As the Cubs' 1991 first-round pick whose skill set revolved around the use of speed, I knew I needed to be a productive basestealer to reach my fullest potential. That was what you had do with speed: steal. This was not a time when the back up second baseman was hitting 25 home runs; it was an era when developing the skills and knowledge to turn the stolen base into an offensive weapon was important for anyone who had speed.
I was aggressive as a basestealer early on in the minor leagues. My first two coaches in A-ball let me run, knowing it was an important part of my development, so by the end of my first two seasons in the minor leagues I had stolen 49 bases in 61 attempts.
(Spoiler alert – In 2018, you should be asking “when and where did you get caught?”)
However, the higher I moved up in the Cubs minor league system, the more I got caught. Slow jumps, better catching, quicker pitchers, a Triple-A manager who despised the stolen base attempt. The scouting report also caught up to me, and I had to then catch up to it. How will I get to the big leagues as speed guy who gets caught as much as he makes it?
Today it is even more difficult to be a prolific base stealer.
My rookie season was in 1996. That season, the American League attempted to steal 2088 bases (successful 1454 times – 69.6 percent) The National League made 2494 attempts (made it 1785 times – 71.5%) The league leader in the AL was Kenny Lofton with 75. In the NL, it was Eric Young with 53 (the entire top 10 each had over 35 stolen bases.)
In 2017, last season, The NL and AL had less attempts than the NL had successful steals in 1996. (And keep in mind there was one less team in each league in 1996.) The NL attempted 1731 last year and the AL 1730. Neither cracked 1300 in successful stolen bases. But their rates were 72.5 percent for the NL and 73.5 percent for the AL (the league leader was Whit Merrifield with only 34).
In my conversation with Theo Epstein a few weeks ago, we kicked around the reason for this dramatic decline in stolen base attempts. As a player, I saw in real time over the late 90s and early 00s, the efforts to defend against the running game. The slide step or balk move was what pitchers whipped out to cut into your timing and ability to get a jump. The Mets used the first baseman to obstruct the vision or path of a speedy runner leading off first base to slow him down. But that was the typical cat and mouse game of baseball.
But two key changes in the game made the greatest impact in today’s running game as Epstein underscored.
He mentioned awareness of the “run environment.” When I was learning the art of stealing a base, one coach that stood out was Sandy Alomar Sr. He would beat it into our heads “know the situation, know the score, look at the scoreboard!” Over and over he emphasized that it was not just a speed thing where you go as much as you can, but you needed to know the circumstances of the game. Risk-reward was not the same in every situation.
Today this can be quantified. The main term you will hear around it is “run expectancy.” If you take the data of all situations in the history of baseball, you can figure out the expected chance a run will score in any circumstance. 1st and 3rd, one out? Runner on 2nd, no outs? Bases loaded, two outs? So every time a play happens, you can then re-measure the run expectancy and see how that play changed the circumstances of the game. The problem with the stolen base is that what you gain in run expectancy by being successful, is not as great as what you lose when you don’t make it. Unless, of course, you are successful A LOT. And certain bases (like stealing third with no outs) are really bad if you don’t make it.
Sandy Alomar Sr. told me about this knowledge in anecdotal ways when I was playing. He did not break out a chart and show me that it was bad to get caught stealing third with no outs, he knew from experience, and just the simple idea that cutting down a runner who is already in scoring position with no outs, is a bad result. You better make it.
But there is something about having the data in your face that makes anyone wiser, but also cautious. With this information, stealing can be simply reduced to success and failure through baseball’s incredibly powerful hindsight. You are now an oddsmaker which can make you forget that you may have found something that can change the future (and your odds) and crush the past, like if the pitcher goes home every time he looks down before coming set.
Then there is instant replay.
This was atop Theo’s list of game-changers in the stolen base world. I used to steal second and go in with a pop-up slide. This was a nice slide for being ready if the ball thrown from the catcher went over the fielder’s head, you can just keep going without breaking your stride. But it also can create the illusion that when you are popping up, you are doing it because your front foot is using the base to pop up on. When the umpire sees you popping up, he assumes you are on the base and calls you safe. So you can pop up just short of the base and get the call in your favor.
Today, a safe call because of a premature pop-up slide will lead to an out call after instant replay. Overturned! Trying to create illusions may fool the umpire on the field, but it does not fool the camera guy.
Keep in mind the replay would have been played using super, micro, mega, quicksand, sloth slo-mo technology (from 36 different angles), if your spike comes off the base one centimeter while the fielder is holding his glove on you for as long as is allowed, you are out.
So somehow, you have to run and hit nearly 20 miles per hour, and stick to the base like a mutant fly after an instant stop. Why bother trying to steal?
I will venture to say that this was not the entire intent of instant replay. We could have instant replay on every swing and miss to see if the baseball disturbed a few molecules of wood on the bat and overturn a swing and miss to a foul ball (if the catcher drops it or it goes in the dirt). Is that what we want? Probably not. But I digress.
The “run environment” has changed and will continue to change. (And Theo mentioned other factors like the wind blowing in or out, and the tendencies of the umpires as data worth considering.) The information at hand has become more detailed and therefore available to inform your decisions as to the best time to steal a base.
As we saw between the years 1996 (my rookie year) and 2017, a lot less stolen base attempts, but a better success rate. So players are picking their spots a little better, making sure. I just hope we don’t lose the craft all together because you then lose then-Red Sox player Dave Roberts’ stolen base against the Yankees who created a moment that ignored the past and changed the entire future of an organization. A risky individual play with a rewarding team outcome. We must remember to at least consider what actually happens after the play not just what history told us happened before.
In the meantime, I finished my MLB career with an 82.3 percent success rate, which is fairly high on the all-time list if you had more than 150 stolen bases. I guess I ultimately took what Sandy Alomar Sr. said to heart and picked my spots well. But I also wonder if I should have run more, if for nothing else, to excite and inspire (see Javier Baez).
Apparently I was living the old adage before the run expectancy fear factor really came into play.
Better safe...than sorry.