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The Lost Art of Base Stealing

Launch angle, uppercuts, and lifting the ball are the primary attributes emphasized for hitters in today’s game. Players are encouraged to get on-base by any means possible, therefore the proceeding batters can drive them in with the long ball. Runs are scored with base runners and extra base hits. This change in offensive approach has benefited sluggers and high OBP players, but there has been a specialty player to seemingly be outcast from the league. Speedsters are not extinct, but their value to most organizations has diminished immensely. There is no longer a place in this league for a base stealer who just plays solid defense to be in the lineup everyday. Stealing bases is a dying art, as the game has evolved past the need to harbor these types of players on a roster.

Rickey Henderson, the stolen base king, made baserunning relevant during his heyday in the eighties and nineties. He helped transcend the sport into what is now known as the free agency era (1977-1993). Henderson was able to fluidly blend the power, speed, and fielding aspects of his game into the perfect mold of an ideal leadoff hitter at the time. A player who can reach base on a consistent basis, steal numerous bags, and hit the occasional home run. He helped bring excitement to a stagnant sport with his athletic ability. 

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Baseball has many limitations with certain attributes, as players can only display their skills in a select number of ways, but stealing bases is one that combines physical and mental endurance. Fast players need to master their craft in order to become good base stealers, which makes finding players of this caliber a difficult task.

An abundant number of variables go into stealing bases. Just because a player can run does not mean they can hit. You can’t steal first base. Finding hitters who can reach base at a decent enough rate is difficult on its own, but searching for batters who can really book-it is even more of a rarity. 

Speed has become a much less sought after attribute over the past few decades, which is why players like Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon, and Terrance Gore are scarce finds. These guys could probably steal 70+ bases a year with even an average OBP, but none of them aside from a few seasons by Gordon have ever been able to accomplish this feat. Even Gordon’s phenomenal 2015 season can be taken with a grain of salt, as it was revealed the following season that he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. All three of these players are insanely fast, but do not know how to utilize their speed to their full potential within the sport.

Stealing revolves around more than just pure acceleration. Factors such as pickoffs, lead size, and catcher release time need to be taken into account when deciding to swipe a bag. Players need to know the correct game situations where stealing is appropriate. For instance, risking an out while down multiple runs may be a foolish move because the team needs baserunners. On the other hand, stealing a base late in a tie game can be a strategic play, as it gives the player’s team a chance to potentially steal the game. Good base runners understand when they can steal, but truly great base stealers can take a base whenever they please.

This is a result of their quickness, agility, and baseball instincts. The average player will take a lead that hovers around 10-11 feet. Elite speedsters will stretch this lead to 15-16 feet and will focus on getting a good jump off first base. The difference between getting caught or not can be milliseconds. Therefore, a base runner must take any advantage they have in order to take the base. They say a player should be safe over 75 percent of the time, otherwise it is not worth it. Since the number of outs play such a vital role in the outcome of the game, players need to choose wisely when to steal.

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Understanding the best pitch counts to steal on, knowing which pitcher/catcher tandems give the runner the best chance, and becoming aware of uncommon tendencies; for example, Gold Glove catchers like Yadier Molina and Salvador Pérez throw behind the runner a lot and can catch a base runner sleeping. Even factors like right handed versus left handed batters come into play with left handed catcher being basically absent from the MLB. Because of the throwing side, it will usually be easier to steal a base when there is a left handed hitter in the batter’s box, as the catcher will have a slightly more difficult time throwing with the reduced space for the transaction.

Finding the right pitchers to run on is key as well. Stolen bases are just as much on the pitcher as they are the catcher. This is the reason why pitchers switch to pitching from the stretch instead of the windup when a player reaches base. They need to speed up their release time, otherwise players will run wild on them. A pitcher who struggles mightily with this issue is New York Mets starter Noah Syndergaard. Over the course of his career, he has allowed 89% of base runners to successfully steal against him. This includes a dreadfully abysmal 2019, when he allowed 42 stolen bases in 45 attempts. He pitched in 32 games this season, and not coincidentally, this was his worst ERA season. The significant amount of extra bases his opponents were able to snag definitely contributed to his bloated ERA, as Syndergaard is usually considered a Cy Young candidate and pitched to a 4.60 ERA that year.

Syndergaard has been clocked as slow as 2.04 seconds to the plate, which makes stealing bases off of him consequently easier. With base running proving this approach to be effective, it is surprising that the skill is not taken advantage of more often. It would bewilder managers to not send their players every time they reach base against pitchers similar to Syndergaard. The strategy is proven to be successful, but there is still the looming fear in the back of every manager’s mind of sacrificing a runner that may be costly in the end. 

