Have Stolen Bases Become a Lost Art in MLB?

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Have Stolen Bases Become a Lost Art in MLB?
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox has done this a league-leading 52 times in 2013.

Where have all the stolen bases gone?

It's rather ironic, but the baseball act known as the "steal" has gone missing this year.

Well, maybe not missing—bases are still being stolen—but certainly, thievery has declined pretty dramatically in 2013.

With a little less than a month remaining, steals are down league-wide to 1.11 per game. For comparison's sake, there were 1.33 steals per game last year, and two years ago, there were 1.35 per.

Stolen Bases Per Game (Since 2009)
SEASON STEALS PER GAME TOTAL STEALS
2009 1.22 2,970
2010 1.22 2,959
2011 1.35 3,279
2012 1.33 3,229
2013 1.11 2,686*

BaseballReference

*Total for 2013 is projected based on steals per game. 

To put that in more macro terms: If this season's stolen-base pace continues, there will be 2,686 total swipes. That would be 543 fewer than last year—and the lowest total since the 2,565 all the way back in 2005.

Dissecting things on an individual basis, only 12 players currently have 30 steals—and only four more are on pace to get there—which would be the fewest in the past eight years, dating back to 2005, as this chart shows:

In one sense, this is a bit surprising, because with offense down as a whole, it would stand to reason that teams would be looking to do whatever it takes to increase production—and thieving the extra base would be one way to do just that.

And, yes, offense is way down. Some statistics thus far in 2013:

Basically, the run-scoring and the triple-slash stats this season are the lowest in 20-plus years.

Thing is, though, there has been a steady decline in those offensive numbers over the past few seasons; it's not as if this season's figures came from out of nowhere.

So why are stolen bases, specifically, down in 2013, especially when they were trending upward in recent years?

 

Jason Miller/Getty Images
How many steals does "elite speedster" Michael Bourn have this year? Try 21.

Trying Times

The obvious next step is to check in on the number of stolen base attempts this year. And to exactly no one's shock, the 1.52 tries per game are well below the 1.80 and 1.87 of 2012 and 2011, respectively. In fact, 2013's projected attempt total of 3,695 would be the lowest since the 3,634 attempts back in (again) 2005.

 

Off Base

As pointed out above, the on-base percentage across all of the major leagues is just .318, which is the lowest in 25 years. Simple logic states that fewer men on base translates into fewer chances to attempt—let alone convert—a steal.

 

Special Opps

Going hand in hand with the first two points is a little statistic called stolen base opportunity (SBO), which tallies the number of times a baserunner is on first or second base with the next base open. In short, it's about stolen-base possibility, no matter how the runner reached first (i.e., hit, walk, error, fielder's choice, etc.)

The pace in 2013 is for 67,081 SBO—or about 27.5 per game. While that is actually slightly above 2012's total of 27.2, it's not as many SBO per game as there were in 2011 (27.8), 2010 (28.1) or 2009 (28.6). And it's even lower, comparatively, than the SBO figures from the rest of the 2000s, which in some cases, approached 30.0 SBO per game.

Putting the first three factors together, then, is evidence that batters are getting on base less than in the past, and then when they do reach, they're running less often, perhaps in part because they have fewer chances to do so.

  

Slower with Age

Another consideration is both statistical and anecdotal. As proved earlier this year, the number of 30-steal seasons does tend to drop once players reach 30 years old. In 2013, former top-of-the-line speedsters Michael Bourn (only 21 steals in 110 games), Jose Reyes (just 13 in 72) hit the big three-oh, and that pair has combined so far for a total number of SBs that would look like a down season for either one of them in their 50- and 60-steal heydays.

Beyond those two one-time league-leading pilferers, Carl Crawford (13 steals in 100 games) turned 31, Coco Crisp (17 in 112) turned 33, Jimmy Rollins (18 in 134) turned 34 and Juan Pierre (22 in 93) turned 35.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Carl Crawford, who used to routinely steal 50 to 60 bases in a season, has just 13 in 2013.

The point? The old guard of elite speedsters has just gotten, well, old.

Sure, there have been some injuries and drops in playing time, but that's to be expected as players put on years. These six already have passed their stolen-base primes, and as such they've gone from extremely effective thieves to much less effective—or much less interested—as they've continued to age.

 

Sabermetric Suicide

Beyond all of the above, there's also the sabermetric studies that prove the break-even point for a stolen base—the percentage at which the reward of one extra base is worth the risk of giving up an out—is in the neighborhood of a 75 percent success rate.

As teams have adopted a more statistical bent to evaluating players and game situations over the past decade or so, it's no secret that the overall value assigned to the stolen base has decreased some. That's the sort of thing that will make teams and players want to run less frequently.

 

Conclusion

All in all, it's difficult to draw any legitimate conclusions about the current—and future—state of the stolen base's place in the sport based on one down season in the middle of what had otherwise been an upward trend.

This could, in fact, simply be a random blip that turns out to be an anomaly, especially since 2013's stolen-base success rate (72.7 percent) is right in line with three of the past four years. In fact, from 2009 on, only last season's 74.0 percent—which, admittedly, looks like an outlier—was higher.

Regardless, despite the baseball adage that speed never slumps, it appears to have done just that this season.

 

All statistics come from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. 

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