Baseball fans and analysts have been focusing on the increase in homeruns over the past few seasons but there is much less discussion regarding stolen bases during this same time period. Stolen bases and home runs have a strong relationship to one another, especially as teams have focused on the importance of baserunners and the value baserunners have related to run expectancy. As teams have become more reliant on the long ball to create runs, it matters less if a runner is on first, second, or third base as a homer brings a player in regardless of the base on which he stood. Thus, the stolen base has much less value and much greater risk in most situations as being thrown out attempting to steal hurts run expectancy.
2012 was the last season that players successfully stole over 3000 bases (3229, specifically). 2014 was the season with the next most successful attempts ( a mere 2764). As the number of stolen bases has decreased, the question becomes, are the players who amass the most steals accounting for more, less, or the same percentage of the league’s steal total? Examining the 2012-2017 seasons, it appears as though the most prolific stealers are accounting for a greater percentage of steals relative to the other players in the game. Below is a table illustrating the top three stolen base leaders each season and the percentage their total equaled league-wide:
2017: Top 3 finishers accounted for 6.5% of all steals.
2016: The top 3 accounted for 6.5% of all steals.
2015: The top 3 accounted for 6.3% of all steals,
2014: The top 3 accounted for 6.3% of all steals.
2013: The top 3 accounted for 5.3% of all steals.
2012: The top 3 accounted for 4.3% of all steals.
Additionally, fewer players appear to be racking up significant steal totals. For instance, in 2017, there is currently (as of Aug 17th) one player with at least 50 steals, one player with 40-49 steals, and 1 player with 30-39 steals. The table below charts the high end totals in steals each season from 2012-2017.
2016: 1 player 60 or more steals, 1 player 50 to 59 steals, 3 players with 40 to 49 steals.
2015: 2 players with 50 to 59 steals and 1 player with 40 to 49 steals.
2014: 1 player with 60 or more steals, 2 players with 50 to 59 steals, and 1 player with 40 to 49 steals.
2013: 1 player with 50 to 59 steals and 7 players with 40 to 49 steals.
2012: 6 players with 40 to 49 steals.
Examining the high end performers in the steal category, it appears as though the overall steal rate for the league results from two separate factors – an increased reliance on totals the top base stealers amass as well as a communal effort with many players ranging from few to modest steal totals.
Gone are the days of the Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman 100 steal seasons. Gone also are the days when a multitude of thieves tally 40 and 50 bags in a season. Rather, in today’s game, steals appear to be the function of two player types; the elite outliers like Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton (possibly Trea Turner in the near future) and the workman like totals of various players chipping in single digit to low teen totals (Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto, and Justin Upton) to mid-20 bags (Elvis Andrus, Lorenzo Cain, and Mookie Betts).