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Managers care about appearance, which is why they would rather not deal with the repercussions of making a poor decision based on base running. If a player is caught stealing compared to a player striking out, one is considered a preventable mistake. Stealing is a risky move and the outlook on an unsuccessful attempt reflects poorly on one’s managerial skills, therefore they generally neglect to call for the steal sign.

There are two noteworthy times in baseball history that point to the decreased rate of stolen bases. The first instance is the beginning of the steroid era, which spanned from 1994-2005. During this time, there was a power surge going on and stolen bases were beginning to be discouraged. There were only a handful of players to swipe over 70 bases during this span following an era where the league leader almost always had 70+, if not significantly more.

The drop off was noticeable there, though in the post-steroid era, the difference is even more drastic. A huge contributor to this change has to be the increased integration of analytics in baseball. Advanced analytics have become more and more prevalent as the sport has continued to evolve, but it is safe to say that this phenomenon with numbers and statistics began during the steroid era. 

In 2002, the Oakland Athletics started playing an entirely different style of baseball that only embraced certain numbers like OBP and negated almost everything else in order to produce the highest number of runs. They experienced a surprising rate of success and many other organizations wanted to replicate what they did, therefore adopting similar philosophies. 

One huge component to what was considered “Moneyball” was stopping players from running. In order to win games, a team needs to score runs, and that goal is accomplished with base runners. Stealing jeopardizes potential runs scored and in turn has been discouraged. Modern teams do not ban the idea of stealing, but really only use it as a possible asset on offense. Leadoff hitters in today’s game are usually high on-base players rather than runners. Having a batter with a .360 OBP is more valuable than one with a .320 OBP who can run.

This is a major reason why base stealers have dwindled in numbers. Their primary roles in lineups were usually one and two in the past. But now with those spots going to hitters who would traditionally hit lower in the lineup, these speedsters are being subjected to the bench or free agency.What's Behind the Decline in Stolen Bases? | by Jordan Siff | Medium

Data from baseball-reference.com

Fifty stolen bases is an impressive feat, but it was not an impossible one, with a multitude of players accomplishing the mark in the past. However, the American League has not seen a fifty steal player in six seasons. Fifty stolen bases is similar to forty home runs, in the sense that there are always a few to hit that mark during the 162 game season. Stealing is dying. In 2019, Ronald Acuna Jr. led the National League in stolen bases with just 37. Not counting shortened seasons, that total was the lowest for an NL leader since 1961. Steals are no longer seen as a necessary part of the game.

Coming up from the minors, Billy Hamilton was seen as a generational prospect solely based on his legs. He was not a great hitter, but scouts figured he was so fast that he would be able to find his place at the big league level. Hamilton had a season where he stole 155 bases between A+ ball and AA. The only reason he is unable to find consistent playing time is because he has a career OBP below .300. An athlete like Hamilton would be able to steal 100 bases a season easily if he could hit at an even mediocre rate. Most fast players like Hamiliton face this issue and teams are generally not willing to keep a roster spot for this one tool.

Players who are fleet of foot players are not the most optimal option long-term. When most baseball players age, they lose some aspects to their game while gaining others. As hitters may lose bat speed, but gain more power or pitchers losing velocity, but then learning to perfect their offspeed stuff. If a player who literally runs for a living loses that one asset, they are useless to a ball club. Additionally, teams already see these kinds of players as luxuries rather than necessities, therefore signing them makes little sense to most.

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Mike Trout is the best player in baseball and during his 2012 rookie campaign, he led the AL in stolen bases with 49. It looked like he might revitalize the popularity for stealing, but as he has progressed as a player, his steal numbers have decreased. Trout has reached the point where he does not even consider stealing anymore because he realizes the wear and tear it does on his body and it is simply not worth it for a premier player like him to be diving into bases. Stealing is somewhat frowned upon for star players, as teams do not want their million dollar investments risking an injury for a base.

Small ball as a whole is a trend of the past. Bunting, stealing, hit-and-run, and squeeze plays are all uncommon in today’s game. The sport has evolved past the traditional ways and moved into a more analytically sound style of baseball. With the universal designated hitter likely becoming permanent in the near future, many of these small ball techniques will no longer be relevant. It is truly a shame that stealing bases, an act that once played an integral role in game strategy, is dying off. Watching players steal is one of the most intense parts of the sport. It brings fun and exhilaration to the game. Maybe one day purely fast players will be respected once again, but until then, they are obsolete.

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