Are We Entering the Golden Age of Base-Stealing?

Back in the old days, like WAY back in the old days, the running game was an integral part to baseball. I mean, look at the stolen base totals from the 19th century. Dudes were running wild. That was how the game was back then. Hitters didn’t (or couldn’t, more likely) rely on power nearly as much, and the pitchers threw a lot softer, making it easier on the potential thieves. Base stealing was incubated by the culture of baseball at the time. The way baseball is played now would seem entirely foreign to fans in the 1890s.

Since those high-flying days of the Grover Cleveland administration, aggression on the base paths died down. It saw its peaks and valleys, certainly, but swiping bags never quite reached that pinnacle of the early days of the game. The most recent influx of base-stealing came in the late 1970s through the 1980s. These were the times of Lou Brock and Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson. And we applauded these speedsters. Running became a valued part of the game again. Though running saw a decline over the 90s as power came to prominence, it’s still a much speedier game than it was in those slow-poke days of the 60s.

These two charts can be deceiving, of course. Stolen bases are good for the offense. They move the runner into a better position to score. Scoring is the whole point of the game. But stolen bases are not sure things. Guys can get caught trying to steal, which ends up being an out. And therein lies the rub. The run potential lost by being thrown out trying to steal is ALWAYS more than the run potential gained from a successful steal. This is why we started paying more attention to steal success rate. And while the exact number can change based on the situation and the given year, the general thought is that base stealing needs to be successful about 75% of the time to be considered a pursuit worth attempting.

Despite Gerardo Parra‘s best efforts, baseball is starting to figure this out, it seems. Though there was a slight dip in 2013, the trend is there. If things keep going this way, it won’t be terribly long before baseball as a whole will be stealing bases at an acceptable success rate.

Exactly why this is happening isn’t exactly clear. The easy answer is that the so-called “smart” teams — that is, the teams that have accepted statistical analysis in a greater role than most — are ahead of the curve on this and adjusting their game plans accordingly. The chart below contains the ten most successful base-stealing teams of the past ten years.

Season Team Success Rate
2007 Phillies 88%
2013 Red Sox 87%
2008 Phillies 84%
2010 Phillies 84%
2012 Phillies 83%
2013 Royals 83%
2004 Mets 82%
2007 Diamondbacks 82%
2005 Rangers 82%
2007 Mets 81%

I’m certainly not privy to the inner-workings of these front offices, but the Phillies, Royals, Mets, and Diamondbacks don’t come to mind when thinking of the most stat-friendly teams. But the top five teams on this list do have something in common — one Mr. Shane Victorino. Victorino has a career success rate of 80%, and had amassed enough steal attempts that he has skewed his team’s rate quite a bit. The 2007 Phillies had a very successful Jimmy Rollins and Michael Bourn on the roster, as well. So, is that the change? Is it less about team strategy and more about simply having good base-runners?

This outlines all players with at least 20 stolen base attempts a year. Since 1999, at least 50% of that group has swiped bags at a 75% success rate. And at least 30% have stolen at an 80% success rate in four out of the last five years. On a whole, base-stealers are getting better.

In the end, it’s probably a mixture of strategy and improving talent. Most likely, teams aren’t promoting running for the marginal base-stealers, leaving the bulk of the steals to those with high success rates. Baseball, going forward, isn’t likely to match the gaudy steal totals of the 70s and 80s. But it’s not about the totals, it’s about how successful those runners are. Players aren’t running as much as they used to, but when they are, they are contributing more to their team’s success.




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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.


53 Responses to “Are We Entering the Golden Age of Base-Stealing?”

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  1. Billy Hamilton says:

    I am the Golden Age of Basestealing

    +41 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • spmccaul says:

      Also the golden age of sub .300 woba yet a probable 2 win player

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    • Poop says:

      Way too easy of a comment.

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    • Iron says:

      In both the current golden age, and the Grover Cleveland era golden age.

      +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • spmccaul says:

        Good old Grover… what core strength.

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        • Iron says:

          Ok, technically Billy Hamilton’s 912 stolen bases spanned the Harrison, Cleveland and McKinley administrations.

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      • Barney Coolio says:

        Actually, the original Billy Hamilton’s career did squeak into the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Hamilton’s final game: September 16 1901, Teddy’s first day of office, September 14, 1901.

