In baseball, a stolen base most often occurs when a baserunner successfully advances to the next base while the pitcher is delivering the ball to home plate. In baseball statistics, stolen bases are denoted by “SB”.
If the defense makes no attempt to put the baserunner out (for example, if the catcher doesn't even look his way), the play is scored as defensive indifference (also called fielder's indifference), and no stolen base is credited to the runner. Defensive indifference is generally only scored instead of a stolen base when the game is in a late inning and the team with the stealing baserunner is down by more than one run. MLB Rule 10.07(g) covers defensive indifference.
Successful base-stealing requires not only simple running speed but also good base-running instincts and split-second timing. The scoring and criteria for awarding a stolen base to a runner are covered by rule 10.07 of the Major League Baseball rule book.
Ned Cuthbert, playing for the Philadelphia Keystones in either 1863 or 1865, is documented as the first baseball player to steal a base in a baseball game, although the term stolen base was not used until 1870. For a time in the 19th century, stolen bases were credited when a baserunner reached an extra base on a base hit from another player. For example if a runner on first base reached third base on a single, it would count as a steal. In 1887, Hugh Nicol set a still-standing Major League record with 138 stolen bases, many of which would not have counted under modern rules. Modern steal rules were fully implemented in 1898, and steals are now only credited when a runner successfully takes an extra base while the ball is being pitched, but not already hit. If the ball is dead on the pitch run on, such as from a foul ball (except caught fly-out), the steal is not allowed and the runner returns to his time-of-pitch base. In addition, if the situation of the game is such that the steal is of little use (usually in the late innings when the runner would not change the game's outcome by scoring), and the catcher does not attempt to throw out the runner, the runner is not credited with a steal, and the base is attributed to defensive indifference.
Base stealing was popular in the game's early decades, with speedsters such as Ty Cobb and Clyde Milan stealing nearly 100 bases in a season. But the tactic fell into relative disuse after Babe Ruth introduced the era of the home run – in 1955, for example, no one in baseball stole more than 25 bases, and Dom DiMaggio won the AL stolen base title in 1950 with just 15. However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, base-stealing was brought back to prominence primarily by Luis Aparicio and Maury Wills, who broke Cobb's modern single-season record by stealing 104 bases in 1962. Wills' record was broken in turn by Lou Brock in 1974, and Rickey Henderson in 1982. The stolen base remained a popular tactic through the 1980s, perhaps best exemplified by Vince Coleman and the St. Louis Cardinals, but began to decline again in the 1990s as the frequency of home runs reached unprecedented heights and the steal-friendly artificial turf ballparks began to disappear.
Technique and strategy
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A base-stealing runner usually begins running as soon as the pitcher has committed himself to throwing a pitch to home plate, neither sooner nor later. If he begins to run too soon, the pitcher may throw to a base rather than to home—in this case, the runner is picked off, and will most likely be tagged out. Before the pitch, the runner will often take a lead-off, walking several steps away from the base as a head start for his next advance. In some cases, the pitcher may hold the runner on by throwing to the base several times before pitching, in the hope of dissuading the runner from too big a lead-off. This action can also result in the runner being tagged out in a pick-off. Another popular strategy is for the runner to attempt a steal while the hitter is instructed to swing at the pitch if it is at all hittable. This hit-and-run play can give the runner a good head start to take an extra base on the hit. But if the hitter fails to hit the ball, the hit-and-run becomes a pure steal attempt, and the runner may be thrown out. Another risk of the hit-and-run is that a caught line drive could result in an easy double play, although this is offset by the lower likelihood of a ground ball double play.
A second and lesser-known technique is the "delayed" steal. The first delayed steal on record was performed by Miller Huggins in 1903. This technique, famously practiced by Eddie Stanky of the Brooklyn Dodgers, is where the runner does not break immediately for second when the pitcher commits to the plate. Instead the runner takes two or three large shuffles off the base when the pitcher goes to the plate. This keys the middle infielders and the catcher to let their guard down, as it appears the runner is not stealing, but only getting a good secondary lead in case the ball is hit. In reality the delayed stealer is closing the distance to second base. When the ball crosses the plate the runner breaks for second base, and is essentially stealing the base on the middle infielders who have not covered second base. Additionally, the catcher is not ready to come out of his crouch and cannot throw to second until an infielder gets there. The delayed steal is a deceptive technique that is sometimes executed by even slow runners and many times results in a catcher throwing into center field. The technique is rarely seen at the Major League level but is used effectively by multiple college programs.
