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.

We hoped you liked reading Are We Entering the Golden Age of Base-Stealing? by David G. Temple!

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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.

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Billy Hamilton
Guest
Billy Hamilton

I am the Golden Age of Basestealing

spmccaul
Member
spmccaul

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

ken
Guest
ken

Ya know, there was another Billy Hamilton before the one you’re thinking of…and he was pretty good.

Poop
Guest
Poop

Way too easy of a comment.

Iron
Guest
Iron

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

spmccaul
Member
spmccaul

Good old Grover… what core strength.

Iron
Guest
Iron

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

Barney Coolio
Guest
Barney Coolio

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.

Hank G.
Guest
Hank G.

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.

Tommie Aaron
Guest
Tommie Aaron

Unlike the Brothers Aaron!!

frivoflava29
Member
frivoflava29

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?