Behind the ScoreboardJanuary 26, 2010
Stolen Base Strategies Through History
By Sky Andrecheck

This week's subject is a little lighter fare, focusing on how the stolen base has changed through time, and whether there is any rhyme or reason to why that has occurred. The amount of stolen bases has fluctuated throughout history. The early days of baseball saw a lot steals until the live-ball era began. As teams started scoring more and hitting more home runs, the speed game went on the decline, picking up again as scoring decreased throughout the 1980's.

A major explanation for the difference in stolen base strategies is that teams were rationally reacting to run environments. As scoring became harder, teams played "small ball" in order to scratch out runs. The goal here is to find out if teams actually did this and whether it was a rational strategy.


First, the relationship between runs and stolen bases. One would think that stolen bases would increase as run scoring decreased. Is this the case? According the above scatter plot, we see a very tenuous relationship. The points out to the right are deadball era years, where stolen bases are high. However, contrary to popular perception run scoring wasn't all that low during the deadball years. The relationship isn't any stronger after 1920 either - the rest of the scatter points are basically in a big clump. That pretty much puts to rest the myth that stolen base trends are a reaction to run scoring.


But is there another relationship between offense and stolen bases? Indeed, the graph above shows the relationship between steals and home runs over time. As you can see, steals and homers seem to be inversely related. Meanwhile, it doesn't have much of a relationship with scoring. A scatter plot doesn't tell quite as strong of a picture, although it's very easy to identify various eras based on these two statistics, which is something that I found pretty cool, even though it wasn't the point of the study.


It would make sense that teams would limit their steals when run scoring was high, but it might make even more sense when those runs are coming via the longball. Obviously, there's no point in taking an extra base if you're likely to be knocked in with a homerun anyway.

The real test of looking at the value of the stolen base is the break-even point. How often must a stolen base attempt be successful, before it is a good play? And how did this breakeven point change over time? Using Tom Tango's Run Expectancy Generator (which didn't do a perfect job across eras mainly because of differing error rates, but it's close enough) I calculated the break-even points on a no-out steal of second base. Obviously there are other situations in which a steal takes place, but being a common one, it's reasonable to use this as a baseline for how advantageous the stolen base is across eras. Picking the most typical point in each of the eras above, and tossing in anomalies 1968, 1930, and today, we can see that while the breakeven point has changed some, there's not a huge difference.

1905: 74.0%
1923: 80.3%
1930: 81.8%
1937: 80.5%
1959: 79.3%
1968: 75.2%
1985: 79.3%
2001: 81.1%
2009: 81.0%

Obviously looking at the break-even rates, we would expect that the number of steals would be highest in the dead-ball era and in 1968. While steals were higher in the dead-ball era, the number of stolen bases in the 1960's was eclipsed by the 1980's and even the current era, which has much higher scoring. While stealing was a better proposition in the 60's, it was used as much as it is today.

Of course, there is a final factor that comes into play: the likelihood that a stolen base attempt is successful. I can't think of much good reason for why the stolen base success rate would change over time, but the fact is that it has changed dramatically. Modern base stealers are vastly more successful than they have been in the past. Why this is, I'm not sure. Perhaps players are faster now, without a corresponding increase in catcher arm strength and accuracy. Perhaps teams are better at reading and timing pitchers' moves to the plate. Or perhaps teams are just better about stealing bases they know they can make. In any case, the chart below combines the data.


As you can see, the stolen base success rate varied tremendously over time. The variation here is far more than the variation in the break-even rate. Hence it would make sense that teams would steal more bases today than in the past. Certainly there is more stealing in the modern 1974-2009 era, than there was between 1930-1973. However, the odd scenario is the deadball era and the 1920's, where stealing was still prevalent, despite abysmal success rates. In the 1920's stealing was about as lucrative as it is today, but with about a 55% success rate vs. a 73% success rate. Nevertheless, stealing was a common tactic.

Looking at the data as a whole, there's not a lot of rhyme or reason about why some eras are high stolen base eras and others are not. The rate of stolen base tends to go up and down without any real correlation between rate of success or strategic value. Part of the problem seems to come from the fact that homeruns seem to be the biggest determinant of whether teams steal or not.

However, home runs don't have a major impact on the breakeven rate. Using today's data, I kept the number of runs constant but doubled the number of homers. The breakeven point went up, but slightly (from 81.0 to 82.9). Similarly I brought the number of home runs down to zero (keeping scoring constant), and the breakeven point again changed very slightly (from 81.0 to 80.5). With the breakeven point barely moving despite dramatic differences in homerun rate, using homers or lack of homers to justify base-stealing strategy isn't a good move. However, I have a feeling that if home runs dropped precipitously today, teams would begin to employ vastly more basestealing - likely an irrational move. More important to a team's strategy is the run-scoring environment, no matter how the runs are scored.

In conclusion, baseball teams have behaved irrationally with their base-stealing strategies through history. It seems that steals have been a function of homers, or simply fashion, and not based on the actual value of the steal. But did you really expect John McGraw to have read the Hidden Game of Baseball?


