Run, You Absolute Cowards! Run!

© Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Berti is a player of immense historical import, and you’ll never guess why.

No, that’s wrong. If you know anything about Jon Berti, you probably know exactly why he’s a player of immense historical import. Berti has actually put together a pretty nice all-around season: He can play anywhere and while he’s hitting for basically zero power, his .344 OBP makes him quite a valuable player for the Miami Marlins.

But more to the point: He’s extremely fast, with 96th-percentile sprint speed according to Baseball Savant, and he’s determined to get his money’s worth from this physical gift. Despite being limited to just 83 games by a bout of COVID in May and a groin strain in July, Berti has stolen 34 bases. A quick run through Berti’s event log reveals that he has been on first or second with nobody on the base ahead of him 97 times this season, and on 38 of those occasions he’s decided to keep running as far as his little legs will carry him, plus four more pickoffs that don’t count toward his caught stealing total.

That kind of aggressiveness is admirable, but distressingly rare. Berti, despite only playing in a little more than half his team’s games, is leading the majors in stolen bases. If he finishes the season with fewer than 40 steals, it will be the lowest majors-leading stolen base total of any full season since 1958.

We are, of course, at something of a historical nadir for the stolen base; for most of the 21st century, there were between .75 and .85 attempts per game. (During the glorious 2011 season, when 20 different players stole 30 or more bags, the league average attempts per game climbed to 0.93.) Since the mid-2010s, that number has gone through the floor, sinking to 0.60 last year before rebounding to 0.67 this season.

Stolen base attempts are only about half as common as they were in the late 1970s and ’80s, when astroturf fields and (tugs collar) the free availability of certain stimulants turned every outfielder in the league into a Sliding Billy Hamilton tribute act. Which is a shame; it’s not that today’s ballplayers aren’t fast or athletic enough, they’ve just chosen to neglect this one particularly exciting aspect of the sport.

The most recent downturn in the stolen base rate, ironically, comes at a time when stealing bases has never been a more profitable proposition. It’s only in the past 15 years that players and managers realized that it was more harmful to be caught stealing than it was beneficial to steal a base; now, basestealers are more discerning than the players of old, who looked at an unoccupied second base the way a preschooler looks at an unattended cupcake.

Perhaps the fact that the stolen base success rate is at an all-time high suggests that would-be basestealers are being too conservative.

But there are other risks. As home run rates exploded at the end of the last decade — exacerbating the risk of an out when the extra base doesn’t matter — so too did a number of high-profile thumb ligaments, as star players injured themselves attempting to steal. Mike Trout, remember, once led the American League in stolen bases with 49, and is one of the best percentage basestealers ever. But ever since he blew up his thumb on a stolen base attempt in 2017, he’s taken inspiration from David Bowie: No longer a young American, he’s more of a station-to-station baserunner. Trout has stolen just four bags total in the past three seasons put together. Other former high-volume basestealers, like Jose Altuve, have also chosen to run less and concentrate on hitting.

It’s unfortunate, but this low-volume stolen base era is hardly unprecedented territory:

Historical stolen base data is highly unreliable — MLB only started tracking caught stealing in the 1950s — but the old-timey small-ball that we so often romanticize didn’t always include stealing bases. Even though we might think of the 1960s as a heyday for basestealers because Maury Wills and Lou Brock hit triple digits, stolen bases were no more common then than they are now. When Wills swiped 104 bags in 1962, only seven other major league players even managed to steal 20 bases. Wills alone was responsible for roughly one out of every 13 stolen bases that year.

Truth be told, that’s what we’re missing — not a broader distribution of stolen bases or a general shift toward a more aggressive tactical mindset, but one or two fleet-footed maniacs who’ll keep running until they’re tagged out or the next base is occupied. (Home runs, incidentally, are being distributed much the same way; across baseball, dingers are down almost 10% from last year, but because Aaron Judge is going to hit 60, few people have noticed that no one else has hit 40.) Had Berti stayed healthy enough to play 150 games, he could’ve been the single outlier with 40 or 50 steals. But as it stands, it’s likely that this will be the first season since 1958 without a 40-steal player.

And with the pitch clock and limits on pickoff throws set to come in next season, it will likely be the last for a long time. Minor league data is the best predictor we have for how these rules will change the running game, but it’s not perfect. The disparity in quality of play is one confounding variable, the difference in purpose between the respective leagues — teaching versus winning — another. Just yesterday, Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus tried to predict how players might adjust to a world where pickoff throws are rationed. No one knows to what extent, but the consensus is they’ll run more and be caught less.

If they do, so much the better. Stolen bases are exciting, and Berti can’t do all the heavy lifting on his own.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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tz
4 months ago

I’m wondering if 2023 rookies will be wreaking particular havoc on the base paths, since they’re already used to these rules.

There’s a reason why Anthony Volpe has over 40 steals in the upper minors this year.

OddBall Herrera
4 months ago
Reply to  tz

I don’t think so – the minor leagues are a combination of low leverage games, catchers who aren’t as good, AND rule changes. Some of the stolen bases guys, Abrams, Carroll, Ruiz, haven’t been looking like Ricky Henderson in the majors this year

Moosetroopermember
4 months ago

Actually, I think we will see a big increase, especially from younger players who have played with the new rules. But most importantly (imo) is that catcher pop time has slowed down and arm strength has been de-emphasized over the past 10 years as stolen bases have decreased.

OddBall Herrera
4 months ago
Reply to  Moosetrooper

I could see more, and it will definitely help that the big MiLB stealers won’t be playing by new rules on promotion (which is probably suppressing how they translate somewhat this year)

My big thing is that you can no longer assume that gaudy minor league numbers mean gaudy major league numbers. I don’t for two seconds but Volpe as a 30-40 SB guy

tz
4 months ago

I agree with you on Volpe – he’s a 20-25 SB guy who might snag around 30 if my hypothesis is true about familiarity with the rules that will go to MLB in 2023. My original comment should have been to the effect that Volpe might have gotten about 15-20 steals this year vs. what he would have gotten without the pickoff rules. Definitely part of the difference is the skill of the catchers and pitchers he’s running on in the minors.

TheAnalytics
4 months ago
Reply to  tz

Esteury Ruiz stole 5 bases last night in AAA to bring his MiLB total to 75

howieloader
4 months ago
Reply to  TheAnalytics

That’s awesome!

cartermember
4 months ago
Reply to  tz

I dunno of course high A is a different demon but I was shocked how bad a lot of those catchers threw