Nobody told this stolen base savant that it's not 1980 anymore

May 29th, 2023

If the late 2010s were dominated by strikeouts, and home runs defined baseball in the late 90s and early 2000s, the stolen base clearly had its moment in the 80s. In that decade, steals outnumbered homers five times (1980-81, 1983, 1988-89), after that had happened just three times between 1940-79. Out of 18 individual 80-SB seasons in the Live Ball Era (since 1920), 14 were in the 80s, and Rickey Henderson, who had six of them, was the decade’s most valuable player by WAR (67.8.)

But the stolen base craze was short-lived. The A’s, with whom Henderson spent 14 seasons, most decisively moved away from the running game -- from 2000-22, they had the fewest steals in MLB, averaging just 0.45 per game. Oakland is not to be held solely responsible, of course. Homers have outnumbered steals league-wide in every season since 1993. That ratio peaked in 2019, when there were 2.9 home runs for every stolen base. Since Henderson and Vince Coleman each topped the 80-SB mark in 1988, that milestone has eluded even the most prolific of base-stealers. Jose Reyes’ 2007 season, in which he stole 78 bases, still stands as the best effort in the 21st century.

The tides are changing again in 2023, and the new pitch timer and limit on pickoff attempts have delivered the promised increase in stolen bases. After MLB reached a 40-year low of 0.46 stolen bases per game in 2021, that number is up to 0.71 in 2023, the highest single-season figure since 1999. It’s safe to say that everyone is running more, but one player in particular is taking it to the extreme -- and, in a real full-circle moment, it’s another A’s outfielder.

Esteury Ruiz was one of five players acquired by the A’s in the three-team deal that sent catcher Sean Murphy to the Braves. Of the eight players involved in that blockbuster, the 24-year-old Ruiz, coming off a season in which he led all of Minor League Baseball with a combined 85 stolen bases in 114 games, was easily one of the most intriguing. And while he was initially lost in Murphy’s red-hot start, Ruiz has since carved out a niche for himself in his first full Major League season, currently leading baseball with 27 stolen bases through 55 games, which would put him on pace for … 79.5. Sounds promising.

While the number in and of itself is impressive, it's the path he has taken to 27 that really stands out. Through his first 24 games, he had five stolen bases. By that point in his season, MLB-leader Ronald Acuña Jr. had 13. Ruiz, if he were to appear in all 162 games, was on pace to finish the season with 33.

You’ve probably already started doing the math. Across his last 30 games, he has 22 steals. Prorated over a 162-game season, that’d be 118 -- which, while not a realistic dream in this case, would be a single-season mark met or surpassed only twice in AL/NL history, first by Lou Brock (118 SB in 1974) and later by Henderson (130 in 1982.)

One would naturally assume -- especially given his relative inexperience at the Major League level -- that Ruiz has traded his caution for recklessness. Not so. Ruiz has gone 22-for-25 (88%) as part of his current run, and he has a 90% success rate on stolen base attempts overall. He's outperforming the league by an outrageous margin, even as success rates across baseball are at an all-time high (79.5%.)

Not only that, but from 1920 through 2022, there have been 1,283 individual AL/NL seasons of 27+ stolen bases. Out of all of them, just 60 (4.7%) coincided with a 90% stolen base percentage. But Ruiz has 27 stolen bases through May 28, so we may as well consider his chances of joining an even more exclusive club.

Seasons of 90+ SB%, by total SB:
30+ SB: 46
40+ SB: 21
50+ SB: 6
60+ SB: 1

You’ll note that speed hasn’t even entered into this conversation, because while it’s absolutely a factor -- his sprint speed (29.3 ft/sec) is tied for seventh in the Majors, not far off the “elite” benchmark of 30.0 -- it’d be a disservice to Ruiz to frame his baserunning prowess purely as a product of his raw ability. It’s early yet, but it looks an awful lot like Ruiz is prepared to usher in the return of a sorely missed style of baseball, and watching all of it unfold in Oakland is only enhancing the experience.