The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Stolen Base

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - AUGUST 06: Fernando Tatis Jr. #23 of the San Diego Padres dives into third to steal second and third base off a wild pitch by the Seattle Mariners in the ninth inning during their game at T-Mobile Park on August 06, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

“The steal is dead! Long live the steal!” Baseball oldtimers and fantasy owners everywhere bemoaned of the changing game. But a funny thing happened on the way to baseball’s current obsession with power. The old model of a slow, lumbering slugger has been replaced. The Cecil Fielder, Adam Dunn, and Billy Butler model has turned into the Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, and Danny Santana model. This new model of slugger has brought one part of baseball back from the dead — the stolen base.

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Stolen Base

There’s an old baseball maxim that says, “You can’t steal first base.” While the Atlantic League may be trying to change that, it still holds true for the rest of baseball. There are plenty of fast guys, but to be able to truly utilize that speed they have to be able to get to first. Mallex SmithAdalberto Mondesi, Billy Hamilton, and an aging Dee Gordon exemplify that struggle. Dee Gordon’s .304 OBP is the high-water mark of that group this year. If you cannot reach first, your speed is useless.

But their particular struggles are nothing new. Rickey Henderson was a beast. He drew walks, had enormous power, and of course stole 1406 bases. He was also an anomaly among speedsters because of his career OBP of .401. Fellow Hall of Fame speedster Lou Brock, for example, boasted a career mark of .343 — which would actually be the mark to beat if not for Henderson. Scott Podsednik (.339), Carl Crawford (.330), Michael Bourn (.329), Vince Coleman (.324), Dee Gordon (.321), and the modern Billy Hamilton (.296) have all had their names thrown about as the “fastest player in the game.” None of them could even match Brock’s less-than-lofty standard.

The Fall of the Stolen Base

As people really started examining the game, they came to realize that while there was obviously a place for defensively gifted speedsters, the best way to win was have guys who could get on base. For all the excitement a steal creates, the guys who were fast enough to steal were not actually scoring that many runs. So baseball started looking for guys who would get on base.

Kevin Youkilis — 26 career steals (which is actually two more than Ted Williams), but a robust .382 career OBP. So robust in fact, that he was given the nickname the “Greek God of Walks.” Hall of Famer Jim Thome, with his prodigious power, finished his career with a .402 OBP and 19 career steals. Mark McGwire finished with a mere 12 career steals, but a .394 OBP. Miguel Cabrera has 38 career steals and a .393 OBP. But these guys were stars. They were luminous, and even as they aged (often poorly), it was easy to forgive their warts.

There were others, though. Adam Dunn stole 63 career bases, half of which came before he was 24 years old. His .364 OBP and incredible power were often negated by his lack of footspeed. Even before the neck injury that ended his career, Prince Fielder‘s wonderful .382 OBP was partially offset by his utter lack of footspeed. Billy Butler played until he was 30, but stole the last of his five career bases at 26, and had his last season above .350 OBP at 27.

With these came another type of player — the high strikeout slugger. Rob Deer. Mike Jacobs. Chris Carter. Jack Cust. They shared the power of this new class of player and were given opportunities to join them. They also shared their lack of speed. What did it matter if a guy reached first if the only way he could score was for someone behind him to hit a home run?

The Rise

All of this brings us to 2019. Ronald Acuna Jr., Jose Ramirez, Starling Marte, and Christian Yelich have already achieved a 20 home run, 20 steal season. Acuna will reach 30/30 any day now with an outside shot at 40/40, Marte has an outside shot at 30/30 and Yelich may go 50/30. But it isn’t just them:

With a bit of stretching the imagination, it’s not hard to see a 2019 where 18 different players went 20/20. But that’s not all — another 18 players are already in double digits in both home runs and steals. That list includes an all-time great in Mike Trout, and current stars like Cody Bellinger, Juan Soto, Ozzie Albies, Shohei Ohtani and Javier Baez.

It’s not hard to imagine a year where things broke just a little differently, and 20 or 25 players achieved a 20/20 season.

The Last Word

For all the legitimate complaints about the juiced ball and strikeouts, something interesting is happening on the periphery of the game. The guys who came through the minors playing shortstop and centerfield are taking over the game with their athleticism. They may end up at second base or an outfield corner in the majors, but they still maintain the athleticism that let them play up the middle initially. In doing so, the stolen base is very quietly making it’s return to the game of baseball.

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