Stealing Bases: The Lost Art of Swiping Bases

The 2019 Major League Baseball season saw Seattle Mariners player Mallex Smith steal 46 bases to lead the big leagues. Stolen bases are one of baseball's stats that are in decline. The glory days of base-stealing ended long ago and the days of players such as Rickey Henderson burning up the base paths is over.

Baseball used to see multiple players steal bases in a game, but modern baseball may see a full nine inning game go by without a stolen base or even an attempt. In years past, there was an unwritten rule that players would not steal bases when in the leading by several runs. Now, it seems there are unwritten rules from teams that players won't steal bases even if they are trailing.

So, why do teams no longer run the base paths like they used to?

The new age of baseball

Baseball has changed greatly in the last 30 years and teams in both the American League and National League rely on the long ball more than ever. The unwritten rules around the big leagues is players will not steal bases when big hitters are up at the plate. Attempting to steal puts added pressure on the hitter and more importantly, puts the team at risk of giving up an out.

Stolen bases used to be a part of MLB that fans saw every time they watched a baseball game. Fans would have most likely seen multiple steal attempts each game with teams moving mean into scoring position. Baseball was low scoring in decades past and steals put players in scoring position and pressured opposing teams. Short-ball was the name of the game years ago with fewer home runs being belted.

The 2018 MLB season saw the fewest stolen bases, 2,474, since the 1973 season. Remarkably, the 2018 season also saw the lowest number of steals for the player with the most single season swipes in a MLB season since 1963. Kansas City Royals player Whit Merrifield swiped 40 bases that year.

In terminal decline

Prior to the 1988 MLB season, 23 seasons saw at least one player swipe 80 bases or more. The last three decades have not seen any players come close to that figure. Baseball is no longer about scraping for 1 or 2 runs. Big hitters capable of crushing home runs with one swing of a bat and knocking in multiple runs at a time have supplanted base-stealers.

Along with more home runs and fewer stolen bases, more strike outs are occurring in the big leagues. The tradeoff for stealing bases is the long ball and more batters hitting under .300.

Analytics are driving MLB's stolen base decline. The numbers show teams the risk they run by attempting to steal bases. Not only do analytics tell teams to steal fewer bases, they inform managers when the best time to swipe a base is. Which apparently isn't often.

Stealing bases is a lost art in MLB and before long it could be a completely dead aspect to baseball. Will robbing pitchers of bases return to the game in the future? It is doubtful teams will suddenly start stealing more bases and the days of old when 80 bases in a single season were nab is just a memory.

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