There was a rise in steals per game in the Single-A California League between 2016 and 2017. But it was not attributable to some leaguewide shift in strategy. It was because one team went bananas on the basepaths.
The 2017 Lancaster JetHawks, a Rockies affiliate, stole 326 bases – more than twice as many as any other team in the league and more than 100 more than they had stolen the previous year. The JetHawks had six guys with 30 steals or more, including future big leaguers Garrett Hampson, Sam Hilliard and Yonathan Daza. An outfielder named Wes Rogers swiped 70.
“It was special to watch,” says Anthony Sanders, who was a supervisor in the Rockies’ system at the time. “It definitely changed the game.”
Sanders is now a first-base coach working with the baserunners on an Orioles team helping to change the game at the Major League level. While there aren’t any MLB teams off to the races quite like those 2017 JetHawks were, we are once again seeing a leaguewide steals rate attributable to only a small number of squads.
One of the major narratives at this early stage of the 2023 season is that the stolen base is the Comeback Play of the Year. Bolstered by the pickoff limits, the 20-second timer with runners aboard and the bigger bases, the rate of stolen bases per game has risen 41.2% -- from 0.51 per game last year to 0.69 per game this year.
If it holds, that would be the largest such year-over-year jump in modern MLB history.
But it’s really only a handful of teams driving that narrative. In fact, through Sunday’s games, there were seven teams whose stolen-base rates had actually gone down thus far this season. (The Twins had just a single stolen base through 22 games. And though this piece began with a reference to a Rockies affiliate running wild, the 2023 Rockies themselves have just two steals through 24 games.)
What’s happened is some especially speedy squads have taken off running, and they’ve brought the leaguewide rate along for the ride.
These are the seven teams that have made the biggest impact on the rate rise (all stats through Sunday's games):
For a team to average even one steal per game, as the Orioles, Pirates, Guardians, Cubs and Yankees are, is significant. The 2016 Brewers (181 steals) are the only team in the last 10 years to do it.
But the Guardians are on pace for 205 steals. The 200 mark has only been reached once in the last quarter century -- by a 2007 Mets team that stole exactly 200, including 78 from José Reyes at his peak.
“After hearing about what happened in Triple-A last year [with the new rules], we had a sense we’d be able to be a little more aggressive at times,” said Cleveland third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh, who works with the baserunners. “We don’t want to be reckless. But if we have that aggressive mindset, it helps some of the players to be more confident about stealing bases. I think that’s shown early on.”
If we can really dream big, perhaps the Guards or one of these other clubs will somehow swipe 250, which hasn’t been done since the Pat Listach-led 1992 Brewers stole 256 (raise your hand if you knew that a rookie John Jaha was a perfect 10-for-10 in steals that year). That Brewers team is the only club in the last 36 years to reach the 250 mark.
Prior to the implementation of the new rules, there was no reason to even consider these totals. Basestealing went by the wayside as teams began to place a higher value on outs and opted not to run themselves into trouble.
But the aforementioned teams are showing us what is conceivable in the new environment.
“You’ve got to have the right personnel,” Sanders said. “We’re not out there just running to run. But the stolen base to me is part of winning baseball. If the situation calls for it, you take advantage. Managers and front offices have to see the value of it and how it can change the game. We respect that in Baltimore, big time.”
It’s not a surprise that certain squads are taking advantage of the new rules. The Mets, for instance, specifically rostered Tim Locastro at the start of the year because of their plan to be proactive on the basepaths. Through 11 games played, before he hit the injured list with back spasms, Locastro had nearly as many steals (four) as at-bats (seven).
“The biggest rule that's made it tougher to hold runners is [because of the timer] you can't hold the ball and stop them from cheating in the lead,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said. “It brings a lot of runners into stolen-base threats that weren't in the past.”
O’s first baseman Ryan Mountcastle fits that formula. Though he’s always had good speed, his first two full seasons resulted in a grand total of eight stolen bases. But he has two steals through just 21 games this year.
Then you have guys who were already stolen-base threats but have emerged as monsters this year. The Cubs’ Nico Hoerner, who has nine steals in 21 games after swiping 20 in his first full season in 2022, qualifies there.
“I'm not going about this in a reckless way,” Hoerner said. “I don’t feel like I've forced anything on the bases yet. And obviously I trust the hitters behind me a lot. I think the amount of bases you've seen stolen so far is just the product of me hitting a lot of singles and being at first base, and some good opportunities and getting information.”
As Hoerner hinted, you’ve got to get on base to steal a base. For the two teams with the best steals rates in MLB so far, offensive improvement from certain speedsters has been the key.
Baltimore’s Jorge Mateo ranks in the 99th percentile in sprint speed, which is how he managed to steal 35 bags despite a .267 on-base percentage last year. In this young season, his OBP has made a staggering jump to .414, so he already has eight steals.
The O’s and Guardians’ center fielders have also experienced an OBP surge. Cleveland’s Myles Straw has seen his OBP rise from .291 to .349 while stealing seven bases after swiping 21 last year. Baltimore’s Cedric Mullins has taken advantage of a 53-point jump in OBP (from .318 to .371) en route to his AL-leading nine steals after swiping 34 bags last year.
“I think we’ll be able to rack up a lot,” Mullins said. “I feel like there probably will be adjustments throughout the league at some point. It’s just a matter of when that happens, we make our adjustments as well, kind of keep the momentum going.”
Only the full season can tell us how statistically fluky all this is. The Guardians, who have 28 steals in 33 attempts, are on pace for at least 200 steals with a success rate beyond what we’ve seen from the only five teams to steal 200 since 1992:
The Guardians, though, have an established track record in this track meet. They ranked third in MLB last year in both steals (119) and success rate (81.5%) and brought back largely the same lineup, so they were especially well-situated for the new rules.
“It’s taking what we’ve done in the past and just being more aggressive with it this year,” Sarbaugh said. “And when you have a younger club, that comes into play, too. When you have a younger group that is still trying to establish themselves in the Major Leagues, they have that aggressive mindset. The Orioles are in that same boat.”
It's true. The Guardians’ and O’s position player casts both rank among the five youngest in MLB in average age. The Cubs’ surge has been fueled by the 25-year-old Hoerner, the Pirates’ by 23-year-old rookie Ji Hwan Bae’s five steals, the A’s by a combined nine steals from rookies Esteury Ruiz and Conner Capel and the Yankees’ by 21-year-old rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe and his eight swipes so far.
Clearly, we’ve got a long way to go before an MLB team matches the 2017 JetHawks’ stealing spree. But with the new rules in place, we can start recalibrating our brains for the team and individual steals totals that are possible at the MLB level.
“A lot starts in the Minor Leagues with player development,” Sanders said. “It’s not as easy to teach guys at the Major League level to adjust, with Spring Training being so short. But it does work. There’s different techniques and ways to steal bases, and I’m glad this organization encourages it.”