This year saw the most drastic set of rule changes to baseball, certainly for fifty years, since the DH was introduced to the American League in 1973, and arguably even longer. The arrival of pitch clocks, and a ban on defensive shifts have had an impact (RIP Manny Machado). But perhaps the most drastic has been the ways to encourage stolen bases. Between the larger bases and limitations on pick-off moves, it was expected that we’d see a sharp uptick in activity on the bags, and that has been the case. At 0.64 per team game, the SB rate is the highest since 2012, and more than 25% up on last year (0.51). The caught stealing rate of just 0.13 is the lowest on record.
The Diamondbacks are, to coin a phrase, running away with the lead for the National League. Their nine stolen-bases are close to twice that of anybody else: the Pirates are next, on five. Over the first six games of last year, the team stole only three bases, so a combination of fast personnel and the new rules changes has them off to the races. It’s no surprise that Corbin Carroll (3) and Jake McCarthy (2) lead the way for the D-backs. Last year, they were #1 and #7 respectively, for sprint speed across all of baseball. Alek Thomas was top thirty too, but an OBP of .143 has limited his options. Still, the all-time franchise record for stolen bases of 137, set in both 1999 and 2016, appears very likely to fall.
Indeed, “destroyed” might be closer, since at the current pace - obvious, small samply size warning - the D-backs will end the year with 243 SB, breaking the old mark by more than a hundred bags. It has been a very long time, more than thirty years, since a team has been that active on the base-paths. The 1992 Brewers stole 256 bags, with eleven different players in double digits. The Cardinals of the mid-80s were also renowned for this, stealing as many as 314 bases in 1985, led by 110 from Vince Coleman. I don’t see anyone in Arizona threatening that figure. Tony Womack’s 1999 franchise record of 72 could come under threat, though it depends if defenses adjust to the new running game.
Arizona’s current extrapolated figure of 243 pales in comparison to some 19th century marks. The relatively short-lived (1882-91) American Association holds every one of the top 10 single season marks for team stolen bases. The 1887 season alone, is responsible for the top four, including the all-time mark of a staggering 581 bases, set by the St. Louis Browns. However, I found one source which said, “Newspaper research found the early stolen base figures to be inflated, especially for the American Association.” More significantly, the modern definition of a stolen base was only adopted in 1898. Before then, going first to third on a single was credited as a SB, explaining those insane figures.
Above, please enjoy video of all eight stolen-base plays for the D-backs so far this year - it finishes with a double-steal of second and home, which counts as two. Yeah, who had Josh Rojas as the first man to steal home this year? It’s worth noting that the rules have likely also led to a general uptick in taking extra bases, e.g. the 19th-century “stolen base” discussed above. Last year, runners did so 41% of the time; in 2023 to date, the figure is up to 44%. The D-backs were above average anyway, but have improved their numbers there by about the same amount, from 49% to 53%. It’ll be interesting to see whether these figures are sustained as we get deeper into 2023.