Will The Stolen Base Return To Baseball?
ALSO: COOPERSTOWN PREVIEW ARTICLES ARE NOW IN THE WORKS
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Great comments about the All-Star Game! It should be played on Sunday afternoon and fans DON’T need to vote!
— Bill Beck, Phoenix, AZ
Bill Beck worked for the San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins
Did you know…
Gerrit Cole was the first Yankee pitcher to give up home runs to the first three hitters in a game (against the Minnesota Twins Thursday night) . . .
Mets newcomer Eduardo Escobar was the first Flushing denizen to hit for the cycle in 10 years Monday night . . .
The Yankees owe Aaron Hicks $30.5 million from 2023-25 but he might not last that long . . .
Kansas City’s Carlos Santana, armed with a two-year, $17.5 million contract signed before the 2021 campaign, is having trouble reaching the Mendoza Line . .
With ex-Yankee Robinson Cano already released (by the Padres), can Joey Gallo (still with Yanks) be far behind? . . .
Whatever happened to Minnesota wunderkind Miguel Sano, whose average was .093 after 65 plate appearances? . . .
Enrique (Kiki) Hernandez has been a bust in Boston this season . . .
Defending American League batting champion Yuli Gurriel looked lost during the 2021 World Series and never regained his stroke . . .
Former MVP Andrew McCutchen, on a one-year, $8 million deal in Milwaukee, has not filled the bill as a productive designated hitter.
Do more stolen bases assure winning baseball?
By Andrew Sharp
Stolen-base attempts have increased a bit so far this season after several years of historic lows. Why this is happening is unclear, but there are clues. Management clearly would prefer more action on the base-paths and is experimenting in the minors with changes meant to make that happen.
Restrictions on the positioning of infielders could take effect next season, with the intent of producing more base-hits, which could increase the importance of successful stolen-base attempts. So it’s not likely steals will ever again drop to the level seen in the 1950s, even if a low total of steals hasn’t always kept team from winning seasons.
Since 1901, when the American League entered the scene to rival the National League, 11 teams have failed to steal even 20 bases in a season. The lowest total ever, including the 60-game 2020 season, was 13 by the 1957 Washington Senators.
In just 51 attempts all season, those Nats were thrown out 38 times trying to steal. Either the opposing catchers were especially good, or the Senators were lacking in speed and/or managerial daring. Given that Washington fired manager Chuck Dressen after a 5-16 start and eventually lost 99 games, you can safely draw your own conclusions.
That futility on the bases and last-place finish were quite a comedown from the franchise that at that point held the A.L record, set in the Dead Ball Era, with 287 steals in a single season.
The 1950s were the nadir in the history of stolen bases in the major leagues. The percentage of steals per game has been less than 0.3 only six times since 1901, five of those between 1950 and 1956. The other time was 1949.
A May 14, 2022 New York Times article contrasted those numbers with the 1987 average of 0.85 steals per game and the percentage of the last four seasons – just under 0.5 per game.
It’s hardly a surprise that 10 of the lowest 21 team totals come from the 1950s. Add 1949 and 1960, the total is 12 of 21. The 1958 Senators stole just 22 bases -- tied for the 15th-lowest total. That team also finished last. So did the 1960 Kansas City Athletics, second with the fewest steals after the Nats with 16.
Yet a near-record low total did not automatically doom a team in the standings. Playing 162 games, the 1972 Tigers stole just 17 bases, tied for the third worst all time, but still won the division title. The 1949 St. Louis Cardinals just missed the N.L. pennant, winning 96 times and finishing a game behind the Dodgers. Like the Tigers, those Cards stole 17 bases -- in just 30 attempts. (The Dodgers, in contrast, led the league with 117 steals, 69 more than any other team.)
The 1953 Cardinals won 83 games and finished in third place. They made just 40 steal attempts, making it safely 18 times, tied for sixth lowest. (The 1949 and the ’53 Cards had different managers.) The 1934 Yankees has just 19 stolen bases, but won 94 games, finishing second.
The ’53 Browns, in their final season, lost 100 and finished last. They also had just 17 steals. Between them, the two St. Louis teams stole 35 bases in 1953. No Lou Brock there.
Winning teams and bad teams, like the mid- to late-’50s Nats, are equally represented among those that stole the fewest bases. A list of the 33 teams with 25 or fewer stolen base in a season appears on page 339 of The SABR Baseball List and Record Book (Scribner, New York, 2007).
The number of stolen bases per season – and per team – goes up and down. A rule change in 1920 no longer awarded steals for what today is considered “defensive indifference” – your run doesn’t matter, bub -- so some stolen base totals from the Dead Ball Era could be slightly inflated.
Before Babe Ruth, steals were a key part of scoring. Then slugging became the more common way to generate offense. Although annual totals fluctuated a bit, the trend was down through the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
A paucity of hitting in the mid- and late 1960s could have been a factor in the resurgence of stolen base totals then. Brock’s success and that of the Oakland A’s in general surely contributed to the 1970s’ upward trends that continued through the ’80s. See Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman.
Ty Cobb’s 1915 Dead Ball Era record of 96 steals stood until 1962 when Maury Wills stole 104 bases for the Dodgers. Brock topped Wills with 118 in 1974. Rickey Henderson’s record of 130 in 1984 still stands, Cobb’s 1915 mark has been topped nine times now, but not since 1987.
