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Don't believe the stolen base is dead

4/30/2009 - MLB

I still get Sporting News in my (actual) mailbox every week. When the latest issue arrived last week, the cover was graced by the coach of a struggling college football program and the baby-faced quarterback who's supposed to turn things around.

Not interested. But I looked in the cover's bottom-right corner, and I saw this:

    BASEBALL
    THE DEATH OF THE
    STOLEN BASE

Inside, an article by the estimable Jeff Pearlman: "All Hit and No Run." The subtitle: "In today's game, there are plenty of players with speed. So why will we never see the likes of Rickey Henderson or Vince Coleman again?"

The issue's cover date is April 27.

On April 26, Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury made all the highlight reels with a straight, unalloyed steal of home against the Yankees; it looks as though Ellsbury may well set a franchise record for steals this season.

On April 27, Colorado's Dexter Fowler tied a post-1900 rookie record with five steals against the Padres; the Rockies totaled eight steals in the game, most for any team since 2001.

So what's it going to be? More death? Resurrection? Some squishy thing between those two?

As Pearlman points out, in 1983 the 26 teams combined for 3,325 steals, or 128 per team. Last year, the 30 teams stole 2,799 bases, or 93 per team. This year, the 30 teams are on pace for roughly 3,000 steals, or 100 per team. That would obviously represent a slight uptick, but it's too early in the season for us to trust that "pace."

So what's happened? Why don't we have a Rickey Henderson or a Vince Coleman in the game today, stealing 100 or more bases? Pearlman offers five reasons:

1. Stadium sizes: According to Pearlman, most of the stadiums that have been built in the last 20 years feature closer fences -- and thus less ground to cover in the outfield -- which means there's less need for fast outfielders … and it's usually been the outfielders who rack up the big stolen-base numbers.

2. Performance-enhancing drugs: As the argument goes, drugs have led to power, and there's little reason to risk stealing second base when the next hitter -- perhaps super-sized by God knows what sort of banned substance -- is fairly likely to hit a big fly. Perhaps there's something to this argument, but considering how many world-class sprinters have been busted for PEDs over the years, couldn't we expect drugs to help the base-stealers, too? At least a few of them? If Lou Brock could steal 118 bases without steroids, shouldn't some juiced-up speedster have topped 100 in the 1990s? It didn't happen.

3. The slide step: Some people say it's the biggest change in the running game, but it's almost impossible to quantify because nobody's ever tracked when pitchers began using the slide step, how often they've used it, or exactly how it affects the running game. But as Joe Maddon tells Pearlman: "Overall, pitchers are much more sophisticated now than they used to be. They slide, they hold the ball forever, they frequently pitch out." This should not be surprising. With Henderson and Coleman running wild in the 1980s, pitchers were bound to adjust somehow. And today those adjustments are ingrained within the game.

4. The absence of AstroTurf: Two facts: One, it's easier to run on artificial turf than on real grass. Two, in the 1980s, 10 ballparks had the fake stuff; today only three do. (On the other hand, Rickey Henderson did pretty well despite playing the great majority of his games on the real stuff.)

5. Lost Glory: As the argument goes, these days there's just no glory -- or money -- in stealing bases. I suspect that Jacoby Ellsbury might differ with that opinion.

I'd like to throw in a sixth reason …

Jacoby Ellsbury

Jacoby Ellsbury

#46 CF
Boston Red Sox

2009 STATS

  • GM21
  • RBI9

  • R12

  • SB10

  • OBP.323

  • AVG.289

6. Teams are smarter: Running very fast is a rare skill. Getting on base against the best pitchers in the world is a rare skill. The combination of those skills is exceptionally rare. For some years, teams were willing to tolerate a deficiency in the second skill if the first was present. Not so much today. In the late 1970s and early '80s, Omar Moreno was one of the fastest players in the game and led off almost every game for years, despite an on-base percentage that barely cleared .300 (and sometimes didn't) and a slugging percentage not much higher.

Today, Juan Pierre has similar skills and can't get into the lineup. Speedy center fielders Michael Bourn and Willy Taveras do play regularly -- Taveras led the NL last season with 68 steals -- but it's not all clear that they'll get as many chances as Moreno did. The simple fact is that teams in the 1970s and '80s paid little attention to on-base percentage and slugging percentage if a guy could run, and catch the ball in center field. Today they do pay attention (most of them, anyway).

And finally, from a historical perspective it's a little silly to use the word "death" when talking about the stolen base. Sure, it's been a long time since we've seen anyone steal 100 bases in a season; the last was Coleman, who stole 109 bases in 1987. But Coleman and the 1980s generally were an aberration. Here are the biggest stolen-base seasons from each decade, beginning with the 1920s (when home runs became a big part of the game):

1920: Sam Rice, 63
1931: Ben Chapman, 61
1943: George Case, 61
1959: Luis Aparicio, 59
1962: Maury Wills, 104
1974: Lou Brock, 118
1982: Rickey Henderson, 130
1992: Marquis Grissom, 78
2007: Jose Reyes, 78

The death of the stolen base? Two years ago, Jose Reyes stole more bases than any major leaguer stole in the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1940s, or the 1950s. Jacoby Ellsbury's on track for 80 steals this season; no major leaguer stole 80 bases between 1915 and 1962.

It's not that the stolen base is dead, or dying, or even slightly sick. The stolen base has, for any number of reasons, simply been restored to its historical place among the tools used to score runs.

Rob Neyer is a senior writer for ESPN.com and regularly updates his blog. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.