With new rules, stolen bases are up this spring

March 8th, 2023

The new rules for 2023 -- the pitch timer, pickoff limits and a shorter distance between bases due to larger bags -- seemed like they'd encourage more action on the basepaths.

Guess what? In Spring Training, stolen bases are way up.

In fact, they're at an all-time high for the time period we have Spring Training data (complete since 2006). That goes for both stolen base attempts and stolen base success rate.

Through Tuesday, there have been an average of 2.30 stolen base attempts per game this spring. The success rate on those stolen bases has been 80.8%.

Those are big jumps from Spring Training 2022, when there were an average of 1.53 stolen base attempts per game with a 73.2% success rate.

"I keep getting this question [of 'Will you run even more?']," Phillies speedster Trea Turner, a two-time National League stolen base leader, said recently on MLB Network. "I feel like the pressure's on to steal -- 60, 70 bases, something ridiculous. But for me, I always want to score runs, so however many stolen bases we need as a team to score those runs, that's important to me."

The total number of steals this spring just eclipsed the total number of steals from all of last spring, in about 100 fewer games.

  • In Spring Training 2022, there were 300 total stolen bases in 268 games
  • In Spring Training 2023, there have been 316 total stolen bases in 170 games

Teams like the Blue Jays are emphasizing being extra aggressive on the basepaths in 2023.

"I think it opens it up more for guys like Matt Chapman or [Daulton] Varsho to add on a little bit. [Vladimir Guerrero Jr.] had eight stolen bases last year," manager John Schneider said.

On the defensive side, catchers are aware, and they know pitchers are limited in how much they can control the run game by stepping off the rubber.

"Teams are going to try to take advantage of the new rules and run, so we have to be smart with our pickoffs and when our catchers back-pick runners," said Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras.

"As you can see, we’re emphasizing back-picks, and one reason is because it’s one of the few levers we can pull to control the running game with the disengagement rule," Giants manager Gabe Kapler said after a pickoff by Joey Bart.

Stolen base attempts and efficiency in Spring Training 2023 easily exceed the previous high in both categories for the 18 years of Spring Training data.

  • The previous high for total stolen base attempts per game was 2.14 in 2012
  • The previous high for stolen base success rate was 73.2% in 2022

Even players like Royals catcher Salvador Perez, who's never stolen more than one base in a season, are swiping bags. ("I don’t have to run that far. That's good," he said after his steal, referencing the shorter distance between bases.)

Will those trends continue for the rest of Spring Training and into the regular season?

The combination of a pitch timer, pickoff limits and bigger bases has driven an increase in stolen bases in the Minor Leagues. From 2019 to 2022, when all three changes were implemented across the Minors, stolen base attempts increased from 2.23 per game to 2.81 per game, and success increased from 68% to 78%.

Rockies prospect Zac Veen, who stole 55 bases last season in the Minors playing under the new rules, is leading Spring Training with seven steals. The other day, he stole three bases in one game. Even beyond prospects like Veen, an estimated 46% of players on 40-man rosters already have experience with the new rules in the Minor Leagues.

At the current pace, stolen base attempts this Spring Training look like MLB in the 1980s, when stealing was much more frequent.

Avg. # of SB attempts per MLB game by decade
1980s: 2.27
1990s: 2.13
2000s: 1.63
2010s: 1.55
2020s: 1.25
Spring Training 2023: 2.30

"I think it's definitely a friendlier base-stealing environment with the game now," Brewers leadoff hitter Christian Yelich said on MLB Network. "We just have to see how it's all gonna work out with the limited picks, the bigger bases, the clock, all that stuff."