Washington’s 287 steals in 1913 stood as the A.L. record for six decades. Led by Clyde Milan’s 75 and Danny Moeller’s 62, that team finished second with 90 wins. The 1976 Athletics stole a record 341 and finished second in the west with 87 wins. Bill North (75), Bert Campaneris (54), and slugger Don Baylor (52!) led the way. Soon after, Henderson arrived.
The ’50s Senators never had a major stolen base threat, but they did have two players with the worst success rates among those with 10 or more attempts: Pete Runnels was 0 for 10 in 1952, and Eddie Yost was safe just once in 11 attempts in 1957. Determining the optimum time to attempt a steal, if at all, is far less random now than it was then.
Aparicio led the league in steals for nine consecutive seasons. The first three times were emblematic of the era: His totals were 21 in 1956, 28 in ’57 and 29 in ’58.
Yet the lowest total in each league for an individual leader in steals – 16 by Stan Hack in the N.L. in 1938 and 15 in the A.L. by Dom DiMaggio in 1950 – likely will be more than the 1957 Senators’ paltry team total for years to come.
Could the game be on the cusp of a resurgence in stealing bases? Preliminary evidence indicates that it is.
Andrew Sharp is a retired journalist and a member of SABR. He blogs about D.C. baseball at washingtonbaseballhistory.com
Writer Readies Features For USA TODAY’s Hall of Fame Induction Issue
By Dan Schlossberg
For the ninth straight year, USA TODAY Sports Weekly editor Steve Borelli has commissioned me to write several features for his annual Hall of Fame Induction Preview.
This year, with three living inductees and four posthumous ones, that meant finding and interviewing more than a half-dozen celebrated baseball personalities.
I already had contact information for most of them but got the others from friends in the industry, including Mets alumni director Jay Horwitz and fellow baseball historian Doug Lyons, co-author of Jim Kaat’s new autobiography.
Then it was off to the races, taping as I went for transcription later.
Kaat was my leadoff man — probably the first time he had that spot in the lineup — but hit for the cycle, offering his thoughts on his string of Gold Gloves (16) and his matching home run total (he hit 16 in an era when pitchers could still hit).
Then there was Tony Oliva, another 83-year-old who starred for the Minnesota Twins. The last player to leave Cuba legally before the Castro crackdown, Oliva not only won batting titles in his first two seasons — a major-league record —and also had more total bases than any other rookie. He also revealed that he almost returned to Cuba after drawing his release from the Twins in training camp!
I talked to Bob Kendrick, the erudite president of the Negro Leagues Museum, about Buck O’Neil, whose election was long overdue, and Bud Fowler, the surprise selection of this year’s class.
For the Gil Hodges piece, I found Gil Hodges, Jr., Carl Erskine, Jeff Torborg, Art Shamsky, and Ron Swoboda, but also remembered that electees who both played and managed can only be considered for one body of work.
That meant, of course, that the man who ran the Miracle Mets of 1969 was actually selected as the finest first baseman of his generation, gifted both at bat and in the field. Erskine, 95, talked about Gil’s role as a peacemaker in the Jackie Robinson era and as a clubhouse leader throughout his long tenure. He also recalled his four-homer game against the Boston Braves.
It’s hard to believe Gil’s son is now 72 and living in Florida or that Torborg, nearly 80, is coping with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s, robbing him at times of his once-famous strength and ability to speak.
The seven-man Class of 2022, to be inducted July 24 on an open field behind the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, is headed by David (Big Papi) Ortiz, a first-ballot selection and the only choice of the Baseball Writers Association of America this year.
Another writer was assigned to write about the best designated hitter of all time.
I’ll be in Cooperstown not only to cover for forbes.com but also to sign books in front of the Willis Monie rare books store on Main Street from 10:30-12:30 Saturday morning, July 23. I’ll also be working as a guide for Sports Travel and Tours, official tour operator of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Signing up with that Massachusetts-based firm eliminates concerns about seating, ticketing, mobility, and housing. Patrons also get all sorts of extra, including special access to the Hall of Fame itself and ample free team to roam Main Street and visit every vendor on the block.
For those who haven’t been, there’s no time like the present.
Dan Schlossberg’s 40 books include ghosted autobiographies of Ron Blomberg, Al Clark, and Milo Hamilton. His byline appears in forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, and Sports Collectors Digest. E.mail Dan at email@example.com.
“The nicest signatures I ever saw were Ted Williams and Eddie Murray. I feel people deserve it. If they’re at a card show paying money to get my autograph, they should be able to read it. I never had a problem with that. I see some of these autographs and I always ask ‘Who the hell is that?’
—Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson
Brooks Robinson thought his 1958 Topps card was his worst. “I had just finished running and it looked like I was throwing up. I remember that one more than any other card.”
Brooks cleared out all his memorabilia. “We sold it,” he revealed. “I got $1.25 million, started a foundation. I gave away $100,000 this year and couldn’t be happier. My wife (Connie) and I talked about it for a long time but we did sell everything I had.”
“I had someone call and say he had purchased a few of those things and wanted to give them back to me. I told him no, I wanted him to keep them. He donated them to the Babe Ruth Museum here in Baltimore.”
Frank and Brooks Robinson are the only players to be World Series MVP, All-Star MVP, and regular-season MVP.
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HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [firstname.lastname@example.org] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [email@example.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [firstname.lastname@example.org] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.