Aug 24, 2022 - Sports

Stolen bases are rising in Major League Baseball

Average stolen bases per MLB game, per team
Data: Baseball Reference; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

MLB's league-wide offensive downturn has sparked the return of a lost art: stolen bases.

By the numbers: Teams were averaging 0.51 stolen bases per game entering Tuesday, up 11% over last year (0.46). It's the first time steals have increased in a non-pandemic-shortened season since 2014.

  • Success rate hasn't suffered with the increased volume, either, as the league-wide rate of 76% is tied with last year's for the highest mark since 1937, per FanGraphs.

The big picture: Steals were once a significantly more common occurrence. In fact, from 1976 to 1992, there were eight seasons in which teams stole more bases than hit home runs.

  • The league-wide batting average in those years was routinely in the .250's and .260's, and instant replay — which now regularly overturns would-be steals — was decades away.
  • Then the steroid-era kicked off a home run boom, batting averages dropped precipitously as pitchers became more dominant, and the risk of running into outs on the base paths no longer seemed worth it.

Yes, but: This year's particularly weak offensive environment has changed teams' calculus regarding the risk-reward of attempting steals.

  • Runs and home runs per game are both at their lowest since 2015. That means scoring is at a premium and, unlike in recent years, teams can't sit back and hope for one big blow to clear the bases.
  • Batting average dropped to its lowest mark since 1968, so with the simultaneous lack of dingers, teams must maximize those few opportunities when a teammate actually gets a hit.

Looking ahead: There's reason to believe this increase is the beginning of a trend rather than an anomaly.

  • Pitch clocks may be in the majors as soon as next year, and though their intent is to speed up the game, they could also lead to a decrease in pickoff attempts and increase in steals.
  • Larger bases — another of MLB's experimental rules, and one that should more directly lead to more steals — could follow soon after.

Go deeper: How the Dodgers became MLB's improbable men of steal (LA Times)

Go deeper