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    • Hank G. says:

      The original Billy Hamilton is third in career steals, yet the current Billy Hamilton would have to steal nearly 500 bases to make guys named Billy Hamilton number one in career steals.

      +14 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Tommie Aaron says:

        Unlike the Brothers Aaron!!

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      • frivoflava29 says:

        I kind of wonder what his success rate was, they didn’t record CS back then. He had a high average and walked a lot so he certainly had tons of opportunities to steal. As far as the article goes, might have been cool to investigate changes in relevant stats like OBP as well. Maybe guys have been having more opportunities so they’ve been learning to run better. Practice makes perfect, right?

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  2. diehardmets says:

    Just a minor quibble, but I would say that the Mets under Sandy Alderson are pretty statistically inclined, and that regime has been running the show for almost 40% of the sample you selected.

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    • Kenz says:

      Especially since the Mets last year hired Tim Teufel as third base coach to adopt an extremely aggressive first-third, second-home philosophy; even though the Mets didn’t steal many bases, they never got caught, and had the best baserunning of any team in the NL.

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    • That’s a fair point. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention.

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    • Alan says:

      The other concern here are the years: 2004 and 2007 would both be within the Reyes/Beltran days, both of whom had very high success rates, particularly in the case of Beltran. The effects for those two years for the Mets are likely the result of those two players, and little else.

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  3. Pennsy says:

    Please, yes!

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  4. JohnF says:

    The 2007 Mets had Reyes, Wright and Beltran, all of whom have been outstanding base stealers. Beltran’s career SB% is ~86.5%. I’m surprised the Mets didn’t show up more often in that list.

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  5. LongTimeFan says:

    Mets stole 114 out of 149 in 2013 – that’s 77% successful.

    Murphy led the NL with 23/26.

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  6. ESimon says:

    “The run potential lost by being thrown out trying to steal is ALWAYS more than the run potential gained from a successful steal.”

    Is this referring to expected runs or expected winning percentage? Bottom of the 9th, 2 outs, runner on first in a tie game against a top notch relief pitcher. I would imagine intuitively that the break even point for a steal would be around 50 percent, maybe even lower.

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  7. BurleighGrimes says:

    I remember distinctly in the mid-to-late 2000s hearing Jose Reyes discuss that the Mets coaches, particularly Mookie Wilson, emphasized stolen-base percentage more the raw totals. I can’t find a link now, but that interview always stuck in my mind because at the time I was surprised that the Minaya-led Mets would be analytically sophisticated about anything. That is anecdotal and not supported by evidence of the statement, but if my memory is not off — and I don’t think it is — maybe some teams caught on to this idea sooner than we would have thought.

    Of course, on those mid-2000s Mets teams Carlos Beltran — he of the greatest stolen base percentage in history — may have had some influence?

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  8. ankle explosion hr celebration says:

    An interesting question this article prompts is whether pitcher/catcher baserunning defense is (or will become) more valuable in this new Golden Age of Stealing and if so, by how much.

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  9. utley4ever says:

    those Phils teams also had Utley, who has a career 88 % stolen base rate.

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  10. phaddix says:

    I know this is not on the Roto side of the site but it will be interesting to see how this trend if it continues will impact draft day. While HR’s have always been valued as more scarce than SB’s that has not been the case. This may be the first year when HR’s are more scarce in actuality yet SB “mashers” may be drafted very high overall. For example a Hamilton not named Josh in the 3rd round.

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  11. Eric Chalek says:

    Most of those Phillies teams had Davey Lopes coaching the baserunners. He owned an 83% career SB rate and was much credited for the Phils’ successes on the bases. Ironically, Lopes’ Brewers teams in the early aughts were terrible SB% teams (below 65%).

