Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 15, 2008
BASEBALL: Stealing Time

For one of the longer-term projects I've been working on, I've been going over the league-wide stolen base and caught stealing data at Baseball-Reference.com; I've been going back to the beginning of the Retrosheet era in 1956, since that's when the site has defensive stolen base data for individual catchers, although for the NL the site has league-wide figures back to 1951, and the AL to 1920.

Anyway, I thought I'd share the chart I put together for the 1956-2008 period, showing the number of games played, steals and caught stealings for each league, followed by the league-wide average of stolen base attempts per 162 team games and league-wide stolen base percentages.

YearNL-GNL-SBNL-CSNL-A/162NL-SB%AL-GAL-SBAL-CSAL-A/162AL-SB%
195612423712428060.5%12363482537957.9%
195712383992548561.1%12323683048854.8%
195812323882368262.2%12383532808355.8%
195912404392719361.8%12364142358563.8%
1960123850131310761.5%12344222348664.3%
196112384682889961.9%16225783118965.0%
1962162478840911965.8%16185602928565.7%
1963162268449311858.1%16165522708267.2%
1964162463641910560.3%16285403008464.3%
1965162674542911763.5%162070435710666.4%
1966161873749412359.9%161271843211662.4%
1967162069447011659.6%162067947011559.1%
1968162670446011660.5%162481147112863.3%
1969194681754811459.9%1946103357013364.4%
19701942104551613066.9%194686356211960.6%
1971194490049211664.7%193286554711861.3%
1972186095455213163.3%185885353912161.3%
1973194297655212763.9%1944105866114361.5%
19741944125462515766.7%1946123475816661.9%
19751942117655814567.8%1926134881118262.4%
19761944136467717066.8%1934169086721466.1%
19771944155584320064.8%2262146293617261.0%
19781942153372518867.9%2262147189216962.3%
19791942148676718866.0%2256149783116764.3%
19801946183983522368.8%2264145577516065.2%
19811288110854320867.1%150091355715962.1%
19821944178282221768.4%2270139479515663.7%
19831948178687022167.2%2270153974916367.3%
19841942172877320969.1%2268130473814663.9%
19851942163671619669.6%2264146171515667.1%
19861938184285822668.2%2268147076215965.9%
19871942185175721871.0%2268173477217969.2%
19881938178972921071.0%2262151268915868.7%
19891946152971518768.1%2266158772616568.6%
19901944178772721071.1%2266150378316365.7%
19911940165180920567.1%2268146975815966.0%
19921944156074119267.8%2268170486018366.5%
19932270171478817968.5%2268154987217364.0%
19941606114152916868.3%1594111750316569.0%
19952014160267118370.5%2020133158615469.4%
19962268178570917871.6%2266145463414969.6%
19972268181784119068.4%2264149172315867.3%
19982596160975114768.2%2268167575417469.0%
19992591195983017470.2%2265146268915468.0%
20002593162773614868.9%2265129758713568.8%
20012592145673513766.5%2266164767316671.0%
20022588151470313968.3%2264123657913068.1%
20032590129458511868.9%2270127954713070.0%
20042590133652711771.7%2266125357313168.6%
20052594134956011970.7%2268121650912370.5%
20062590151561013371.3%2268125250012571.5%
20072594156450612975.6%2268135449613273.2%
20082588148254712773.0%2268131748812973.0%
TOTAL103614672663215615567.7%105398613963157514366.0%

A couple of conclusions:

1. You can see the rapid upward movements in steal attempts in the NL around 1962 (Maury Wills' big year) and 1974 (Lou Brock's), the AL much later in 1965-66 and then around 1974, and the big falloff around 2000 capping a longer-term decline (the NL's one-year spike in 1999 looks like just a fluke).

2. We're at something like a historic happy medium for stolen base attempts. Very low numbers of steal attempts generally mean that a lot of steal attempts are busted hit-and-runs, with a low success rate (the stolen base percentages of the 1950s bear this out), whereas very high numbers indicate a lot of high-risk running.

3. I think a good deal of the shift from the AL to the NL in big base stealing in the late 1970s was driven not just by the DH rule but by managers: Chuck Tanner moved to the NL in 1977, Whitey Herzog in 1980. Tanner in particular left his stamp on the AL in 1976, when he forgot his mother's admonition that if you make that steal sign on Opening Day it might freeze that way. The 1976 A's, on their way to their first failure to win the division in six years (helped along by the exodus of the Mustache Gang's stars) attempted an obscene 464 steals (the only other team in the league over 230 was Herzog's Royals at 322), albeit at an admirable 73.5% success rate. Don Baylor attempted 64 steals, Bill North 104, Sal Bando (!) 26, Phil Garner 48, Claudell Washington 57, Bert Campaneris 66, and the team's two full-time pinch runners, Matt Alexander and Larry Lintz, combined to attempt 69 steals while having only 33 plate appearances.

4. Stolen base percentages were growing steadily for much of the period, but have really entered a golden age only in the last 2-4 years - before 2004-05, it was rare for the AL to reach a 70% success rate, and the NL wasn't able to stay consistently above 70%; since then, we've seen the NL average spiral as high as 75.6%, with both leagues above 73% the past two seasons for the first time ever. The Mets and Phillies, led by Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, have been the leaders: in 2007-08, the Mets attempted an average of 210 steals per year with an 80.5% success rate, the Phillies an average of 159 steals with an 86.2% success rate.

It's an interesting question what the cause of this is. Probably the influence of sabermetrics is a part, especially since the growing popularity of Baseball Prospectus, the 2003 publication of Moneyball, the passing of generational torches and other events have helped focus managers' attention on not running themselves out of innings (a process accelerated by the post-1994 scoring/home run explosion that peaked in 1999-2000). I suspect that baserunners have gotten faster at a greater rate than catchers have been throwing harder. I don't think it's the pitchers; if anything, you hardly see the big leg kicks of the 1970s anymore. Looking around the league, it's hard to say that teams are really diminishing the priority they place on catchers who can throw, either (Piazza's not in the league anymore). I don't think equipment is a big factor, especially with artificial turf in declining usage, but better shoes may be incrementally aiding the baserunners.

Anyway, it's yet another reminder of how many different aspects of the game evolve over time, both in terms of strategy and in terms of outcomes.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:46 PM | Baseball 2008 • | Baseball Studies | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

Note that the AL's SBA rate has been higher than the NL's the last two years. I get tired of hearing the cliche' about "waiting for the long ball" used so often to describe American League baseball.

Posted by: John Salmon at December 15, 2008 1:43 PM

For many years a player picked off was counted as CS. I can't remember when this scoring rule changed. Possibly 1970, which might explain the jump in the NL success rate that year, however there wasn't a similar change in the AL

Posted by: George at December 15, 2008 2:58 PM

For many years a player picked off was counted as CS. I can't remember when this scoring rule changed. Possibly 1970, which might explain the jump in the NL success rate that year, however there wasn't a similar change in the AL

Posted by: George at December 15, 2008 2:58 PM

George - rule 10.07(h)(2) - a pick-off is only a caught stealing (CS) if the runner is caught advancing to the next base. A normal pickoff with the runner tagged out at the base he previously occupied is not a CS.

Posted by: DS at December 15, 2008 3:09 PM
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