Stolen bases, baseball’s lost art, playing pivotal role in 2021 MLB postseason

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The stolen base is playing a huge role this postseason, and I am here for it. 

The 1980s were my formative baseball-watching years, a thrilling era with Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman and dozens of other speedsters swiping bases seemingly at will. For these sprinters in baseball uniforms, a walk or a single was essentially a double, and then another single was basically a guaranteed RBI. 

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From 1973 to 1993, the MLB stolen base leader had at least 70 swipes every year, with seven seasons of 100 or more stolen bases (Henderson, Coleman and Lou Brock owned all seven). In 1980, Omar Moreno had 96 and finished third in the bigs. In 1986, Eric Davis had 80 and was third overall. You get the point. 

But now? We haven’t seen anyone reach that 70-stole base plateau since Jacoby Ellsbury pilfered 70 in 2009, more than a decade ago. There were 2,213 bases stolen by the 30 teams in the big leagues this year, the lowest full-season (excluding strike/pandemic years) total since 1973, when baseball’s 24 teams combined to swipe 2,034. 

The drop has been rather precipitous recently, too. There were roughly 1,000 fewer stolen bases in 2021 than just a decade ago: 3,229 in 2012 and 3,279 in 2011. That’s a huge decrease. The goal today isn’t to dig into the reasons, because you know them — more teams are focused on power and avoiding potential outs on the base paths, etc. We’re just here to celebrate the anecdotal evidence that stolen bases and aggressive base-running is still very relevant, even if underappreciated.  

During the 2021 playoffs, we’ve seen an increase in players taking the extra base, and that is an outstanding turn of events. Through 23 postseason games, there have been 27 stolen bases, more than one per game. And they’re important stolen bases, too. Game-changing stolen bases. Series-deciding stolen bases.

The Braves won Game 1 of the NLCS 3-2, and two of those runs were the direct result of a stolen base. In the first inning, Eddie Rosario led off with a single and stole second as Freddie Freeman struck out. He move to third on a groundout and scored on a wild-pitch. That doesn’t happen without the stolen base.  

The more dramatic run came in the ninth inning, with the game tied 2-2. Ozzie Albies singled with one out and stole second base on Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen’s first pitch — after two pick-off attempts. Austin Riley smacked Treinen’s second pitch into left field, a base hit that easily chased home Albies for the winning run. 

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The Dodgers were on the short end of those NLCS SBs, but they were only in that round because of a key stolen base. In Game 5 of their NLDS against the Giants, Mookie Betts singled off Logan Webb — Untouchable Logan Webb — in the sixth inning and stole second on Webb’s first pitch to Corey Seager. Betts easily trotted in to score when Seager slapped a 2-0 pitch the opposite way in to shallow left field and the Dodgers finally had their first run against Webb in his 14th inning of work against L.A. 

As we mentioned, there have been 27 stolen bases so far this postseason in 23 games; the Dodgers lead the way with 11. How does that compare with recent October running totals? Here’s a look back to 2010. 

2021: 27 SB in 23 games
2020: 38 in 53
2019: 34 in 37
2018: 35 in 33
2017: 21 in 38
2016: 41 in 35
2015: 46 in 36
2014: 30 in 32
2013: 26 in 38
2012: 35 in 37
2011: 33 in 38
2010: 41 in 32

In 2015, of course, the Royals and their “that’s what speed do” motto set the tone for the postseason with 14 stolen bases as a team, though the Mets (10) and Blue Jays (nine) ran a lot, too. In the 2010 postseason, the Rangers led the way with 17 stolen bases, the most for any team from 2010 to now. The manager for those Rangers was, of course, Ron Washington

And that brings us to our secondary point today. It’s not just about stolen bases, but the philosophy behind the stolen bases: running aggressively to gain an advantage. Washington is now the third-base coach for the Braves, and his approach to sending guys home — let the speedy runners push the action — is why Atlanta has a 2-0 advantage in the NLCS. 

In the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 2, with the Dodgers leading 4-2, Rosario singled as the leadoff batter. Freeman followed with a fly-out to left field and Rosario tagged up and slid in to second just ahead of the throw. With the Dodgers’ outfield playing shallow, Albies looped a single toward right fielder Steven Souza Jr. Washington never hesitated, waving Rosario home. Souza’s throw was good, not great, and Rosario’s slide was one of the best you’ll ever see, eluding the tag from catcher Will Smith. 

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Riley followed Albies’ single with a double of his own, off the wall in center field. Betts made a good play on the ball and got it back in quickly, as Albies came flying around the bases. A more conservative third-base coach might have held up his runner, but Washington is not the kind to waste an opportunity. Albies arrived just before the ball and scored the tying run.

“We love the aggressiveness (from Washington) because that’s how you’re going to go for scoring runs,” Albies said. “If you’re playing scared you’re never going to push the guys to score the important runs for the team.”

It was another glorious display of aggressive base-running, straight out of the playbook of a bygone era. All I can say is this: More, please. 

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