At the end of the 2019 Major League Baseball season, the relatively unknown, light-hitting Mariners center fielder Mallex Smith clinched the stolen base title with 46 bags swiped. In 1982, superstar Rickey Henderson led the league with a mind-blowing 130 stolen bases. Where would Mallex Smith have finished if his 2019 total was matched to the league in 1982? A respectable tie for eighth with Julio Cruz.
This example is not an anomaly amongst a healthy population of base stealers. In fact, the thrilling risk-takers are endangered.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the top ten base stealers were consistently stealing at least 40 bases. As Seinfeld ended and Friends became the most popular show on TV, players started to lose their nerve. Last season, only three players were able to cross the 40-base threshold. As a team, the 2019 Minnesota Twins stole a combined 28 bases. Three other teams failed to cross 50 combined stolen bases. Rickey Henderson would be ashamed.
The trend continues when looking at the average amount of stolen bases per game. The stolen base saw a dramatic rise in the 1970s and 1980s which was followed by an epic collapse in the 1990s that has continued to today (besides a spike during the great recession).
This brings us to a fundamental question: Why? Why have teams and players given up on the stolen base that used to bring fans so much joy? Another graph may help find the answer.
At the same time as the stolen base began to fade from the baseball world, the home run has risen to prominence. In 2019, MLB players hit 6,776 home runs, a far cry from 1980’s total of 3,087. Those 2019 Minnesota Twins that were only able to steal 28 bases? Well, they hit 307 home runs, the all-time record for a team in a single MLB season.
Using a similar graph to the one previously used for stolen bases, it becomes clear that league leaders are hitting more home runs than ever before. While the steroid era throws a wrench into these numbers, it is still clear that home run totals have skyrocketed compared to the 1980s.
The job of a baseball manager is to score as many runs as possible while preventing the other team from scoring. Why risk a runner being gunned down at second if you are confident the next guy can send one into the seats? The runs count all the same whether you jog around the bases from first or second.
To look at it more mathematically, the above chart demonstrates the risk and reward of attempting a stolen base in each possible scenario. Overall, the risk in stealing is much higher than the reward in terms of both percent chance of scoring a run and average number of runs scored. Generally, a player must succeed in at least 70% of their attempts for stealing to be a net positive. Only 405 players in the history of Major League Baseball have retired or are currently playing with a 70% steal percentage or higher. As analytics have taken over baseball, managers and front offices have decided the stolen base just might not be worth it.
What is interesting is that while MLB teams are stealing much less due to the risk factor, they are more successful than ever when they do. Since 2004, the MLB average stolen base success rate has been above 70% each year. According to MLB.com, during the stolen base heyday from 1982-1993, there was only one season in which that rate hit 70%. So, while teams are much less willing to steal a base these days, they are much more successful when they do.
In 2019, Mallex Smith had an 84% stolen base success rate. In 1982, the year that Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases, he was successful in stealing a base 76% of the time.
This change has to do with teams possessing more information than ever before. They can analyze a variety of factors such as a pitcher’s time to the plate, the catcher’s “pop time” (how long it takes them to receive the ball and throw it to a base), and the pitch tendencies of a pitcher. For example, if a pitcher throws a curveball 60% of the time in an 0-2 count, teams can more confidently send a runner. All of this new-school knowledge factors into a team’s decision to attempt a steal or not.
The ultimate result is that speedy players are allowed to steal in situations that have favorable conditions for success. Therefore, while they steal less often, they are more successful when they do. Slower players who might have attempted to steal bases in the past are now discouraged from doing so.
Featured Photo: MarinersPR