The Go-Go Brewers Are Stealing Bases Like It’s 1987

The Milwaukee Brewers are close to etching a spot in the record books. In a year where the average team attempts 0.72 steals per game, they’re running 1.42 times per game. The closest the league’s ever come to that rate is 1987. That year, a combination of Vince Coleman, Harold Reynolds, and Willie Wilson tested the peripheral vision of pitchers and catchers league-wide.

Relative to league average in 2016, this year’s Brew Crew is way out in front:

2016 Team Attempted Steal Rates

Were the season over today, their 197 index figure (where 100 is league average) would rank ninth-highest since 1951. It would be the highest since the 1992 version of the Brewers, for which Pat Listach attempted 72 steals. It would even edge the 1959 “Go-Go” Chicago White Sox, which featured Luis Aparicio’s 69 attempts in a low-steal era.

Highest Relative Attempted Steal Rates Since 1951
Team Season SBA+
Athletics 1976 243
Cardinals 1985 235
Dodgers 1962 231
Dodgers 1965 223
Dodgers 1964 210
Pirates 1977 206
White Sox 1954 202
Angels 1975 202
Brewers 1992 198
Brewers 2016 197
White Sox 1959 194
Dodgers 1963 193
White Sox 1966 192
White Sox 1957 192
Mets 2007 188
Rays 2009 186
White Sox 1960 186
Marlins 2002 186
Dodgers 1953 185
White Sox 1951 184
*Stolen Base Attempts Index, where 100 is league average.

With 66 attempts and counting, Jonathan Villar is driving the Brewers’ aggression on the basepaths. Villar joined the team last offseason after three forgettable years with the Astros. He switch-hit and teased fans with some power but struck out too much and walked too infrequently to be worth investing in. Plus, as a shortstop/third baseman on the same team as Carlos Correa, Luis Valbuena, and Alex Bregman, his days in the Bayou City were numbered.

After the 2015 season, Villar was trade bait. Thankfully for him, his former assistant GM in Houston was now the GM in Milwaukee. David Stearns snapped up Villar and sent his own shortstop, Jean Segura, to the Diamondbacks a few months later.

Villar responded to the trade with seeming vigor. He cut down on his swing rate and laid off more pitches out of the strike zone than ever before. As a result, his walk rate shot up to 11.3%, in range with Correa, Anthony Rizzo, Brian McCann, and Kris Bryant.

Villar’s improved discipline helps put him on base far more often than in Houston. His OBP jumped from .339 to .377, setting up one steal situation after another. And Villar’s taken advantage, attempting more steals per game than any qualified hitter not named Billy Hamilton:

2016 Attempted Steal Rate Leaders

But while Hamilton has Brandon Phillips (15 attempts) Jose Peraza (16 attempts) for teammates, Villar has Hernan Perez (30 attempts) and Keon Broxton (20 attempts) backing him up. Heck, even Ryan Braun has 17 attempts. That’s how you run your team into the history books.

As Jeff Sullivan noted earlier this week, Perez is a curiosity. A mid-2015 waiver claim from Detroit who was let go by (and then re-signed with) the Brewers, his .305 OBP limits the damage he can do on the bases. But his 30 attempts in 95 games this year far outweigh his eight attempts in 66 games with Detroit.

I don’t know how aggressive Broxton was in Pittsburgh last year, because he played only seven games there. I do know in those games he ran twice, while in Milwaukee he’s run 20 times in 62 games. Jeff has you covered on Broxton’s other improvements this year.

Because manager Craig Counsell doesn’t seem inclined to aggression on the bases, I wonder if new first-base coach Carlos Subero is urging these guys to run more often. Perhaps he’s better than his predecessor Mike Guerrero at noticing tells in pitchers’ deliveries, advising his base-runners on when to bolt, or both, leading to more trust from Counsell. Or perhaps it’s simpler than that: maybe Counsell is now armed with speedsters he didn’t have before. I’m not sure.

Whatever it is, this new arrangement is working. Among players with at least 100 PA Perez, Broxton, and Villar rank third, fourth, and fifth with +3.4, +3.3. and +3.1 weighted stolen-base runs, respectively. Combined, their team is second in baseball with +9 wSB runs.

Some people complain that stolen-base rates are down from their peak in the 70s and 80s. I have two things to say to them. First: be glad you’re not watching 1950s baseball. Teams then attempted steals 23% less often than teams today. Second: buy and flip on a Brewers game. You can pretend it’s 1987 from now until October 2nd.

Ryan enjoys characterizing that elusive line between luck and skill in baseball. For more, subscribe to his articles and follow him on Twitter.

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6 years ago

I loved the 1988 video game MLB for Nintendo. The player stats/ability was based on the 1987 season. That 1987 season seems a lot like 2016 as far as the uptick in homers are concerned. Was the baseball altered or changed that season?

6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

1986 R/G 4.41 HR 3813 .258/.326/.395 1987 R/G 4.72 HR 4458 .263/.331/.415 1988 R/G 4.14 HR 3180 .254/.318/.378

6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

That 1987 season averaged 1.06 HR per game. That was MLB most ever to that point. From 1871-1987. 2016 is at the 2nd highest clip ever (1.16), only the year 2000 averaged more (1.17).