- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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It began as an interesting, but isolated and innocuous, note: Dodgers first baseman James Loney has stolen third base three times this season; he had never attempted a steal of third before this year. Now, it seems, there is something more to this. Steals of third base have increased in each of the past five seasons, and at the 2010 pace, it will be six straight.
Loney doesn't run well, but it doesn't matter these days. Third base is being stolen by all sorts of runners, in all sorts of counts, even with two outs, tradition be damned. In 2005, there were 327 steals of third. In the last four years, the total has jumped to 360, 368, 408 and 415. Through Thursday, third base has been stolen 43 times, a pace for 445 in 2010.
Why? Stolen bases have increased the last five years, and steals of third have gone way up.
There are many theories and potential reasons. In the post-steroid era, home runs have given a little ground to a return in some form of "Little Ball." Teams are essentially trying more and more creative ways to score runs. There is a new wave of young general managers and managers who have eschewed some of the common beliefs about baseball, including that stealing third with two outs is too big of a gamble (the Braves, under veteran manager Bobby Cox, stole third base only twice last year).
There has been a slight increase in the major leagues in left-handed pitchers; they are generally easier on which to steal third (last Sunday, 14 of the 30 starting pitchers were left-handed). With baseball's new emphasis on defense, teams are reluctant to change their positioning in order to hold a runner closely at second. And, many of today's young pitchers are robotic in their mechanics, they resemble a pitching machine, they lack creativity and they are reluctant to hold runners at second.
"For the guys who can't outrun the ball like Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury can, it is so much easier to steal third because you can get so much more of a lead,'' said Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, who led the major leagues with steals of third last year with 14 in 14 attempts, one more than Ellsbury. "Ninety percent of the pitchers are quicker to the plate when there's a runner on first than on second. You always see a pitcher slide-step with a runner on first, but a lot of times you don't see the sign for the slide-step with a runner at second. Pitchers don't pay as much attention to a runner at second.''
Larry Bowa, currently the Dodgers' third base coach, stole 318 bases in his 16-year playing career. No one understands baserunning better than he does.
"Pitchers today don't like pickoff throws, they're not comfortable doing it,'' he said. "You see a big pitcher who doesn't move well, and you know he's not throwing to second. If the pickoff play is on, the ball might end up in center field. You watch pitchers on tape, and it is one look [to second] and go [to the plate]. One look and go. One look and go. They do that two or three times in a row, and the runner is gone.
"Sometimes a pitcher will slide-step with a man on second, but once he gets behind 2-0 or 3-0, he reverts to his old form because he wants to throw a strike. Then he's 1.5 [seconds] or 1.6 to the plate, instead of 1.2. You see that on film, too. Plus, defenses don't like to leave holes by holding guys close at second, especially with two out. They don't want the hitters to see how open you are. The way to stop a runner from stealing third is to make him stop instead of getting a walking lead. We tell our pitchers every single day: Make them stop. We send our catcher to the mound during every game to tell our pitcher: Make them stop.''
The Rangers stole third base the most times of any team last year. They were successful in 32 of 35 attempts. Second baseman Ian Kinsler and shortstop Elvis Andrus were each 11-of-12 stealing third base.
It is much easier to steal third [base] against a left-hander. When a runner gets a good lead off second, the pitcher has to literally turn his head all the way around to see him.
”-- Dodgers third base coach Larry Bowa
"We don't try to steal third base unless we've done everything we can to make sure we can make it,'' said Rangers manager Ron Washington. "There is no excuse for being thrown out at third. [Rangers baserunning coach] Gary [Pettis] does a great job with video. You see tendencies from other teams. With advance scouts, there is so much more information out there. When we start a series, we go to second base and show the area where you have to get to if you're going to steal third. If you don't get to that point, you don't go.''
But if they get to that point, they go, even with two outs. That is the one big difference between now and 10 years ago, and especially 30 years ago. "I still don't like to do that,'' Roberts said. "I bet I didn't steal third once last year with two outs. My dad [Mike, a former baseball coach at North Carolina] taught me not to.''
Last season, with no outs, there were 67 steals of third and 25 caught stealings. With one out, there were 209 steals and 80 caught stealings. With two outs, there were 139 steals and only 16 caught stealings. Through Thursday, there had been six steals with none out, 15 with one out, and 22 steals, with three caught stealing, with two outs. That's more steals of third base with two outs than with one out.
"In our era, we were afraid to steal third with two outs,'' said Washington, who began his major league career in 1977, and finished in 1989. "Kids today aren't afraid today because they don't take responsibility for their mistakes anymore. And, when a hitter gets to second, the pitcher is concentrating on the hitter. It's easier to be a daring baserunner today.''
There is a debate in baseball about the importance of getting to third base, even with two outs.
"I'm baffled by people who don't think it's important,'' said Bowa. "There are eight more ways to score from third than there is from second, like with an error or a wild pitch. The pressure on the infielder is greater with a man on third. If you have a nasty split, you can't bury one, or bury a curveball, for fear of a wild pitch. Then he flattens one out, and someone hits it hard somewhere. It changes the mindset when you get a man to third.''
"There were no split-fingered fastballs when I played, just Jack Morris and [Willie] Hernandez," said Washington. "Now, everyone throws one. We don't have defensive catchers like we used to. We don't have catchers who get dirty. [Jason] Varitek is a veteran catcher who gets dirty. [Joe] Mauer is young, but he gets the dirty. We have a lot of catchers using smaller mitts who are swiping at the ball instead of getting in front of it. With catchers like that today, if we can get to third base no matter how many outs, we're going.''
There are also more and more left-handed pitchers in the game nowadays. Through Thursday, of all pitchers that had made at least one start, 29.9 percent were left-handed; in 2005, it was 27.3 percent. Roberts says he doesn't believe it is easier to steal third against a left-hander, but through Thursday, 16 steals of third were attempted against lefties, 15 were successful.
"It is much easier to steal third against a left-hander,'' Bowa said. "When a runner gets a good lead off second, the pitcher has to literally turn his head all the way around to see him.''
Lefties, righties, one out, two outs, the biggest reason that there are more steals of third base these days is the change in the way the game is played -- it is no longer slow-pitch softball.
"Seven years ago, you didn't ever give up an out on the bases because the next guy up might hit a home run, it was a power game,'' said Roberts. "But there aren't many 50-homer guys now. Teams are going small-ball. The speed has increased in the game so much. Teams are going younger and younger. They are so much more athletic. That's a huge part of it.''
"We're playing more baseball today than we did five years ago," said Washington. "We're running the bases again, we're putting pressure on the defense. We're going back to hitting-and-running, and stealing. Not everyone is trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark these days.''
Bowa agreed: "A lot of organizations are going that way. It has been a big shift in philosophy.''
So, get used to more and more steals of third base. On Wednesday night, the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen stole second and third base in the first inning. And Astros first baseman Lance Berkman, who is just coming off knee surgery, was thrown out trying to steal third.
"Loney has three [stolen bases], but we hit two foul balls when he had third base stolen,'' said Bowa. "He could have five. They don't even look at him.''
But if this keeps up, pitchers will have to.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.