Thursday, June 1 2023

As Jorge Mateo pulled into second base with a leadoff double in the eighth inning of a tie game Sunday, he had a strong feeling he was about to win the game – with his legs.

See, Mateo is tied for the American League lead in stolen bases, his eight thefts putting him on pace to steal 81 bags over the season. The Chicago White Sox were about to get victimized by an increasingly unstoppable force.

“From the moment I got on second base,” says Mateo through translator Brandon Quinones, “I was already thinking of ways to steal third.”

Moments later, third base belonged to Mateo, and soon, three runs would cross the plate. Mateo’s Baltimore Orioles had stolen a victory – taking advantage of basestealing conditions that are the best in modern major league history.

A slew of rules changes Major League Baseball designed to create action has unleashed a flood of bonus bags, as stolen bases – once the victim of analytics-driven thinking bordering on dogma – are back in a manner nobody could have imagined.

Through nearly four weeks of the season, an average of 1.4 bases are stolen each game, a 56% increase over the 0.9 steals per game in 2021 and 2022. Perhaps most notably, the success rate of 81.9% is the best since caught-stealings were designated an official statistic in 1951, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

In short, the bigger bases introduced by MLB along with a limit on pitching rubber disengagements and pickoff throws has done more than stimulate action.

It’s made stealing a base nearly a sure thing.

GRAPHIC: With new MLB bases (and rules) in place, runners get a jump on stolen bases in 2023

Chicago Cubs catcher Yan Gomes beats the throw to Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Miguel Rojas.Chicago Cubs catcher Yan Gomes beats the throw to Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Miguel Rojas.

Chicago Cubs catcher Yan Gomes beats the throw to Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Miguel Rojas.

Opportunity cost

Cedric Mullins and Orioles teammate Mateo are 1-2 in the AL with nine and eight steals, respectively. Many of those steals came during an opening series when Baltimore ran wild in Boston, stealing 12 bases in three games and prompting manager Brandon Hyde to downplay the rate.

Certainly, the pace has cooled a bit since then, but the success rate has not.

Mullins has not been caught in nine attempts, Mateo just once, for an 89% success rate. And the prosperity is spread throughout the major leagues.

Six players have at least five stolen bases without getting caught and Nico Hoerner, the NL leader, has been nailed just once in nine attempts. As the stolen base fell out of favor and analytics determined it safer and smarter to wait for a walk and a home run rather than run, unofficial plateaus were established:

A stolen base was worth the opportunity cost if they came with an 85% rate.

Little wonder, then, that the major league stolen base champion’s total fell from a high of 130 (Rickey Henderson in 1982) to 40 (Whit Merrifield in 2021). Merrifield’s meager total came as the MLB success rate reached 75.7%, highest since at least 2008. Stealing bases, in a sense, was a fear-based concept: Don’t go unless you know you can get there.

Yet the bigger bases, the fewer pickoffs and 2023’s new math has created another paradigm shift.

“That’s why you’re seeing the numbers the way they are – the success rate has gone way up,” says the Orioles’ Hyde, who thinks his basestealers would have been just as aggressive without the new rules. “Around the league, people are going to be more aggressive because of that.”

To be determined: If pitchers and catchers can find any way to counter punch.

Jorge Mateo steals third base against the Red Sox.Jorge Mateo steals third base against the Red Sox.

Jorge Mateo steals third base against the Red Sox.

Cat, meet mouse

As pitchers ramped up their velocity in recent years and teams deployed defensive shifts at times uncanny in their ability to predict the path of a batted ball, the field tilted disproportionately toward the run preventers.

Now, they have to find a way to take the power back.

Runs per game are up around 9% over 2022. Leaguewide batting average has crept up to .249 after bottoming out at .243 last year. Yet the offensive gains made due to a ban on shifts, the pitch clock and the larger bases will be a slow drip across the league.

The nightly battle will still be pitcher and catcher vs. hitter and runner. And the methods to counterpunch against speedsters like Mateo are only now starting to emerge.

Shea Langeliers has a few thoughts on that.

The Oakland Athletics catcher knows traffic – his team’s pitching staff is last in the league in WHIP and ERA. And you’d think the larger bases would be the No. 1 enemy of a backstop whose catch-and-release margin for error shrank three inches on both ends of a basepath now that the white islands are 18 inches square instead of 15.

Yet his theory on slowing action on the basepaths begins as soon as he catches the previous pitch.

“With the pitch clock, it’s do the best you can against the running game – to get the sign in and give the pitcher as much time as possible to vary his looks to first,” says Langeliers. “If you get the sign in late and the clock’s running down, that’s when (runners) are going to get good jumps. It’s getting the pitch call in as quick as possible.”

And, as Langeliers puts it, “varying the looks.” That means pitchers releasing the ball at seven seconds, then four, then five on the pitch clock, to keep the runner guessing.

Yet that can only prevent so much. Langeliers watched in awe as Esteury Ruiz tore up the minor leagues with his basestealing acumen, swiping 85 bags in Milwaukee’s system last year. The pitch clock was already in place at Class AAA, and a clock set to run out was Ruiz’s ally.

“In the minor leagues, Ruiz had that down – 3, 2, he’s gone,” says Langeliers. “ And he’s so fast, he’s already at second.”

After an offseason trade, they’re now teammates in Oakland, where Ruiz has stolen four bases – and has yet to get caught.

Perhaps a catcher will nail him someday, but the simple math is in the speedsters’ favor. That’s not likely to change anytime soon, great news for Mateo and Co.

“I would say it’s a lot of fun,” says Mateo of this new reality. “With the bigger bases, it’s something that has been beneficial for me and for us so far. With the pickoffs, it will be interesting to see what happens.

“They can still turn around a third time and pick you off.”

Eventually, the pitcher must deliver a pitch and hope for the best – which these days means a single turning into a double, a game turning on a feat far less daring than it once was.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stolen bases are back! New MLB rules create perfect storm for thieves

Source: Yahoo Sports


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