Second base is the base most often stolen. It is also technically the easiest to steal, as it is farthest from home plate and thus a longer throw from the catcher is required to prevent it. Third base is a shorter throw for the catcher, and thus more difficult to steal, though a right-handed batter can sometimes help by serving as an obstacle that the catcher must throw around. Third base is generally stolen off the pitcher, since a bigger lead is possible off second base. It is possible for a player to steal home plate, but this requires great daring and aggressiveness as the ball will almost certainly arrive at home plate before the runner. Thus a sacrifice bunt or squeeze play is typically used instead. Ty Cobb holds the records for most steals of home in a single season (8) as well as for a career (54). It is worth noting, however, that steals of home are not officially recorded statistics, and, thus, must be researched through individual game accounts. Thus, Cobb's totals may be even greater than is recorded. Jackie Robinson was also renowned for the thrilling feat of stealing home, which he famously accomplished in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series. On August 22, 1982, Glenn Brummer stole home in the bottom of the 12th inning of a tie game, thus accomplishing a walk-off straight steal of home, one of the very few in major league history. In more recent years, pure steals of home are rare, although a player may steal home plate during a "delayed double steal," in which a runner on first attempts to steal second, while the runner on third breaks for home as soon as the catcher throws to second base. The most recent player credited with a "straight" steal of home was Jonathan Villar of the Houston Astros who stole home against the Baltimore Orioles on July 30, 2013.
Base stealing is an important characteristic of a particular style of baseball, sometimes called "small ball" or "manufacturing runs". A team playing with this style emphasizes doing little things (including risky running plays like base-stealing) to advance runners and score runs, often relying on pitching and defense to keep games close. The Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1960s, led by pitcher Sandy Koufax and speedy shortstop Maury Wills, were a successful example of this style. The antithesis of this would be a team that relies on power hitting. The Baltimore Orioles of the 1970s, led by manager Earl Weaver, were an example of such a "slugging" team that aspired to score most of its runs via home runs. Often the "small ball" model is associated with the National League, while power hitting is seen as more associated with the American League. However, some of the more successful American League teams of recent memory, including the 2002 Anaheim Angels, the 2001 Seattle Mariners and the 2005 Chicago White Sox have experienced their success in part as a result of playing "small ball," advancing runners through means such as the stolen base and the related hit and run play. Successful teams often combine both styles, with a speedy runner or two complementing hitters with power, such as the 2005 White Sox, who despite playing "small ball", still hit 200 home runs that season.
One of the difficulties in determining how good a player is at stealing bases is whether to judge the cumulative number of steals or the success ratio of steals to caught stealing. Noted statistician Bill James has argued that unless a player can steal a high percentage of the time, then the stolen base is not useful, and can even be detrimental to a team. A success rate of 67 to 70% or better is necessary to make stealing bases worthwhile.
Judging the base-stealing abilities of players from earlier eras is also problematic, because caught stealing was not a regularly recorded statistic until the middle of the 20th Century. Ty Cobb, for example, was known as a great base-stealer, with 892 steals and a success rate of over 83%. However the data on Cobb's caught stealing is missing from 12 seasons, strongly suggesting he was unsuccessful many more times than his stats indicate. Carlos Beltrán, with 286 steals, has the highest career success rate of all players with over 300 stolen base attempts, at 88.3%.
Evolution of rules and scoring
The first mention of the stolen base, in a statistical sense was in the 1877 scoring rules adopted by the National League which noted credit toward a player's total bases when a base is stolen. It was not until 1886 that the stolen base appeared as something to be tracked, but was only to "appear in the summary of the game".
In 1887, the stolen base was given its own individual statistical column in the box score, and was defined for purposes of scoring: "...every base made after first base has been reached by a base runner, except for those made by reason of or with the aid of a battery error (wild pitch or passed ball), or by batting, balks or by being forced off. In short, shall include all bases made by a clean steal, or through a wild throw or muff of the ball by a fielder who is directly trying to put the base runner out while attempting to steal." The next year, it was clarified that any attempt to steal must be credited to the runner, and that fielders committing errors during this play must also be charged with an error. This rule also clarified that advancement of another base(s) beyond the one being stolen is not credited as a stolen base on the same play, and that an error is charged to the fielder who permitted the extra advancement. There was clarification that a runner is credited with a steal if the attempt began before a battery error. Finally, batters were credited with a stolen base if they were tagged out after over running the base.
In 1892, a short-lived rule was added crediting runners with stolen bases if a base runner advanced on a fly out, or if they advanced more than one base on any safe hit or attempted out, providing an attempt was made by the defense to put the runner out. The rule was subsequently ended in 1897.
