Beat ‘Em Like They Stole Something (Part One)

Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.

Butch Coolidge

The stolen base is dead, let’s just face it. I thought for a moment last year that it was making a comeback, but I was wrong.

A year ago today, the Angels and their 117 steals had just won the World Series and the soon-to-be-champion Florida Marlins had 74 stolen bases in 56 games (a 214-steal pace). I thought everyone would continue to wrongly give Anaheim’s running game credit for their championship in 2002 and maybe people would become so fascinated with what the Marlins were doing that they’d start to copy them, and the stolen base would make a comeback.

Sadly, the 2003 Angels ran even more than the 2002 Angels, but they won just 77 games, and once the Marlins replaced Jeff Torborg with a competent manager, they stopped running like chickens with their heads cut off. The Marlins stole “only” 76 bases in their final 106 games, finishing the season with a major league-leading 150 stolen bases.

150 steals probably sounds fairly impressive, until you realize it was the lowest total for a major league-leading team in a non-strike season since 1973. Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases by himself in 1982. Speaking of Rickey … I know I’ve said this before, but as someone who didn’t become a big-time baseball fan until the 1990s, his exploits on the bases always amaze me.

Just how amazing? Consider the following two lists. The first is of the top 10 single-season stolen base totals since the strike-shortened 1995 season:

PLAYER                   YEAR       SB     
Kenny Lofton             1996       75
Brian Hunter             1997       74
Tony Womack              1999       72
Tom Goodwin              1996       66
Roger Cedeno             1999       66
Rickey Henderson         1998       66
Juan Pierre              2003       65
Luis Castillo            2000       62
Chuck Knoblauch          1997       62
Tony Womack              1997       60

What’s the big deal? Now look at Rickey Henderson’s personal top 10:

PLAYER                   YEAR       SB     
Rickey Henderson         1982      130   
Rickey Henderson         1983      108   
Rickey Henderson         1980      100   
Rickey Henderson         1988       93   
Rickey Henderson         1986       87   
Rickey Henderson         1985       80   
Rickey Henderson         1989       77   
Rickey Henderson         1984       66   
Rickey Henderson         1998       66   
Rickey Henderson         1990       65

I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like watching him steal 130 bases in 1982 … and he did that in only 149 games!

Just to put that into some context: That works out to 0.87 steals per game. Last year, all of Major League Baseball stole a combined 2,573 bases in 4,860 games, which is 0.53 steals per team, per game. That means in 1982 Rickey Henderson out-stole the average 2003 team by nearly 65%.

Anyway, getting back to the topic at hand …

The lack of steals last season was nothing new and it is much of the same so far this season. Only one team, the Orioles, have more stolen bases than games played and they are on pace for just 165 steals.

It’s a real shame. While it is generally recognized now that attempting tons of steals in this current offensive era is typically not a good strategy, that doesn’t take away from the fact that watching a team run a lot is simply fun. I don’t care how many times you’ve read Moneyball or how many times you yell at the TV screen when your team attempts a steal, watching the Carl Crawfords and Juan Pierres of the world on the basepaths is exciting.

The severe lack of running is a very recent development, which is surprising (to me, at least). Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, the average major-league team stole around 120 bases per season. This lasted all the way up through the 1997 season, and even in 1998 and 1999 the average team stole 110 and 114 bases. Then the averaged dropped to 97 in 2000, 103 in 2001 and 92 in 2002. Last year’s per-team average of just 86 steals was the lowest since 1973.

Here are the decade-by-decade averages since baseball went to the 162-game schedule in 1962 (the “1960s” are 1962-1969, strike-shortened years are excluded):

1960s        70
1970s       100
1980s       125
1990s       118
2000s        95

Okay, how many of you are surprised at how low the per-team stolen base numbers were in the 1960s? You can admit it … I know I was very surprised. I figured no offense, Maury Wills … everyone must have been running. Actually though, the year Wills stole 104 bases, 1962, the Dodgers were the only team running. They stole 198 bases and Wills out-stole every other team in baseball.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

There was even less running in the 1950s, when the average team stole just 46 bases per season. Now, they were only playing 154 games per year, but that still only comes out to around 48 steals per year on a 162-game schedule. In fact, in the entire decade of the 1950s, no National League team stole 100 bases and that number was reached just three times in the AL — all by the Chicago White Sox (1957-59).

And not only didn’t they steal any bases in the 1950s, they were incredibly unsuccessful when they tried. For instance, in 1952, teams combined to steal 771 bases while being caught stealing 628 times. That works out to a “success rate” of 55.1%. Just how bad is that? Well, basestealers were successful 69.4% of the time last season.

Here are the year-by-year stolen base percentages (data from 1950 is sketchy):

YEAR     SB%
1951    58.9
1952    55.1
1953    56.2
1954    56.9
1955    56.4
1956    59.2
1957    57.9
1958    58.9
1959    62.7

The success rate finally got above 60% in 1959 and it has dipped back below that number just once (1967, 59.4%) since. The success rate for steals has actually gone above 70% three times since 1951, with the highest season being 1996, when runners were successful 70.7% of the time. The percentage hasn’t dipped below 65% since 1977.

So what does all of this mean? Well, it seems to me that after two decades of teams stealing around 120 bases per season, we are at the start of a downward trend that may be heading back to the way things were in the 1950s and 1960s. The interesting thing about it though is that, despite teams stealing less these days, they are as successful as they have ever been when they do attempt a steal, far more successful than they were in the 50s or 60s.

The other interesting thing about it is that this current era of baseball is almost nothing like it was in the 50s and 60s. Scoring is up and in particular homers are far more plentiful than they were back then.

On second thought, perhaps the stolen base isn’t dead. Maybe it’s just resting, saving up some energy for one more big run at some point in the not-so-distant future. I’d love to see it.

Check back tomorrow for a look at one of the most interesting and stolen base-reliant teams in major-league history.

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