Sunday, October 5, 2008

Has the "Lost Art" of the Stolen Base Really Been Rediscovered?

It has been suggested that the lost art of the stolen base has been rediscovered this year but the numbers do not really bear this out. This year's NL leader, Willy Taveras, stole 68 bases, 10 fewer than last year's NL leader (Jose Reyes, 78); this year's AL leader, Jacoby Ellsbury, had the same number of steals (50) as last year's AL co-leaders (Carl Crawford and Brian Roberts). NL players stole 1482 bases in 2008 compared to 1564 in 2007; AL players stole 1317 bases in 2008, compared to 1354 in 2007. Those totals pale in comparison to 1999, when NL players set the modern (post 1900) league record with 1959 stolen bases; AL players stole 1462 bases that season, which is not the modern AL record but is the second highest total for that league between 1999 and 2008.

Sports Illustrated's coverage of the supposed rebirth of the stolen base included an amusing contradiction. In Chris Ballard's September 15, 2008 story titled "The Art of the Steal," Davey Lopes--who ranks 25th in career steals with 557 and is currently a baserunning coach for the Phillies--said, "You hear guys say, 'He's at full speed at two steps.' Usain Bolt, the guy who just won the Olympics, he isn't at full speed at two steps. If a guy's at full speed at two steps, then he's slow. You follow me?" However, in the September 22, 2008 issue, there is this statement by Ron Fimrite from a September 6, 1982 story about Rickey Henderson setting the single season steals record (courtesy of the SI Vault): "There may be faster men in the big leagues--Willie Wilson? Kirk Gibson? Tim Raines?--but none reaches maximum speed quicker than Henderson, who needs but two steps to do so, and none hits the base with such force."


madnice said...

The absence of the stolen base can easily be attibuted to the lack of black players in the league.

David Friedman said...


That seems like an oversimplification to me, for a number of reasons. Disregarding for a moment the facts that there are white guys who can steal bases and that pure speed--which is what I assume you are implying that non-black players lack--is not essential for stealing bases, the black players have been largely "replaced" by Latino players and there are plenty of Latino players who can steal bases. What has changed is how valuable the stolen base is considered to be and the emphasis on home runs.