I may be way off, but if teams were stealing bases to play "small ball" because the dead-ball era was a "low scoring" environment, and you're measuring the runs scored, won't that include the total effect of the stolen bases? Or would that effect be small enough to be negligible?

I may be off here, but I feel as if a more complete approach would be to use slugging instead of just home runs. I can't shake the feeling that the likeliness of a double is of greater impact on the decision to steal.

This is a very interesting article.

I think that playing conditions played a part in the stolen base increase in the 60's-80's. Larger Ballparks with synthetic fields required faster players, especially outfielders. As a by-product players were attempting more stolen bases.

But some teams/players simply didn't make a whole lot of sense at the rate they were stealing bases.

The 1977/1978 Pirates are a team where it seemed that every player literally had the green light.
There's just a lot of players on those teams that literally had no business stealing bases.

'77: Parker-17/36, Oliver-13/29, Ott-7/14, Stennett-28/46. That's 65/125, about 52% success from those four guys.

'78: B. Robinson-14/25, Phil Garner-27/41, Frank Taveres, 46-71

That 3 man group from '78 was 87/137, about 63% success. They only lost the '78 East by 1-1/2 games so they probably win the division just by not attempting a stolen base by those 3 guys.

They missed the '77 Eastern title by 5 games, but might have come close in '77 if they didn't attempt a stolen base.

The stolen base success rate has most likely increased for a couple of reasons. As the game becomes more offensive minded, teams might be willing to sacrifice a strong-armed, defensive-minded catcher for a catcher who can hit. A team of the past might not put a 37-year-old Jorge Posada behind the plate, but move him elsewhere. Where teams today recognize that Posada is more valuable as a catcher, because his offense will generate more runs than the few additional stolen bases he might surrender.

Second, equipment (from spikes to uniforms) probably help the runner.

Last, (and I haven't heard this one mentioned, but it might be the most important), catchers sit further back today than they did not only in the 1900s, but even from twenty years ago. One reason for the increase in hitting is the agressive nature of hitters, who have a much wider arc on their swings. Catchers sit further back, and that's to the advantage of the runner.

Excellent article. I agree with the above comments that there is more to be said about this topic, but this lays the groundwork superbly.

This may be entailed by your stats above - and sorry if I missed it if it's already there, but in speaking of stolen base strategy, it might help to indicate the stolen base attempts per game instead of just the stolen bases. Easy enough to figure out - just divide Sb/g by success rate to get SB attempts. You get


for your last table as an additional stolen base attempts per game. Interesting that over the last three years you have listed there, stolen base attempts go down as the success rate gets higher, perhaps lending support to the notion that managers are actually being more conservative with their base-stealing lately (even though the frank sb/g number is going up).

Can one guy - Ricky Henderson - who stole an insane number of bases have influenced overall conclusions about base stealing rates in the 80s?

I've puzzled for a long time over the low SB success rates of the deadball era. To add to the puzzle, the better teams of the era tended to steal more bases; there was a much stronger correlation between stolen bases and runs scored/wins than we see today. One thought occurs to me--do the breakeven rates adjust for errors? We know that fielders made many more errors in early baseball. If maybe 10 percent of stolen base attempts led to errors, I think it would significantly change the breakeven rate. I'm not sure whether data are available to check on this hypothesis, but it's a thought.

tolstyk - Henderson wasn't the only one. He was the greatest, but you also had Raines and Coleman and Willie Wilson, and lesser lights like Omar Moreno. Looking here, you can see that there was at least one 70-base stealer in the majors from 1973 through 1993; this includes the entirety of the 26-team major leagues and the '81 strike year.

In those 21 seasons, people stole 50+ bases 124 times, and 40 of those were at least 70. In the 16 seasons since, people stole 50+ only 59 times, and only seven have been 70 or more. Ten different times from '73-'93, there were at least two different people getting to 70; in 1980, five different players got there, and there are two years of ten players at 50 or more, three more years of eight players at 50 or more. Since then, no multiples at 70, and not a single season of at least eight reaching 50. The last season of seven or more at 50 was 1997.

Jose Reyes stole 78 bases in 2007 - the highest total since Marquis Grissom in 1992 (also 78). I think aryn/#2 is correct, and the stolen base wasn't as important when there were suddenly a larger number of people who could get extra bases by pounding the ball off the wal, or over it. (Guys like Wilson, Moreno, and Coleman were probably not getting to second without stopping at first.)

Overall SLG in MLB from 1973 to 1993 topped .400 only three times: .401 in the '77 expansion year, .415 in the '87 "juiced ball" year, and .403 in '93. Since then, overall SLG in MLB has NEVER dipped as low as .415; the closest was .416 in '08, two years of .417, and last year was .418. That's roughly a 38-point jump between the two eras, and it was a fairly-sudden jump, too: slugging went from about a .365-.395 range to right around .425; and after the '77 and '87 spikes, slugging declined to nearly (not quite) the previous levels, but after '94, slugging hasn't faded (though .416/.418 back-to-back may be the belated start of this).

I wonder if you'd get any significant changes if you ran the numbers on SB per time on base, or per (runners on 1st and 2nd base). SB/G may shortchange low-offense eras because there were fewer men on base and fewer opportunities to steal.