The Speed to Steal

The sudden jump in stolen bases confirms that speed has returned to baseball. And the rise may also signal the end of the steroid era.

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I was trying to take a night off earlier this week from the sporting world, but I wound up at a place with the TV on. The images were too compelling to not tune in. It was a sports highlight show, and they kept rolling a clip of Pittsburgh Pirates rookie outfielder Andrew McCutchen motoring around the base paths at a pace that might make Usain Bolt take notice.

It’s not that unusual anymore to see the Pirates in highlight clips that aren’t historical in nature. The team has played respectable ball this season, and with youngsters like McCutchen arriving from the minors, the Pirates figure to lose their seemingly permanent status as baseball’s doormat. The highlight package showed McCutchen zooming around second base twice; he had hit two triples in a game, which is pretty rare. And against my better judgment, I started thinking about the ramifications.

Speed is returning to baseball, and a solid rise in stolen bases has cemented the notion. It’s one of the standout aspects of this season. The arrival of players like McCutchen is part of it. His teammate, outfielder Nyjer Morgan, and other speedsters—Minnesota’s Denard Span, Houston’s Michael Bourn, Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury and Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton—are accelerating the trend of thievery on the base paths. They join established stars—Anaheim’s Chone Figgins and Tampa’s Carl Crawford—in making the game more athletic and exhilarating.

Of course, triples are always exciting—they’re just a misplayed cutoff throw or a bobble away from an inside the park home run—but they result as much from the oddly shaped power alleys in the outfield as they do from the speed of the runner. A well-played ball that clangs off of the green monster in Fenway Park will result in only a double even for the fastest men. By contrast, even a few catchers would be able to chug to third base on a sharply hit ball to left center in Houston’s Minute Maid Park that rolls up the hill by the flagpole.

Triples, in fact, are occurring at the same rate this season as last, about half of 1 percent of all plate appearances, but the rise of stolen bases—nearly 10 percent—is stunning. Last season, stolen base attempts occurred on 2.06 percent of all plate appearances. This season. they are occurring at a rate of 2.3 percent of all plate appearances. But the attempt rate doesn’t tell half the story. The threat of a stolen base is often as potent a factor to the outcome of a game as a steal itself. It forces the pitcher to divide his attention between his battle with the hitter and the need to keep a runner from getting too much of a jump-start off the base.

The core of baseball is the battle between the pitcher and batter, which can occur three or four times in a game and begin to take on a narrative structure. With the rise in stolen bases, that narrative just gained a bunch of new characters, and it makes watching the game much more riveting.    

This increase and the volume of young African-American players involved in this trend calls to mind a similar impact made by the first generation of black players who arrived from the Negro Leagues in the late ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. Speed was not a big part of the game before their arrival. In 1946, the year before the debut of Jackie Robinson, National League teams averaged 60 steals per season. Twenty years later in 1966, by which time nearly every team was thoroughly integrated, National League franchises averaged 74 steals per season, a jump of almost 25 percent. One of the most iconic images of Robinson is of him dancing off of third base threatening to steal home and driving some pitcher to utter distraction.

This new trend isn’t confined to young up-and-coming speedsters. A quick perusal of the stolen base leaders finds graybeards such as Anaheim’s Bobby Abreu and Toronto’s Vernon Wells among the 32 players who have nabbed 10 bases or more this season.

The rise in stolen bases is the most concrete evidence that what is often called the steroid era is ending. Home runs are unchanged as a percentage of plate appearances from last year to this year, but they are down precipitously—more than 10 percent—from their peak in 2001 (the year that Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire’s record). They have been down for a couple of years, but without something to replace them in the public imagination, the notion of baseball as a game of tainted, juiced sluggers will persist.

Home runs and strikeouts are part of power baseball; perhaps the rise of the stolen base will augur a finesse era.