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MLB 2023- The Return of the Stolen Base

Updated: May 28, 2023

How the MLB is Transforming Before Our Eyes.


There is a revolution underway in the MLB. The game of baseball is fundamentally changing. For folks who are old enough to have watched NL baseball in the 1980's, this game will be familiar.


The Stolen Base is BACK. Most of you know this but let me show you just how much and the historical context for what is happening.


MLB wanted this when they changed rules to limit disengagements / throws to hold runners,


MLB wanted this when they made the bases slightly larger turning close caught stealing plays into stolen base plays.


It is working. WE will update this date in a week or two but here is the data framed in the historical context of over 100 years of SB and CS data.


I think the graphs are very effective at showing how much the stolen base is changing right now.


From the 1950s to the mid 1970s the MLB saw a steady rise in the number of stolen bases per game.


In 1973 the DH was brought to the AL. In the 1980s the sport of baseball had two distinct characteristics- NL was much more small ball and SB and the AL was less SB and more swinging for the HR.


From 1980-1990, the NL averaged 0.9 SB per game and the AL averaged 0.65 SB per game. That is a massive difference over the course of the season. However, the runners were getting thrown out about 35% of the time.


Then, baseball changed with the steroid era. HRs were king and the SBs dropped to less than 0.6 per game in the early 2000s.


Then, PED enforcement began, and SBs came back up slightly from 2006-2012.


Then, analytics came strongly into the game of baseball and the data analysts showed that when 25-30% of SB attempts were CS that the entire SB attempt was counterproductive to scoring runs.


The %CS rate data shows that teams have been less and less capable of throwing out the runner since the mid 1970s. Perhaps, the average player attempting to steal was faster. Perhaps, the movement and velocity of pitches made receiving the ball more difficult. NO ONE pitches out anymore. That happened all the time in the 1980s. Be prepared to see a pitchout again.


The trend was steadily dropping on SBs. Then, the rule changes of 2023 are enacted.


EVERYTHING IS CHANGING BEFORE OUR EYES.


Top SB Teams in 2023

Team

SB/G

%CS

Rays

1.24

19.3%

Pirates

1.10

25.3%

Athletics

0.94

17.7%

Guardians

0.90

16.4%

Lowest SB Teams in 2023

Team

SB/G

%CS

Rockies

0.36

24.0%

Twins

0.42

21.4%

Angels

0.47

24.2%

Some teams have modeled that with the rule changes it is extremely difficult to be thrown out. As of 5/27/23, only 20.7% of runners have been caught stealing.


The math has changed. If a runner can get a free base expect them to take it more and more this year. Expect catchers that can gun runners out to be even more valuable.


Overall, as of 5/27/23, SB are up 38% per game. Some of those teams may simply not have players with the speed they need to run. Expect more and more of the teams to value speed more and to run more over the next few years.


Some are actually dismissing the massive change that is happening with SB pointing to the fact that they are only up now to 2011 or 1999 levels. This ignores how far the stolen base had fallen out of favor due to the analytic revolution (0.70 SB/G 2023 vs. 0.46 SB/G in 2021- +53%). I think SBs were up a tic in 2022 because hits were down so much, and some teams ran desperately trying to create runs.


There is another point to why I think this is only the beginning of the SB revolution. Let's compare 2023 caught stealing stats to the last the three times SB were sememingly on the uptrend.


SB rate vs. CS %

Year

SB/G

CS%

2023

0.70

20.7%

2011

0.67

28%

1999

0.7

30.7%

1987

0.85

29,8%

Teams stopped running because it wasn't worth it when they were getting thrown out 28-30% of the time. If a runner is successful 79-80% of the time when stealing bases, expect a LOT more steal attempts when there are two outs.


One might say there has never been rule changes in baseball in the last 50 years (since the DH) that have so rapidly changed the very nature of the game. The MLB wanted this and they are getting what they wanted.


It truly is a new game of baseball. It is the return of the Stolen Base.


I have more interesting data to share how the game is changing before our eyes. Stay tuned.






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1 Comment


Dr Lee
Dr Lee
Apr 06, 2023

Good article Larry! The one thing I've been thinking about with the increased stolen bases is how would we statistically compare what historically prolific base steelers of the past like Ricky Henderson did if we were to see another player steal 100 bases this year with the new rules. Would MLB have to put an asterisk on the next 100 base stealer? Just food for thought!

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