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Will We Ever See a 100 Stolen Base Player Again?

By Mike Silva ~ August 24th, 2011. Filed under: Mike Silva.

Shortstop Billy Hamilton is one of the Reds top prospects. This year he’s starred at the Low-A Dayton affiliate. The offensive numbers don’t jump out at you as he’s struck out 117 times, rarely walks, and has a rather pedestrian .670 OPS. There is, however, one number that is rather impressive. After two stolen bases last night Hamilton has 91 on the season. Earlier in the year Hamilton told John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer his “goal is to get to 100.” To put that total in perspective, no one at the major league level has stolen that many bases since Rickey Henderson had 93 in 1988. The most stolen bases in the last twenty years is 78, accomplished by Marquis Grissom (’92) and Jose Reyes (’07). This year the MLB leader is Atlanta’s Michael Bourn with 45. This is a far cry from the mid-eighties when Vince Coleman and Henderson were routinely stealing 100+ bases a season.

Is the stolen base a lost art form? Back in 2009, Jeff Pearlman wrote about the “Death of the Stolen Base” for the Sporting News. He cited small ballparks, PEDs, the slide step, absence of AstroTurf, and the fact that players don’t get big free agent contracts because of stealing bases (don’t tell that to Coleman who signed a 4-year deal with the Mets because of it in 1991). I will also add the wear and tear baserunning does to one’s body. So now that PEDs are gone from the game why are we still seeing moderate stolen base totals compared to its heyday of the 80s. I could be due to many members of modern front offices grew up reading how the risk of losing a baserunner far outweighs the reward of a stolen base.

Back in 2004, Joe Sheehan wrote for Baseball Prospectus that any player with a stolen base rate below 75%, might as well stay on the bag because of the negligible increase in run expectancy. Bobby Valentine was quoted on Baseball Tonight back in 2003 that  ”the idea of risk/reward is what we deal with in our society. To risk an out, and your reward is only a base, I think is not quite what we want to do. It’s not good economics of baseball.” Of course, Billy Beane discussed how overrated the stolen base was in “Moneyball.”

Maybe what was going on in the 80s was an outlier. Maybe Henderson and Coleman were freaks of nature that only come once in a lifetime. Rob Neyer pointed out on ESPN in 2009 that Reyes’s 78 stolen bases in 2007 was more than the biggest stolen base season from 1920- 1959. Maury Wills and Lou Brock both began a 30 year run where  stolen bases were a valued commodity.

I think the stolen base can be used to an advantage. It’s clear a pitcher is bothered by a speedy runner. A distracted pitcher that is more focused on the runner adds another element of noise to the already difficult art of pitching; advantage hitter. Sheehan points out that OBP was more the reason for the Cardinals success in the 80s under Herzog than the stolen base. Having lived through that pesky group I can attest to how their speed would give the Mets fits. The increase in OBP might have to do with the fact that pitchers were focused on Vince Coleman instead of the hitter at the plate.  Jose Reyes always is a focal point of the opposing teams meetings before a series. It’s because of how his legs can change the tempo of the game. Clearly, teams don’t buy into the fact that a stolen base has a negligible impact on the outcome of the game.

So is the stolen base dead? Not quite. Will we see 100 stolen bases again? Unlikely. Billy Hamilton has a ways to go before he get’s to the majors, and if he does, his strikeout rate doesn’t give me confidence he will be on base enough to have the opportunity. Just like the days of 70 home runs are gone, the era of Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson running wild around the bases appears to be in the history books for good. For a different reason, of course.


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1 Response to Will We Ever See a 100 Stolen Base Player Again?

  1. B.E. Earl

    But Billy Hamilton has already stolen 100 bases in a season. Several times!

    Oh…different Billy Hamilton. Nevermind.


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