Can Elly bring back the 100-steal season?

Reds phenom is turning back the clock to the hard-charging 1980s

May 20th, 2024

As recently as 2022, the idea of a player challenging the long-abandoned 100-stolen base mark felt about as fanciful as humans walking on the surface of Jupiter (the planet, not the Spring Training site in Florida).

Then again, the out-of-this-world talent that is did not reach the Majors until 2023.

More than one-quarter of the way into the season, the electrifying Reds shortstop is on pace to become the fifth player in the Modern Era (since 1900), and first since the Cardinals’ Vince Coleman in 1987, to steal 100 or more. His 30 steals gives him a double-digit lead across MLB and puts him ahead of more than half of MLB teams, all by himself. And while De La Cruz’s singular talent is not the only reason for this sea change (more on that shortly), he just might be the man who can rise to meet the moment.

A lot of the season remains, with plenty of obstacles lining the 22-year-old phenom’s path to history. But watch De La Cruz take over a game -- as he did with a four-hit, four-steal extravaganza Thursday night at Dodger Stadium -- and the prospect of him becoming MLB’s next, long-awaited, triple-digit base thief feels quite realistic.

Setting the stage

Before we explain why that is, let’s take a step back and recap how we got here.

From 2018-22, no player even managed a 50-steal season. Things reached a nadir in 2022, when the Marlins’ Jon Berti was the only MLB player to steal more than 35 bases, finishing with 41. That was the lowest MLB-leading, full-season total since Luis Aparicio and Maury Wills both swiped 40 bags way back in 1963. The sport’s calculus simply no longer favored taking risks on the basepaths.

Then, two things happened. First, MLB stepped in with a suite of rule changes ahead of the 2023 season, including some that made it easier for runners to steal. Most importantly, that included the pitch timer and restrictions on pitcher “disengagements” (such as pickoff attempts and step-offs).

Second, the league’s current wave of young, ultra-athletic talent began to take advantage. Not only were steals up significantly overall, but MLB’s six 40-base stealers were its most since 2013, and none of those players was older than 26. With the Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. (73), the A’s Esteury Ruiz (67) and the D-backs’ Corbin Carroll (54) leading the way, MLB saw its first 50- or 60-base stealers since 2017 and its first 70-base stealer since 2009.

Other milestones remained untouched, however. Nobody has stolen 80 bases since 1988, when Coleman (81) and the Yankees’ Rickey Henderson (93) both did it. One year earlier, Coleman swiped 109 bags for St. Louis, notching the eighth triple-digit SB season of MLB’s Modern Era (since 1900) -- and, to date, the last.

MLB’s 100-SB Club
Modern Era (1900-present)

  • Vince Coleman: 3 seasons (1985-87 STL)
  • Rickey Henderson: 3 seasons (1980, ‘82-83* OAK)
  • Lou Brock: 1 season (1974 STL)
  • Maury Wills: 1 season (1962 LAD)^

*Set record of 130 in 1982
^In 165 games; last four of his 104 SB came during a three-game tiebreaker series that counted as regular season play

Not surprisingly, that quartet features four of the most prolific base stealers of all time, with Henderson (first), Brock (second), Coleman (fifth) and Wills (15th) all ranking among the AL/NL’s career leaders in the Modern Era.

It remains to be seen if the dynamic De La Cruz will put together that sort of career. But what is certain is that, right now, he is the No. 1 threat to join the list above, with 30 steals in the Reds’ first 47 games through Sunday -- a 103-steal pace over 162 games. When De La Cruz reached the 30 plateau on Thursday, it was only the eighth time since 1901 that a player did so within his team’s first 44 games, and three of the previous seven led to triple-digit totals.

“I don’t think about that,” De La Cruz told reporters Thursday about that pace. “I just go out there and have fun, play hard every day. I don’t think about numbers.”

He might not, but we can. And part of that is acknowledging it will be an uphill charge. While De La Cruz has appeared in every Cincinnati game so far and started all but one, any significant amount of missed time could derail this chase. Even a minor injury that he is able to play through could lead to a more conservative approach, while the summer heat and a marathon schedule have the potential to make even a springy 22-year-old’s legs sluggish by September.

A slump at the plate is another threat, limiting De La Cruz’s opportunities, although even a tough stretch of late -- despite Thursday's eruption -- hasn't slowed him down. (Speed don’t slump, as they say, although De La Cruz did go 0-for-13 with eight K's and no steals to end that L.A. series.)

De La Cruz’s first 24 G: .412 OBP, 1.063 OPS, 15 SB (101-SB pace)
De La Cruz’s past 23 G: .292 OBP, .598 OPS, 15 SB (105-SB pace)

But enough about why De La Cruz may not get to 100. It’s far more fun to think about why he just might, and here are five reasons.

1) He is blazing fast

Well, yeah. While top-of-the-charts speed is not an absolute prerequisite for racking up steals -- Acuña ranked in only the 67th percentile in sprint speed last year -- it certainly doesn’t hurt. And almost nobody is faster than De La Cruz, who is entered Sunday ranked fifth in the Majors in both average sprint speed (29.9 ft/sec) and bolts (21), which are baserunning plays featuring elite sprint speed.