    According to the Dodgers’ website (http://mlb.mlb.com/team/coach_staff_bio.jsp?c_id=la&coachorstaffid=117912), he’s been a 1st base coach at every coaching stop. Here’s every team he coached or managed and their SB% as well as the year before and after he left:

    [1987 Rangers: 63%]
    1988 Rangers: 70%
    1989 Rangers: 67%
    1990 Rangers: 71%
    1991 Rangers: 67%
    [1992 Rangers: 65%]

    [1991 Orioles: 60%]
    1992 Orioles: 65%
    1993 Orioles: 57%
    1994 Orioles: 84%
    [1995 Orioles: 67%]

    [1994 Padres: 68%]
    1995 Padres: 73%
    1996 Padres: 66%
    1997 Padres: 70%
    1998 Padres: 68%
    1999 Padres: 72%
    [2000 Padres: 71%]

    [1999 Brewers: 71%]
    2000 Brewers: 62% MGR
    2001 Brewers: 65% MGR
    [2002 Brewers: 65%…he actually managed their first 19 games]

    2002 Padres: 62%]
    2003 Padres: 66%
    2004 Padres: 68%
    2005 Padres: 69%
    [2006 Padres: 80%]

    [2005 Nationals: 50%…ouch!]
    2006 Nationals: 66%
    [2007 Nationals: 75%]

    [2006 Phillies: 79%]
    2007 Phillies: 88%
    2008 Phillies; 84%
    2009 Phillies: 81%
    2010 Phillies: 87%
    [2011 Phillies:80%]

    [2010 Dodgers: 65%]
    2011 Dodgers: 76%
    2012 Dodgers: 70%
    2013 Dodgers: 72%

    It’s true that at each stop as a 1st base coach, his teams improved their SB% in their first year. And most of the time, they held onto that gain while he was present. The year after is a much more mixed bag.

    Anyway, I’d always wanted to look this up, and here was my excuse to

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    • Shankbone says:

      Thanks for taking the time. Lopes is a great coach – I seem to remember he left Philly over some pay issues.

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    • jacjacatk says:

      Lopes was certainly a big part of the Phillies’ success, but the career SB% leader is Chase Utley, and from those Phillies teams Werth is #4 all time, Victorino is 23rd, and Rollins is 25th. So 4 of the top 25 percentage base-stealers of all time all had Davey Lopes as their 1B coach for several seasons on the same team.

      At a quick glance, I don’t think any other team has ever had more than 2 of the 25 at the same time.

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  12. sluggerrr says:

    What the ’07, ’08, and ’10 Phillies had was the incomparable Davey Lopes as their 1st base coach! What he 2012 Phillies had was a bunch of guys that were taught how to steal by Davey Lopes. Note that Davey went to the Dodgers in ’11 and Matt Kemp’s stolen base numbers went from 19 sb in 34 attempts to 40 sb in 51 attempts. Pay the man!

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  13. coldseat says:

    So your telling me that old timey baseball men had no idea that sb% was important, until a
    saber contributor figured it out? That seems kind of preposterous…?

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    • Brian says:

      If getting thrown out at 2nd to lose the World Series was good enough for Babe Ruth, then doggone it it’s good enough for me!

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    • MrKnowNothing says:

      Why? Despite the old adage of a walk being as good as a hit you could see all kinds of evidence that “old timey” teams didn’t appreciate that as being true, with the emphasis on BA over OBP.

      Or the over reliance in RBI, wins, and other team dependent stats. Stands to reason that a team that felt wins were a good pitching metric also probably didn’t appreciate SB%.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Eric R says:

      I’m sure they thought it was important, but perhaps didn’t know where the break-even was. If they thought that break-even was at 50% they probably thought their guys were doing pretty well.

      Here is a comparison of players with at least 20 attempts and <=60% success in a season vs players with 20+ attempts as a whole, by decade:
      1920s 206/344 [60%]

      1930s 30/107 [28%]
      1940s 26/72 [36%]
      1950s 31/106 [29%]

      1960s 24/241 [10%]
      1970s 103/571 [18%]
      1980s 97/721 [13%]
      1990s 73/724 [10%]
      2000s 35/557 [6%]

      IDK,I guess somethign happened in this regard in the 20s/30s, then again in the 50s/60s and perhaps again in the last 10-20 years.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Eric R says:

      Bucketing differently to maybe better spot trends; ranges of years with the number of players [per year] at 20+ attempts and the percent of those at under 60% success rates:

      1920-1925, 46 [65%]
      1926-1960, 10 [32%]
      1961-1994, 49 [16%]
      1995-2009, 61 [6%]

