By Daniel R. Epstein
Marcus Stroman is a very good pitcher and one of MLB’s best defenders on the mound, but he isn’t much of a hitter. In 2021, he had an .098/.164/.137 slash line. That’s not much worse than most pitchers, and it’s certainly not why he gets paid, but suffice it to say that he doesn’t spend a lot of time on the basepaths.
In his final appearance of last season on Sept. 28, he reached base against the Marlins via a throwing error. This didn’t help his on-base percentage, but it still represented an opportunity to do something special. He wasted no time. On the very next pitch, he took off for second base. Not only did he reach safely, but the throw flew into the outfield, allowing him to scamper to third.
Brandon Nimmo flew out to end the inning, stranding Stroman on third base, but this stolen base was even more significant than it appeared at the time. Now that the designated hitter is universal, this may be the very last steal by a pitcher in MLB history.
Ironically, the new Ohtani Rule just about seals the ledger on pitcher stolen bases. From now on, even when players pitch and hit in the same game, they are still considered both a pitcher and a DH. That way if someone (okay, it’s really just Ohtani) is removed from the game for a reliever, they can remain in the lineup.
Unlike most leaderboards, the career stolen base leaders for pitchers are now set in stone. The leaders are almost entirely from the 1800s when the game was played much differently. There have been only nine seasons in which a pitcher has stolen ten or more bases, all of which were prior to 1891. Matt Kilroy did it five times for the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association and Boston Reds of the Players League. His 67 steals are the career record by anyone who pitched in at least 90 percent of his games. He also holds the single-season record with 20 in 1886.
Stepping back into relative modernity, Bob Gibson’s 13 career stolen bases are the most by any pitcher since 1920. In 1943, Rip Sewell of the Pirates set the modern single-season record with seven.
Caught stealing hasn’t always been an official statistic, so the historical records aren’t as well documented. The Wario to Stroman’s last stolen base ever is Alex Wood of the Giants, who was the only pitcher to be caught stealing during the 2021 season when Rockies pitcher Jordan Sheffield picked him off second base on April 28. Four pitchers are tied for the single-season record with three times caught stealing, most recently done by the Reds’ John Denny in 1986.
In addition to the record for most successful swipes, Gibson has also been caught the most times in a career (10), truly making him the Rickey Henderson of pitchers.
In spite of his regular-season baserunning exploits and 32 World Series plate appearances, Gibson never took off running in the postseason. Not many pitchers ever have! There have only been seven pitcher stolen bases in postseason play ever, and John Smoltz has three of them. On one hand, that’s not surprising given that he is one of the most successful postseason pitchers in MLB history. On the other hand, his three steals in October matches his career regular-season total.
Time for a trivia question! Can you name the only pitcher ever to get caught stealing in postseason play?
The answer is Steve Rogers of the 1981 Expos, who was nabbed by the Phillies in Game 1 of the Division Series. He pitched 8 2/3 innings that day, allowing one run and earning the win, so we can assume he was forgiven.
It’s still technically possible for a pitcher to attempt a stolen base. If a DH moves into the field, usually due to an injury or a late-game managerial decision, the pitcher has to bat. In fact, this happened as recently as May 26 when the Dodgers moved Edwin Ríos from DH to first base in a blowout. Reliever Evan Phillips batted for himself and drew a walk, but unfortunately didn’t attempt a stolen base.
Given the rare circumstances now required for pitchers to bat at all, let alone reach base, we may never see another one attempt to steal ever again. If so, these records are all completed, unlike nearly every other record in baseball.
Daniel R. Epstein serves as the co-director of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. He writes for Baseball Prospectus, Off the Bench Baseball, and Bronx Pinstripes. You can follow him on Twitter @depstein1983.