When Pitchers and Stealing Bases Collide

The Giants have been on a roll lately, winning their last three series thanks in large part to a surprisingly competent rotation, which Tony Wolfe detailed nicely earlier this week. Their latest victory, a 7–3 defeat of the Rockies on Wednesday, featured Alex Wood on the mound; he allowed just two runs and struck out nine over six innings en route to his third win in three starts. But his bold base running was what I want to focus on.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, looking to add to a 4–0 lead, Wood broke toward third before reliever Jordan Sheffield had started toward the plate. Sheffield stepped off the rubber and easily threw out Wood, who awkwardly tried to evade the tag by Josh Fuentes and somersaulted into the grass on the foul side of the bag. There’s something about the way Wood tumbled over the base while wearing his oversized coat that takes this past funny and into something special.

This steal attempt was a bizarre looking play. For starters, that big coat doesn’t seem very aerodynamic. But it’s rare in general for a pitcher to attempt to steal a base; I can’t remember the last time I’ve witnessed it. Sure enough, Wood’s scamper on Wednesday night has been the only stolen base attempt by a pitcher so far this season.

The art of the steal is declining thanks largely to the maxim that you need a success rate of roughly 80% at minimum to make attempting the steal worth the risk. But has pitchers stealing bases ever been a thing? Not in the last 20 seasons: According to Thomas Harrigan, the most career stolen bases by a pitcher in the Live Ball Era (1920 to the present) is 13 by Bob Gibson. Tony Mullane has the most all-time stolen bases by a pitcher with 113, but he played from 1881 to ’94. The chart below shows the total stolen base attempts by pitchers since 1920.

More recently, the most stolen base attempts by all pitchers in a season going back to 2002 is 14, reached during the 2019 season. There are, however, some pitchers who are occasionally a threat to swipe a bag. Well actually, there’s really only one: Zack Greinke.

Active Stolen Base (by Pitchers) Leaders
Player SB CS BsR
Zack Greinke 9 1 1.1
Michael Lorenzen 5 2 0.1
Max Scherzer 3 0 0.4
Oliver Pérez 3 1 0.0
Alex Wood 1 1 -0.3
Anthony Bass 1 0 0.2
Clayton Kershaw 1 0 -0.2
Cole Hamels 1 3 -1.3
Jack Flaherty 1 1 -0.3
Jacob deGrom 1 0 0.0
Jhoulys Chacín 1 0 0.0
Joe Kelly 1 0 0.2
Jon Lester 1 0 0.1
Michael Wacha 1 0 0.1
Ross Stripling 1 0 0.2
Tyson Ross 1 0 0.1

Greinke is well aware of his base running skills (he had a sprint speed of 25.3 ft/s in 2019, which is below league average but pretty good for a pitcher), and earlier this year he said that he had his sights set on getting to double digit steals and home runs for his career.

While we’re at it, let’s take a look at the active home run leaders by pitchers as well.

Active Home Run (by Pitchers) Leaders
Name Team PA HR
Madison Bumgarner ARI 690 19
Adam Wainwright STL 779 10
Zack Greinke HOU 598 9
Michael Lorenzen CIN 146 7
Jake Arrieta CHC 405 6
Noah Syndergaard NYM 251 6
Stephen Strasburg WSN 517 4
Jacob deGrom NYM 403 3
Steven Matz TOR 197 3
Gerrit Cole NYY 286 3

At first glance, it may be surprising to see so many pitchers with multiple home runs yet so few with more than just one stolen base. It makes sense, though. Pitchers’ success rate for stolen bases in ‘19 was 64.3%, which is lower than the league-wide rate of 73.3%. More importantly, soft tissue injuries (muscle strains, pulls, and tears) occur frequently when runners are sprinting to beat out a ground ball or steal a base. Running the bases causes a fair amount of risk to a player’s health; that risk can be mitigated by refraining from stealing and also not trying to beat out ground balls.

This brings us back to Wood. Stealing a base is optional, but hitting isn’t. Well, that’s only partially true. In Wednesday’s game, Wood stood at the plate with the bat on his shoulder waiting for three strikes to go by him. (Sheffield, though, walked him — one of nine walks handed out by Rockies pitchers that night). Pitchers have become much more passive at the plate, with Swing% decreasing from 44.9% in ‘19 to 41.6% so far this season. That also makes sense: No manager wants to lose a pitcher to an injury while swinging. (Though even laying down a bunt poses risks; just ask Max Scherzer.)

Teams have become increasingly protective of their pitchers since injury rates are so high — so much so that they’re increasingly sent to the plate with little intent to have a productive at-bat. But Wood decided to take matters in his own hands and climb the “steals by pitchers” leaderboard. Some players have the green light to steal on their own volition, but Wood is not one of those players. He clearly did not get the steal sign.

Regardless, no harm, no foul, right? The Giants went on to close out the game with little trouble; Wood actually had a no-hitter going through five innings. His steal attempt was a mere footnote in an otherwise successful night. But that didn’t stop Gabe Kapler from expressing his annoyance at Wood’s folly:

“I think Woody understands that’s a baserunning error we can’t make,” Kapler said. “Very generally, our baserunning is not up to our standards right now. We’re very aware of it, it’s not acceptable and it’s something we’re going to address.”

Given how little incentive exists for pitchers to steal a base, and given how opposed managers like Kapler are to it, might this be the last time we see a pitcher attempt a steal? Assuming the NL adopts the DH next season, opportunities for a pitcher to swipe bags will be seldom found if at all. In the last 10 seasons, in games where a DH was allowed, there hasn’t been a single stolen base attempt in a regular-season game by a pitcher.

I’m eager to see the DH come to the NL. It makes games more entertaining to have Nelson Cruz batting rather than Kyle Hendricks. And injuries are a real thing that players and teams have to deal with, so any sensible rules that MLB can implement to reduce that risk should be instituted. But the baseball fan in me was so amused by the GIF-ability of this awkward and potential last-ever stolen base attempt by a pitcher that I realized part of me will miss this once it’s gone.

I don’t think pitchers are done stealing bases just yet, and I’m hopeful that at least one more attempt by a pitcher will occur by season’s end. If Lorenzen were not injured (he’s currently on the 60-day IL with a shoulder strain), he would be a good bet to find his way to a steal. Wood seemed really hungry for a stolen base on Wednesday, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried it again. Then again, he may have been on the move because, as the Giants’ broadcast team put it, “The only way you could explain that was he had to pee.” But Greinke has made clear his intentions, and the Astros have an interleague road trip starting July 30. Whenever he starts during that stretch will be a must-watch game — and not for what happens on the mound.

Chet is a contributor for FanGraphs. Prior to FanGraphs, he wrote for Purple Row. When not writing about baseball, he is a data scientist and outdoor sport enthusiast. He can be found on Twitter at @cgutwein.

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Pwn Shop
1 year ago

Ohtani san!