Art of the steal regaining momentum
Larceny on the basepaths enjoying newfound popularity
It's only fitting that in the year its greatest master craftsman will dive head-first into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the stolen base is making some noise.Rickey Henderson's all-time records for a single season (130) and a career (1,406) may remain unapproachable for another generation or two, but the steal may be regaining some momentum lost in recent years, if the early 2009 returns suggest anything. The headlines thus far have been about the extremes, the rarities: Red Sox speedster Jacoby Ellsbury's steal of home, and Carl Crawford's record-tying six steals for the Rays on Sunday, coming on the heels of Dexter Fowler's rookie-record five-steal outburst for the Rockies just days earlier. Amazing feats all, but the subtext may be even more compelling: Stealing is hot again, and looking more popular than it has been in years. Rays manager Joe Maddon enjoys stealing. It's just as simple as that. And he's among those who'd welcome a resurgence, if indeed this is one. "I think part of it is because the home run has gone away a little bit," said Maddon, whose defending American League champions lead the Majors with 41 steals through Monday. "I also believe that other teams are understanding [that] it's not just about the stolen base. It's about the thought, the mind-set that you put the pressure on the other team -- pitching- and catching-wise -- and just in general." Added Crawford, who leads the Majors with 18 steals after his gaudy outburst: "I think the game is going back to small ball, manufacturing runs as best as you can. And speed is a good way to do that." With the Rays leading the way, the very early numbers indicate that in the AL, use of the stolen base is outpacing last year. Through Sunday's games, there were 341 attempts in the 172 contests played in the AL, an average of 1.98 attempts per game played between two teams. Over the course of the 2008 season, that rate was 1.59, meaning that this year's rate -- early as it may be -- is nearly 25 percent higher. Just as impressive, and perhaps going hand in hand, the success rate in the AL thus far is outstanding -- 76.2 percent through Sunday. By comparison, the last time the AL as a whole finished with a success rate that high was in the 1950s. Granted, this isn't an early trend shared by the Senior Circuit. The National League is actually holding almost exactly to the 2008 pace, at 1.58 steals per contest, and the success rate isn't nearly as high, at 69.2 percent. But put it all together, and the steal is surging early in 2009. What does this stolen glance at the early numbers mean? Is the AL showing a true shift to more thefts? As Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus warns, it is a little early to tell. One month of data might not hold up over six months, although he noted that with stolen bases being "elective," such a pace is somewhat more predictable than homers, for instance. "I can say that as efficiency rises, attempts should as well, and if the league is stealing at 76.2 [percent], then they should be running a lot," Sheehan, a senior writer for Baseball Prospectus, a think tank for statistical analysis, wrote in response to an e-mail query. Efficiency has been at the crux of the discussion in recent years about stolen bases. To many in the field of statistical analysis, a success rate of about 75 percent is the "break even" point for steals being worth the risk of an out, especially in a high-power environment when extra-base hits are more frequently available to drive runners in from first. But that doesn't mean Sheehan and others who study the numbers don't like basestealers or the stolen base. "Stat-heads love high-percentage basestealers. Love 'em," he said. So everybody can agree with this much: Successful steals are a good thing. But, as Maddon contends, not everybody needs to be safe in order for stealing -- or even the threat to steal -- to have its effect. "I know Sabrmetrics and all this stuff in regard to how ineffective base stealing actually is," he said. "I disagree, because I don't think you can absolutely evaluate the importance of it just based on whether it's successful or not. It's about the mind-set. It's about what you do to the other team. "It's about the better pitch that you get for a hitter in a specific moment. It's about the pressure on the defense. It's about the error you create, it's about the extra base you take. There are so many other ways to look at it. It was really generalized in one little bucket way too easily that I never really agreed with that component of the numerical world." Sheehan said in a recent Web chat that the mind-set argument "focuses on nebulous positives and ignores the quantifiable negative effects of stealing on batters' performances." But that doesn't mean the stolen base is statistic non grata in his eyes. "The perceived stat-head position ['stat guys don't like stolen bases'] is a distortion," Sheehan said. "As with all things, stat-heads want to consider both the benefit and the cost, and caught-stealings are incredibly expensive, so much so that you have to steal three bases, more or less, to make up for one of them."
On the run in the Junior Circuit
|Through Sunday's action, American League basestealers have made more stolen base attempts than any season since 2001.|
|2009 stats through Sunday's action|
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. Jenifer Langosch, Lyle Spencer, Jim Street, Alden Gonzalez and Rhett Bollinger contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.