Baseball is famously a game of numbers and strategy, but as we move into the second half of the season, this fact has never been more critical. The standings are slowly separating the reliable performers from those whose early winning streaks were seemingly down to luck, and with the baseball playoffs just around the corner, World Series odds are everything.
A lousy error could be season-ending for many teams, but a well-timed risk in a high-leverage situation could potentially see a squad move into a Wild Card spot. You’d think that would mean we’d see players putting it all on the line to get around the diamond, but the season’s stolen base records tell a different story.
2022 Team Stolen Base Records
|4||New York Yankees||65|
|5||St. Louis Cardinals||63|
|6||Kansas City Royals||59|
|6||Los Angeles Dodgers||59|
|6||Tampa Bay Rays||59|
|15||Los Angeles Angels||51|
|18||San Francisco Giants||44|
|21||Toronto Blue Jays||40|
|23||Boston Red Sox||37|
|23||Chicago White Sox||37|
|26||New York Mets||33|
|27||San Diego Padres||30|
Stolen Bases On the Decline
The numbers across the board are lower than in previous years, but stolen base counts have been trending downward for decades. In the 2021 regular season, there were 2,213 stolen bases, the fewest in a full season since 1981. For context, the stolen base count ten years earlier, in 2011, was over 1,000 bases higher at 3279.
This decline in base stealing continues even though teams are theoretically more likely than ever to be successful in their attempts. In 2021, runners were successful in 75.68% of stolen base attempts. In 2019, 73.26% of stolen bases were successful; in 2015, it was just 70.18%.
While I can only make a conjecture as to why base stealers are more successful as of late — does the decrease in overall numbers mean that pitchers aren’t as used to looking for base stealers? — it doesn’t seem to make a difference regarding the numbers. When runners attempt to steal, they are likely to make it. But they still aren’t doing it.
— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) July 13, 2022
Marlins on Top in Stolen Bases
Another interesting observation about this season’s stolen base records is they don’t reflect overall team success. The Miami Marlins have the highest stolen base count across the league, but their record of 45-50 sees them sitting in fourth place in the NL East.
Meanwhile, the New York Yankees, the current favorites to win it all with World Series odds of +325, are tied in third place with the Chicago Cubs, 13 stolen bases behind the Marlins. Similarly, the Los Angeles Dodgers are currently leading the NL West and have championship odds of +375, but they are tied in sixth place in stolen rankings with just 59 this season.
So, numbers are declining, success rates are up, and there is no real differential between the top and bottom ranking teams. What’s going on with the stolen base?
— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) June 23, 2022
Is Stealing Bases Worth the Risk?
The main reason for the continuing decline in stolen bases, as well as the count not being a reliable indicator of team success, is that despite being exciting to watch, the risk versus reward of base stealing is not fantastic.
“Total Baseball,” a baseball encyclopedia first compiled in 1989 by John Thorn and Pete Palmer, developed the Stolen Base Runs (SBR) statistic to quantify stolen bases. The research found that the breakeven rate of stolen bases — where they neither help nor hinder a team’s run count in the game — is around 67%. In fact, each successful stolen base was found to only add approximately 0.3 runs, at best, to a team’s total runs scored in a game.
Conversely, it can be quite detrimental if a runner is caught stealing. We’ve all seen a game where a runner gets caught trying to steal, only for the next batter to smash a home run. One run on the board could have been two.
There is also the consideration of injury risk. In 2017, Mike Trout landed on the injured list for six weeks with a torn thumb ligament he suffered while sliding in to steal a base for the Los Angeles Angels.
There will always be waxing and waning trends in baseball — perhaps the stolen base is just the latest to go out of vogue. At the end of the day, runners simply don’t see the potential 0.3 runs as worth the risk of being thrown out or injured, even if they are likely to be successful.
Regardless, the decline in stolen bases really sucks for fans. Watching a runner steal a bag and grind their way around the diamond can be one of the most exciting parts of a game. I’m sure there will always be the hustlers who take any opportunity to steal, but as of right now, they appear to be a dying breed in a game that could often use that extra burst of energy.