Of the rule changes made by Major League Baseball ahead of the current season, the introduction of the pitch clock has attracted the most attention and bandwidth. That’s understandable given that the timer has helped shave about half an hour off average play time and improved the overall pace of things. However, that’s not the only structural innovation that has changed baseball for 2023 and likely beyond.
Other changes intended to revive the running game in MLB also seem to be making a demonstrable difference in the way baseball is played at the highest level, and this change deserves further investigation. Since the effects of the pitch clock have been amply described, let’s indeed see how MLB did itand what it could mean for baseball moving forward (all stats are current as of Tuesday).
Why it happens
The biggest factor for increased stolen base rates (more on that below) is the new restriction on throwing out throws and, by extension, pickoff throws. Pitchers are now only allowed to step off the rubber twice during a plate appearance, either just to reset or to throw to an occupied base. Prior to this season there was no limit on getting out, so this is a big change indeed. Clearly, baserunners are encouraged by knowing exactly how many times a pitcher can make a move during a given batter-pitcher encounter, and that knowledge makes for more aggressive starts and, once two pickoff moves are exhausted, a green light that greens more. is. than ever before.
A minor role is played by the enlarged bases. First, second, and third bases are now 18 square inches—an increase from the 15 square inches that prevailed for more than a century. That puffy pocket makes for a bigger sliding target, and it also decreases the distance between first and second and second and third by 4 1/2 inches each. While that might not sound like much at first glance, think about how many past play times seem to be defined by a hair’s breadth or so.
Also, the number of hits plus walks – or runners on first base and often with a chance to steal the base – will be slightly higher in 2023 than in 2023. The slightly increased batting average on ground balls probably has something to do with that, and on in turn, the restrictions on field over-shifts probably have something to do with that increased batting average on ground balls.
How we know it’s happening
This one is pretty simple. MLB teams currently average 0.68 stolen bases per game. If it stays that way, it’s the highest figure since 1999, or nearly a quarter of a century. It’s not just a matter of raw stem totals. Base stealers were successful almost 80% of the time in 2023 (78.8% to be exact). That’s on track to be the highest stolen-based success rate in MLB history. Success rates have gotten higher and higher over the years, but the 2023 rate is remarkable, even by today’s standards. The current record is the 2021 pass rate of 75.7%.
This is all important because teams in the analytics era have well recognized the value of avoiding outs on offense. This is mainly reflected in the emphasis on a batter’s on-base percentage (or, if you reverse it, the degree of out-avoidance), and it also means making sure you don’t get the bases out. That latter desire has led to less and less basic stealing over the years. If teams want to get more active on the trails, it has to be worth it for them. Succeeding about eight out of every ten attempts, which is happening this year, certainly qualifies as “worth it for them.” That’s vital, because rationally, teams won’t just collect stolen bases if it also means scoring outs. So far, the 2023 season has brought us volume and rate-based success. Both are needed to continue the trend.
What it could mean
As it turns out, there may be some remarkable speed trader benchmarks ahead. First, let’s go back to that aforementioned 79.7% pass rate, which is on track to become an all-time record. Drill down to the next layer and we still have records:
- Base stealers have a 77.2% success rate when going for second base this season. That would break the 2021 record of 75.7 percent.
- When going for third base, basestealers this season have a success rate of 93.0% (!). That would break – no, pulverize – the current record of 80.9% set in 2012. Specifically, thieves are 66 for 71 this season when trying to steal third base.
But wait – there’s more:
- Arizona’s Corbin Carroll and Anthony Volpe of the Yankees are on track to become the first rookies to steal 50 or more bases since Billy Hamilton in 2014. Since 1992, multiple rookies have not logged more than 50 bases, and that’s only twice in total happened since 1900.
- A total of six players are currently on track to steal at least 50 bags this season. That hasn’t happened since 2007. Another three players this season are just off the 50-steal pace.
- Cedric Mullins and Jorge Mateo of the Orioles are each on their way to the top 50 steals this season. Not since the 1991 Montreal Expos has a team had two players record 50 or more steals.
- Currently, leader Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Braves on track for 84 stolen bases. That (projected) total has not been surpassed since the peerless Rickey Henderson stole 93 bases as a member of the Yankees in 1988.
- Chase Utley of the 2009 Phillies holds the all-time record for most thefts in a season without getting caught (23). While we are ahead of the curve on this, right now, in 2023, as many as 12 players are on track to surpass that goal. They are led by Mullins (nine steals without getting caught) and those rookies Carroll and Volpe.
- On a team level, the Cleveland Guardians are currently running the league with 28 steals, putting them on pace for 197. If they improve that clip a little bit, they’ll become the first team since the 2007 Mets to steal 200. or more bases in a season.
- While the volume isn’t remarkable in either case, the 2023 Royals and Red Sox are on track to become the first teams in modern MLB history to have a success rate of 90% or better.
In conclusion, yes, the stolen base is back – especially by today’s standards. That’s good news for fans who like a more tactically aggressive approach, though we’ll have to see if this trend continues with a larger sample size. Also notable is that this season in the Atlantic League, MLB is testing a rule that limits pitchers to one step-off per at-bat. In other words, the future may be even brighter for fast sellers, both existing and future.