Those wheels are obvious to anyone watching De La Cruz eat up ground on the basepaths. Among those impressed? Teammates such as pitcher Nick Lodolo, who mostly observed his young teammate on TV in 2023 while spending time on the injured list.

“I think actually seeing how fast he is in person is pretty incredible,” Lodolo said after De La Cruz stole three bases and slugged a three-run homer to support a Lodolo victory back on April 19.

2) He's efficient

Nobody is going to swipe 100-plus bases with a perfect success rate, but even so, it’s rather shocking to look back and see that Henderson paired his record-setting 130 steals in 1982 with 42 times caught stealing.

In today’s MLB landscape -- where just about every player in every lineup is a threat to go deep -- there is less need to manufacture runs and less appetite for risk than back in the steal’s 1980s heyday. Making outs on the bases not only hurts a runner’s total directly but also is liable to get him the red light in the future.

So it’s encouraging for De La Cruz’s chances that he has an 85.7% success rate this year (30 for 35) and 83.3% for his career, even as a young player still learning his craft. Both numbers are solidly above the 75% threshold that is typically considered the break-even point for the value of a player’s steal attempts.

3) He makes the most of his chances

“I always think about stealing the next base,” De La Cruz told reporters earlier this season. “Always aggressive.”

The numbers back that up.

Baseball-Reference tracks a stat called stolen base opportunities, which it defines as plate appearances through which a runner was on first or second base with the next base open. This is one area where there is room for improvement for De La Cruz, who entered Sunday tied for 198th in the Majors with just 43 opportunities, roughly one-third the total of MLB leader Mookie Betts (128). (De La Cruz has benefited from less than one steal opportunity for every four plate appearances, one of the lowest rates in the Majors, despite reaching base at a well above-average clip.) What he’s done with those opportunities is astonishing, though.

Highest rate of SB attempts to opportunities, 2024
Min. 20 opportunities (through Saturday)

  1. Elly De La Cruz (CIN): 0.81
  2. José Caballero (TB): 0.58
  3. Dairon Blanco (KC): 0.52
  4. Lane Thomas (WSH): 0.50
  5. Jo Adell (LAA): 0.35

2024 MLB average: 0.07

That’s right: De La Cruz has been attempting a steal eight of every 10 times he has the chance -- more than 11 times the league-average rate. While these opportunities depend on a complex web of factors and game situations, it stands to reason that the Reds improving their 28th-ranked team OBP could create more for De La Cruz.

Interestingly, when Reds manager David Bell was asked recently about De La Cruz’s baserunning improvement this season, he cited his young star’s patience. But it’s also clear that once De La Cruz senses the right opportunity, he isn’t hesitating.

“He has a lot of confidence in his speed, as he should,” Bell added. “He always believes he can make it, which is something you have to have. Just being a little bit more patient has been the growth.”

4) He'll go after second ... and third

If a player is only willing to run when he’s on first base, that is going to limit his stolen base ceiling. That is not an issue for De La Cruz, who will go after second or third base with equal fervor. His 12 steals of third this season, including two more on Thursday, put him in a class by himself. Nobody else has more than six.

De La Cruz is already more than one-third of the way to Henderson’s 34 steals of third in 1982, the most in a season on record (since 1974). But even in that year, those accounted for just 26.2% of Henderson’s total thefts, while De La Cruz is at 40% thus far.

5) He's on track so far

Not only is De La Cruz out in front of a strict 100-steal pace, but he also is ahead of where four of the eight previous 100-steal campaigns were at the same point, through 47 team games. (The peerless Henderson had just 18 steals at that point in 1983 before finishing with 108, in part because he racked up 60 over 53 games in July and August.)

To look at it from another angle, De La Cruz is the 12th player since 1901 to reach the 30-SB mark through 47 team games. Setting aside one strike-shortened season, six of the other 11 went on to either crack triple digits or make a serious run at it.

Most SB, team’s first 47 games (1901-2023)

  • Rickey Henderson, 1982 OAK: 45 SB (finished with 130)
  • Tim Raines, 1981 MON: 40 SB (71*)
  • Rickey Henderson, 1986 NYY: 35 SB (87)
  • Vince Coleman, 1985 STL: 34 SB (110)
  • Rickey Henderson, 1988 NYY: 34 SB (93)
  • Maury Wills, 1965 LAD: 32 SB (94)
  • Vince Coleman, 1987 STL: 31 SB (109)
  • Lou Brock, 1974 STL: 30 SB (118)
  • Julio Cruz, 1983 SEA/CHW: 30 SB (57)
  • Kenny Lofton, 1996 CLE: 30 SB (75)
  • Omar Moreno, 1982 PIT: 30 SB (60)

*1981 Expos played only 108 games due to strike

There are no guarantees as to where De La Cruz’s pursuit will lead in 2024. But his extraterrestrial combination of skill and daring already has succeeded in making a 100-steal season feel attainable again. Now we all get to sit back and enjoy the show.’s Mark Sheldon contributed reporting to this article.