In 1898, stolen base scoring was narrowed to no longer include advancement in the event of a fielding error, or advancement caused by a hit batsman.
1904 saw an attempt to reduce the already wordy slew of rules governing stolen bases, with the stolen base now credited when "...the baserunner [sic] advances a base unaided by a base hit, a put out, (or) a fielding or batter error."
1910 saw the first addressing of the double and triple steal attempts. Under the new rule, when any runner is thrown out, and the other(s) are successful, the successful runners will not be credited with a stolen base.
Without using the term, 1920 saw the first rule that would be referred to today as defensive indifference, as stolen bases would not be credited, unless an effort was made to stop the runner by the defense. This is usually called if such is attempted in the ninth inning while that player's team is trailing, unless the runner represents the potential tying run.
1931 saw a further narrowing of the criteria for awarding a stolen base. Power was given to the official scorer, in the event of a muff by the catcher in throwing, that in the judgment of the scorer the runner would have been out, to credit the catcher with an error, and not credit the runner with a stolen base. Further, any successful steal on a play resulting in a wild pitch, passed ball, or balk would no longer be credited as a steal, even if the runner had started to steal before the play.
One of the largest rewrites to the rules in history came in 1950. The stolen base was specifically to be credited "to a runner whenever he advances one base unaided by a base hit, a putout, a forceout, a fielder's choice, a passed ball, a wild pitch, or a balk."
There were noted exceptions, such as denying a stolen base to an otherwise successful steal as a part of a double or triple steal, if one other runner was thrown out in the process. A stolen base would be awarded to runners who successfully stole second base as a part of a double steal with a man on third, if the other runner failed to steal home, but instead was able to return safely to third base. Runners who are tagged out oversliding the base after an otherwise successful steal would not be credited with a stolen base. Indifference was also credited as an exception. Runners would now be credited with stolen bases if they had begun the act of stealing, and the resulting pitch was wild, or a passed ball. Finally, for 1950 only, runners would be credited with a stolen base if they were "well advanced" toward the base they were attempting to steal", and the pitcher is charged with a balk, with the further exception of a player attempting to steal, who would otherwise have been forced to advance on the balk by a runner behind them. This rule was removed in 1951.
A clarification came in 1955 that awarded a stolen base to a runner, even if he became involved in a rundown, provided he managed to evade the rundown, and advance to the base he was intending to steal.
The criteria for being charged with "caught stealing" were fine tuned in 1979, with a runner being charged with being caught if he is put out while trying to steal, oversliding a base (otherwise successfully stolen), or is picked off a base, and tries to advance to the next base. Runners would specifically not be charged with being caught, if the player was put out after a wild pitch or passed ball.
While it is not recorded as a "steal", in a practical sense a batter can be said to "steal first base" by successfully running to first base (without being tagged or thrown out) in rare circumstances following an uncaught third strike; the rarely-seen play avoids an "out" and gains a baserunner. Statistically, it is recorded as a strikeout plus a passed ball or wild pitch, and a "stolen base" statistic does not occur and neither is an out recorded for the strikeout.
In baseball's earlier decades, a runner on second base could "steal" first base, perhaps with the intention of drawing a throw that might allow a runner on third to score (a tactic famously employed by Germany Schaefer). However, such a tactic was not recorded as a stolen base, and modern rules forbid going backwards on the basepaths in order to "confuse the defense or make a travesty of the game". Further, after the pitcher assumes the pitching position, runners cannot return to any previous base.
In a game on April 19, 2013, Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Jean Segura stole second base in the bottom of the eighth inning. After the batter up, Ryan Braun, walked, Segura broke early for third base and the pitcher, Shawn Camp of the Chicago Cubs, threw ahead of him. As Segura was chased back to second base, Braun advanced to second as well and was tagged out. Segura, thinking he was out, began to return to the home dugout behind first base, but first base coach Garth Iorg directed him to stand at first. While not technically safe, no Cubs player tagged Segura while at first. On the first pitch of the next at-bat, he attempted to re-steal second and was thrown out by catcher Welington Castillo.
The expression "You can't steal first base" is sometimes used in reference to a player who is fast but not very good at getting on base in the first place. Former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon is jokingly referred to as having "stolen first" in a June 26, 2001 game – after disputing a call at first base, he yanked the base out of the ground and left the field with it, delaying the game.
- Lead off
- Stolen base percentage
- List of Major League Baseball stolen base records
- List of Major League Baseball stolen base champions
- List of Major League Baseball leaders in career stolen bases
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