Do more stolen bases assure winning baseball?

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Rickey Henderson holds the record for stolen bases in a season and a career.Jon Gudorf Photography, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0

By Andrew Sharp

Stolen-base attempts have increased a bit so far this season after several years of historic lows. Why this is happening is unclear, but there are clues. Management clearly would prefer more action on the base-paths and is experimenting in the minors with changes meant to make that happen.

Restrictions on the positioning of infielders could take effect next season, with the intent of producing more base-hits, which could increase the importance of successful stolen-base attempts. So it’s not likely steals will ever again drop to the level seen in the 1950s, even if a low total of steals hasn’t always kept team from winning seasons.  

Since 1901, when the American League entered the scene to rival the National League, 11 teams have failed to steal even 20 bases in a season. The lowest total ever, including the 60-game 2020 season, was 13 by the 1957 Washington Senators.

In just 51 attempts all season, those Nats were thrown out 38 times trying to steal. Either the opposing catchers were especially good, or the Senators were lacking in speed and/or managerial daring. Given that Washington fired manager Chuck Dressen after a 5-16 start and eventually lost 99 games, you can safely draw your own conclusions.

That futility on the bases and last-place finish were quite a comedown from the franchise that at that point held the A.L record, set in the Dead Ball Era, with 287 steals in a single season. 

The 1950s were the nadir in the history of stolen bases in the major leagues. The percentage of steals per game has been less than 0.3 only six times since 1901, five of those between 1950 and 1956. The other time was 1949.

A May 14, 2022 New York Times article contrasted those numbers with the 1987 average of 0.85 steals per game and the percentage of the last four seasons – just under 0.5 per game.

It’s hardly a surprise that 10 of the lowest 21 team totals come from the 1950s. Add 1949 and 1960, the total is 12 of 21. The 1958 Senators stole just 22 bases -- tied for the 15th-lowest total. That team also finished last. So did the 1960 Kansas City Athletics, second with the fewest steals after the Nats with 16. 

Yet a near-record low total did not automatically doom a team in the standings. Playing 162 games, the 1972 Tigers stole just 17 bases, tied for the third worst all time, but still won the division title. The 1949 St. Louis Cardinals just missed the N.L. pennant, winning 96 times and finishing a game behind the Dodgers. Like the Tigers, those Cards stole 17 bases -- in just 30 attempts. (The Dodgers, in contrast, led the league with 117 steals, 69 more than any other team.)

The 1953 Cardinals won 83 games and finished in third place. They made just 40 steal attempts, making it safely 18 times, tied for sixth lowest. (The 1949 and the ’53 Cards had different managers.) The 1934 Yankees has just 19 stolen bases, but won 94 games, finishing second.

The ’53 Browns, in their final season, lost 100 and finished last. They also had just 17 steals. Between them, the two St. Louis teams stole 35 bases in 1953. No Lou Brock there.    

Winning teams and bad teams, like the mid- to late-’50s Nats, are equally represented among those that stole the fewest bases. A list of the 33 teams with 25 or fewer stolen base in a season appears on page 339 of The SABR Baseball List and Record Book (Scribner, New York, 2007). 

The number of stolen bases per season – and per team – goes up and down. A rule change in 1920 no longer awarded steals for what today is considered “defensive indifference” – your run doesn’t matter, bub -- so some stolen base totals from the Dead Ball Era could be slightly inflated. 

Before Babe Ruth, steals were a key part of scoring. Then slugging became the more common way to generate offense. Although annual totals fluctuated a bit, the trend was down through the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

A paucity of hitting in the mid- and late 1960s could have been a factor in the resurgence of stolen base totals then. Brock’s success and that of the Oakland A’s in general surely contributed to the 1970s’ upward trends that continued through the ’80s. See Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman. 

Ty Cobb’s 1915 Dead Ball Era record of 96 steals stood until 1962 when Maury Wills stole 104 bases for the Dodgers. Brock topped Wills with 118 in 1974. Rickey Henderson’s record of 130 in 1984 still stands, Cobb’s 1915 mark has been topped nine times now, but not since 1987.

Washington’s 287 steals in 1913 stood as the A.L. record for six decades. Led by Clyde Milan’s 75 and Danny Moeller’s 62, that team finished second with 90 wins. The 1976 Athletics stole a record 341 and finished second in the west with 87 wins. Bill North (75), Bert Campaneris (54), and slugger Don Baylor (52!) led the way. Soon after, Henderson arrived.

The ’50s Senators never had a major stolen base threat, but they did have two players with the worst success rates among those with 10 or more attempts: Pete Runnels was 0 for 10 in 1952, and Eddie Yost was safe just once in 11 attempts in 1957. Determining the optimum time to attempt a steal, if at all, is far less random now than it was then. 

Aparicio led the league in steals for nine consecutive seasons. The first three times were emblematic of the era: His totals were 21 in 1956, 28 in ’57 and 29 in ’58.

Yet the lowest total in each league for an individual leader in steals – 16 by Stan Hack in the N.L. in 1938 and 15 in the A.L. by Dom DiMaggio in 1950 – likely will be more than the 1957 Senators’ paltry team total for years to come.

Could the game be on the cusp of a resurgence in stealing bases? Preliminary evidence indicates that it is. 

Andrew Sharp is a retired journalist and a member of SABR. He blogs about D.C. baseball at washingtonbaseballhistory.com 

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