There are a few precious facets of baseball that seem to be disappearing before our eyes, lost in a billowing cloud of strikeouts, walks, hit batters and long fly balls.
For the most part, the bemoaning of these things is a little exaggerated. Singles, triples, batting average, double plays, assists and intentional walks are all still part of the game. They just happen to be at all-time lows and subject to recovery when the next stylistic cycle of the game sets in. The one exception to this hopeful thought is the non-pitcher sacrifice bunt, which truly seems to be on life support.
There have been suggestions that this era of offense is akin to the “goin’ for the pump” 1950s, when home runs were king and stolen bases had fallen into a deep slumber. The comparison doesn’t really hold up. Yes, teams are emphasizing home runs on offense above all else right now. However, the game looks very different than it did in the ’50s:
Teams hit more homers now than they ever have and much more frequently than they did in the 1950s. They also strike out far more often, and that upward trend shows no sign of ebbing. Walks aren’t as high as they were then. The end result is roughly the same: the collective OPS in the ’50s was .726; in the 2010s so far, it’s .730.
But we know all of this, right? For today, let’s focus on the last two columns of that chart.
The SBA% column refers to stolen base attempt percentage, as a function of times reached bases. How often, when a player reaches base without hitting the ball out of the park, does he try to steal a base? The figure for the current decade is 62 percent higher than it was during the stationary 1950s.
The attempt rate remains well below what it was from the 1970s through the 1990s, but the success rates are higher than they’ve been since the 1930s, when attempts were at an all-time low. Steals per game have remained at the same level over the past four years, suggesting that whatever adjustments have been made because of the infusion of tracking data into the game have already been made.
This last part is the good news: The stolen base is alive and well, and teams have gotten really good at leveraging them as a key component of offense. This is an obvious byproduct of analysis. Now that teams are armed with everything from the catcher’s pop time to the runner’s sprint speed to the pitcher’s delivery time, stolen bases have become a simple matter of arithmetic. They may not be as common as they were a generation ago, but they aren’t going anywhere.
With that observed, here’s a question: What would happen, in this age of record home run levels, if a team went all-in on stolen bases? Thanks to the Kansas City Royals, we may just find out.