Like the golf cart that used to bring relievers in from the bullpen, the strategy of the stolen base appears to be all but disappearing from the game as it is being played today.
The only player I can think of with “base stealer” attached to his repertoire now is Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds. Dexter Fowler maybe but he has other skills that overshadow him as a base stealer.
As always, the numbers (while boring) demonstrate the decline. According to Sweet Spot – ESPN, “The number of stolen bases across baseball last year was historically low. In 2015, Major League Baseball players stole 2,505 bases, the lowest total since 1974 (2,488) when there were six fewer teams. Last season’s per-game average of 0.52 stolen bases per team was the lowest since 1973. There were 259 fewer stolen bases in 2015 than in 2014 and a whopping 724 fewer stolen bases in 2015 than in 2012.”
So it’s clear. But the scintillating question remains – Why?
There was a time not too long ago when Rickey Henderson could make it all the way to the Hall of Fame as the all time stolen base leader. A time also when Vince Coleman could make a name for himself stealing 100 or more bases for three consecutive years. And Willie McGee, encouraged by his manager Whitey Herzog who believed that speed is everything, could lead the Royals in the number of nightmares cast on pitchers who could only stand helplessly by as the merry-go-round the bases continued around them.
Since then, the game has undergone if not changes then at least influences that when taken in sum could explain the reasons for the decline of the stolen base strategy.
The earliest and probably the most profound influence that hit the game of baseball was “Billy Ball” – as in Billy Beane who considered making an out not just a sin, but a mortal sin. Sensibly, he figured that if even the best base stealers get caught only once in every five tries, why give that out away? “Moneyball” as it came to be called is still practiced in baseball today. Because generally, managers don’t like to see their team “run themselves out of an inning”.
Secondly, the slide step has been introduced and nearly all pitchers today use some form of it to reduce the time it takes to deliver a pitch to home plate. So, with a few exceptions like a Clayton Kershaw, we don’t see many pitchers with the high leg kick anymore. But then, he’s Clayton Kershaw and he has other weapons to keep the other team from scoring.
Add to that the fact that like shortstops, catchers realize that they can have long careers in the Majors if they have exceptional defensive skills regardless of how well they hit. The ability to throw out potential base stealers and controlling the speed game is a part of that skill set. The Molina brothers come to mind as an example.
Finally, the game has morphed into one that is dictated by power – both pFitching and hitting power. A 98mph pitch delivered by Delin
Betances gets to the plate in the blink of an eye and often that makes all the difference in the time it takes to throw out a speedy base runner. Similarly, teams now play for the three run home run wherein a runner on first scores just as easily as a runner on second. Add to that the propensity of the strikeout that comes with the power game……… And you get the worst scenario of the “strike ’em out, throw ’em out” inning killer.
So what we are seeing is another variation of the Speed Kills axiom. And for that reason, there is no way the Cincinnati Reds are going to give Billy Hamilton a chance to equal or break his minor league record of 155 steals in a season – even if he could. The art of stealin’ bases ain’t what it used to be…….
The game has changed and maybe the pendulum will swing back again……….but for now at least the strategy of the stolen base lies dormant………