Vince Coleman stealing a base for the St. Louis Cardinals.

A Lament for the Stolen Base

I first became a fan of baseball in the mid-1980s. There was a lot to love about the game, some things right off the bat, while other aspects I grew to love as time went on. One element of baseball that I loved from the get-go was the concept of the stolen base. The entire idea of taking a base via a method that didn’t involve the batter doing anything fascinated me. I was absolutely enamored with the steal, literally grinning ear to ear every single time I watched a player steal a base.

The 1980s made this easy with just about every Major League Baseball team stealing to their heart’s content. Vince Coleman, Ricky Henderson, Tim Raines, and Eric Davis were prolific at stealing a base. MLB was full of guys like Brett Butler, Lenny Dykstra, and Shawon Dunston who weren’t as prolific but willing to steal 20-30 bases a year. Think about that for a second, a player stealing 30 bases was just a part of a common skillset in the 1980s. Today such a player is celebrated because they are as removed from the norm as is humanly possible.

I’m not writing about the stolen base in an attempt to get it back to what it once was. I know what the stats say and I understand why teams place value in Run Expectancy charts. MLB players don’t steal as much these days because to put it simply, a stolen base doesn’t greatly increase a teams chances of scoring except for in limited circumstances. If a team’s number one goal is to win, then in no way can I blame teams for collectively moving away from something that doesn’t actively help them to win.

All the same, I do miss the stolen base. I know it still happens in MLB with certain players and certain teams running more than others. That’s great, but I miss when I could turn on any game and see players stealing bases left and right. It made the games more fun to watch because above all else base-stealing adds a level of excitement to a game that otherwise can be quite stationary.

Perhaps that is why I have gravitated more towards unaffiliated ball these past few years? Players still steal in the unaffiliated leagues, for a number of reasons. Excitement is one of them because unlike MLB the majority of unaffiliated leagues still count heavily on the live fan experience. Another reason is that advanced stats haven’t permeated unaffiliated ball the same as they have affiliated ball. In an MLB game, I know that a guy on first base with less than two outs more than likely isn’t going anywhere unless a hit moves him over. In the American Association, I know there’s a chance for a stolen base because that league still values the stolen base skillset.

I’m not blasting advanced metrics in any way, I am an advocate of them after all. Still, I miss the stolen base. I miss the excitement and the unpredictability of MLB games with players swiping bags. In 2019 the Kansas City Royals steal more than anyone else and I find myself watching Royals games more than I ever thought I would. I understand why it’s no longer a major part of the MLB style of baseball, but I’ll be damned if I don’t wish players would just start attempting stolen bases at will again.

Lead photo courtesy of Focus on Sport – Getty Images

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Bill Thompson
Father (human/feline/canine), husband, Paramedic, Socialist, writer Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and Off the Bench Baseball; freelance writer at various online and print publications. Member Internet Baseball Writers Association of America & Society for American Baseball Research.

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