still has guys with a pension to run (see: Dee Gordon), but the vast majority of baseball is very tentative when it comes to swiping bags.

This year, the major league leader in stolen bases was Whit Merrifield, who stole 45. That is the lowest total to lead the league since 1963, when Maury Wills and Lou Aparicio tied with 40. And sure, there are some 60stolen base campaigns mixed in over the past few yearsagain, thanks Dee Gordonbut the total number of stolen bases across the league has been trending downwards since the early 1980s.

Look at this graph from 2013. With the exception of the brief renaissance in the early 2010s, the number of stolen base attempts has been steeply on the decline in recent history, and over the past couple of seasons it has only gotten worse.

Stolen_Base_3
Graphic by Beyond the Box Score

Why is this? We’re supposed to be in an era of the best athletes the game has ever seen, and while athletes are getting faster, in theory, teams are choosing to run less and less.

Look at someone like Billy Hamilton, the man who supposed to save the stolen base. After making a name for himself in the minors by stealing 159 bases in a 132game season (yes, you read that right), Hamilton was immediately projected to be the second coming of Ricky Henderson. He was even thought to have a chance of breaking Henderson’s 1982 record of 130 steals in a season. As the years went on, Hamilton would accumulate a handful of 50steal seasons before completely dropping off this year and stealing 34 bags in 153 games.

Again, I ask, what happened?

Over the past few seasons, with sabermetrics really starting to cement their legitimacy in the game, teams have started to weigh the consequences of stealing bases and how, based on the metrics, taking a chance on stealing a base isn’t worth the risk. With guys like Brian Kenny and other members of the sabermetric community trying to diminish the value of stealing bases and showing how infrequently they lead to runs, teams have become skittish when it comes to sending guys. Which, in my eyes, makes little sense, as the teams near the top of the league in stolen bases each year typically hover around a 75% success rate. When a team like the Red Sox or Indians attempt to steal a base, 3 out of 4 times they put themselves in a superior position to score a run. Still, the majority of teams are siding with the sabermetric community are are slowing down on the running. 

But I say nay. Bring back the stolen base. I want a random team like the White Sox or the Reds or the Marlins to throw caution into the wind and just start running wild. What else do they have to lose? Stolen bases make the game exciting. The anticipation, the strategy, the speed. It’s good for the game. Bring base stealing specialists back while you’re at it. Guys like Tony Campana, Quintin Berry, Dave Roberts, Terrance Gore, and others whose explicit job was to get to second base.

Instead of sitting around waiting for a home run, which most teams seem content with doing nowadays, let the kids run. Save the stolen base.

Photo: Andrew Bernstein- Getty Images

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