Art of the steal regaining momentum

Art of the steal regaining momentum

It's only fitting that in the year its greatest master craftsman will dive head-first into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the stolen base is making some noise.

Rickey Henderson's all-time records for a single season (130) and a career (1,406) may remain unapproachable for another generation or two, but the steal may be regaining some momentum lost in recent years, if the early 2009 returns suggest anything.

The headlines thus far have been about the extremes, the rarities: Red Sox speedster Jacoby Ellsbury's steal of home, and Carl Crawford's record-tying six steals for the Rays on Sunday, coming on the heels of Dexter Fowler's rookie-record five-steal outburst for the Rockies just days earlier.

Amazing feats all, but the subtext may be even more compelling: Stealing is hot again, and looking more popular than it has been in years.

Rays manager Joe Maddon enjoys stealing. It's just as simple as that.

And he's among those who'd welcome a resurgence, if indeed this is one.

"I think part of it is because the home run has gone away a little bit," said Maddon, whose defending American League champions lead the Majors with 41 steals through Monday. "I also believe that other teams are understanding [that] it's not just about the stolen base. It's about the thought, the mind-set that you put the pressure on the other team -- pitching- and catching-wise -- and just in general."

Added Crawford, who leads the Majors with 18 steals after his gaudy outburst: "I think the game is going back to small ball, manufacturing runs as best as you can. And speed is a good way to do that."

With the Rays leading the way, the very early numbers indicate that in the AL, use of the stolen base is outpacing last year.

Through Sunday's games, there were 341 attempts in the 172 contests played in the AL, an average of 1.98 attempts per game played between two teams. Over the course of the 2008 season, that rate was 1.59, meaning that this year's rate -- early as it may be -- is nearly 25 percent higher.

Just as impressive, and perhaps going hand in hand, the success rate in the AL thus far is outstanding -- 76.2 percent through Sunday. By comparison, the last time the AL as a whole finished with a success rate that high was in the 1950s.

Granted, this isn't an early trend shared by the Senior Circuit. The National League is actually holding almost exactly to the 2008 pace, at 1.58 steals per contest, and the success rate isn't nearly as high, at 69.2 percent.

But put it all together, and the steal is surging early in 2009.

What does this stolen glance at the early numbers mean? Is the AL showing a true shift to more thefts?

As Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus warns, it is a little early to tell. One month of data might not hold up over six months, although he noted that with stolen bases being "elective," such a pace is somewhat more predictable than homers, for instance.

"I can say that as efficiency rises, attempts should as well, and if the league is stealing at 76.2 [percent], then they should be running a lot," Sheehan, a senior writer for Baseball Prospectus, a think tank for statistical analysis, wrote in response to an e-mail query.

Efficiency has been at the crux of the discussion in recent years about stolen bases. To many in the field of statistical analysis, a success rate of about 75 percent is the "break even" point for steals being worth the risk of an out, especially in a high-power environment when extra-base hits are more frequently available to drive runners in from first.

But that doesn't mean Sheehan and others who study the numbers don't like basestealers or the stolen base.

"Stat-heads love high-percentage basestealers. Love 'em," he said.

So everybody can agree with this much: Successful steals are a good thing.

But, as Maddon contends, not everybody needs to be safe in order for stealing -- or even the threat to steal -- to have its effect.

"I know Sabrmetrics and all this stuff in regard to how ineffective base stealing actually is," he said. "I disagree, because I don't think you can absolutely evaluate the importance of it just based on whether it's successful or not. It's about the mind-set. It's about what you do to the other team.

"It's about the better pitch that you get for a hitter in a specific moment. It's about the pressure on the defense. It's about the error you create, it's about the extra base you take. There are so many other ways to look at it. It was really generalized in one little bucket way too easily that I never really agreed with that component of the numerical world."

Sheehan said in a recent Web chat that the mind-set argument "focuses on nebulous positives and ignores the quantifiable negative effects of stealing on batters' performances."

But that doesn't mean the stolen base is statistic non grata in his eyes.

"The perceived stat-head position ['stat guys don't like stolen bases'] is a distortion," Sheehan said. "As with all things, stat-heads want to consider both the benefit and the cost, and caught-stealings are incredibly expensive, so much so that you have to steal three bases, more or less, to make up for one of them."

On the run in the Junior Circuit
Through Sunday's action, American League basestealers have made more stolen base attempts than any season since 2001.
Success rate
2009 stats through Sunday's action
Whether the numbers are showing a trend toward more attempts in 2009 remains to be seen. But the usual suspects -- and a few new ones -- will be doing their part.

Though the steal has trended down over the last 10 years or so, the Angels are one club that has made theft part of its business plan for years, finishing first or second in steals in the AL the last five seasons. This year their leader is a 35-year-old outfielder who has a pretty good rap sheet of theft but is already halfway to his season total of a year ago: Bobby Abreu.

"I've always liked the way they play here," said Abreu, who has 11 steals in as many attempts and is well on his way toward eclipsing his career high of 40, set in 2004. "They want you to run, and that's the way I've always played the game. If I see an opening, I'm going to take it."

Said Chone Figgins, second on the team with nine steals: "Bobby fits right in with what we do here, the way we play the game. He's smart and aggressive."

That's pretty much the attitude the Rays take on the field, as well. Maddon, a longtime Angels hand before becoming manager in Tampa Bay in 2007, says it's all part of having a balanced attack. No doubt, having the right people helps.

Said Crawford: "We've got guys who can run. Me, B.J. [Upton], [Jason] Bartlett, [Akinori Iwamura] has even tried to steal bases, every now and then you'll get [Carlos] Pena and [Evan Longoria] who will try to steal a base. But for the most part, we're aggressive on the basepaths. That's our philosophy here."

To first-year manager Don Wakamatsu of the Mariners, the steal is a tool he plans to use. He says his style is to "run when it's available," and that could include, say, Russell Branyan in a certain situation, not just Ichiro or Endy Chavez.

"Once you start running, other teams begin to notice," Wakamatsu said. "I would like to say we are getting like Tampa Bay, but we don't have the same physicality. We will make some mistakes on the bases, but we want them to take chances to see what they can do."

Now, 30 years after a 20-year-old from hometown Oakland Tech stole his first base for the A's en route to Cooperstown, perhaps there is a shift of attention back to what put Rickey on the map: the steal.

One sign of a resurgence is that there are young players who look at it as an important part of their portfolio, who have the attitude of a thief.

"I'm a base-stealer," Fowler, 23, says with a smile, "Or I'd like to think I'm a work in progress."

"If teams give me the opportunity to run, I'll run," Ellsbury, 25, said.

Another speedster, Pirates left fielder Nyjer Morgan, had 234 steals in six seasons in the Minors but hasn't found that pace yet in the Majors. But he certainly sees a future filled with baseball larceny, and hopes to contribute to it.

"I definitely think the speed game is going to come back without all the home runs being hit as much anymore -- unless you're in Yankee Stadium," Morgan said. "Definitely, the speed game is going to have a big place in the future."

John Schlegel is a national reporter for Jenifer Langosch, Lyle Spencer, Jim Street, Alden Gonzalez and Rhett Bollinger contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.