      The increase in the number of players attempting 20 or more stolen bases is probably inflated a bit in the last two buckets, both work out to rough two players per team on average.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. John DiFool says:

    The decline of the hit-and-run as an offensive strategy probably has a lot to do with the increase in SB%’s. It wouldn’t surprise me to see that the SB% in “straight” steals back in the 70’s and 80’s wasn’t much different from that of today.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  15. Eric R says:

    ” But the top five teams on this list do have something in common — one Mr. Shane Victorino. Victorino has a career success rate of 80%, and had amassed enough steal attempts that he has skewed his team’s rate quite a bit. ”

    Here are those five teams with the team rate and the team rate with Victorino excluded:
    2007 Phillies 88%, 87%
    2008 Phillies 84%, 88%
    2010 Phillies 84%, 83%
    2012 Phillies 83%, 82%
    2013 Red Sox 87%, 86%

    Those five teams averaged 85% with him and 85% without him, so I’m not sure he should get all that much credit for it, right?

    Filling in the gaps:
    2011 Phillies 80%, 79%
    2009 Phillies 81%, 82%
    2006 Phillies 79%, 80%

    Still just looks like a good SB% guy on an already good SB% team.

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  16. BoKnows says:

    I really like Utley’s approach. It seems like he only steals when he notices something that’s going to give him an advantage. It’s also as if he attempts to steal every time he notices these things. It also helps that he’s on base a fair amount.

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  17. jdbolick says:

    Presumably there are a lot of factors behind this, but I would guess that it has more to do with less defensive emphasis on preventing steals than a dramatic improvement by the base stealers.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Belloc says:

      Have you watched a baseball game recently? Far more pitchers use the slide-step now than they did in the 70s and 80s when guys like Brock, Henderson, Coleman, LeFlore, Joe Morgan and Willie Wilson were in their glory. Teams also call far more throws to first, and step-offs and fake throws to first, than they ever have.

      I agree with the comment that teams use the hit and run far less now than in decades past. I also think fewer players today try to steal second with two outs and two strikes on the hitter. That used to be almost automatic unless the heart of the order was at the plate. Now, practically every hitter is an extra base threat, so the two-strike, two-out steal poses a greater risk.

      Hell, getting Roger Craig out of the game helped the overall stolen base success rate.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  18. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Has any analysis been done on what effect the base runner has on the pitcher when he is a great threat to steal? Certainly the pitcher (most) pitch differently when a base stealer is on base. (I know “XXXXXX say Hi”, for the guys that don’t pay any attention to base runners)
    More fastballs? Less velocity?

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  19. MustBunique says:

    Is it really a good thing though, that teams are stealing at such a high rate of success? According to Brad Woodrum, maybe they should be attempting more steals: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-changing-caught-stealing-calculus-2/

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  20. Aaron (UK) says:

    x% successful is a really poor way to assess base-stealing, by players or teams. Weaker base-stealers will usually only be going in more advantageous situations (O–, 2 out).

    Additionally it treats all steals as being worth 1 base; clearly a steal or home is much more valuable than a steal of 3rd.

    Having context-neutral (and base-neutral) stats for basestealing misses the entire point. Base-stealing decisions are all about context.

    +/- RE24 or even +/- WPA would be much more interesting. Even then we would lose some info, though (extra bases on steals that turn into hit-and-runs, for example).

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Eric R says:

      “x% successful is a really poor way to assess base-stealing”

      I’m not sure how you can say that, unless you have looked at extensive situational data and found differences that weren’t insignificant.

      At best I think you can say “x% successful is a probably a sub-optimal way to assess base-stealing”

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  21. jim says:

    http://athomeplate.com/regular-articles/2196-musings-on-the-shift-and-stolen-bases

    This article implies perhaps the greater use of the shift in 2013 has actually led to a decrease in SBs. Sadly this fangraphs article only has data up to 2012. I wonder how 2013 would skew things?

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  22. PackBob says:

    Maybe the guys less successful at stealing bases are attempting stolen bases less often, which would also drive the success rate up overall.

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  23. Ian says:

    The first Golden Era of stolen bases also included folks going first to third, no?

    http://www.baseballlibrary.com/chronology/rules1.php#sthash.lZM7sSni.dpuf

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