Is Julio Rodriguez the Next Stolen Base King?
There have been some extreme statistical outings during the course of sports history. From Wilt Chamberlain (only 48 minutes in the NBA game) to Wayne Gretzky, who averaged 48.5 minutes per game in the 1961-62 season, he had many assists, though he was the NHL’s career points leader. Never having scored a goal, some stars have kept the records so affordable that discussing them seems pointless.
Ricky Henderson, a well-traveled tramp who frequently found his way to Oakland, was that way with stolen bases. And the popular Twitter account Super 70s Sports Noted ThursdayHenderson started as MLB leader in steals on May 12, 1982 – with 35.
When you look at it, it is the number that is most absurdly visible. Last year alone, two players managed multiple stolen bases all season. In 2019, only five players got there. Henderson averaged more than a steal per game in mid-May, hitting a record 130 steals in 172 attempts in 1982. It was so relentless that it threw a curve into any stolen base debate.
If you can set your base-stealing expectations to a modern reality, the Seattle Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez is off to an impressive start to his rookie season. He and the Mariners open the series against the No. 1-ranked Mets at City Field on Friday night, and with a major league-leading 10 steals in 11 attempts, the 21-year-old Rodriguez is on pace to be 50 or older. One season from Dee Strange-Garden 60 in 2017.
Could Rodriguez be the future of baseball as he boldly suggested earlier this season? Absolutely. Could he be the torch bearer for Henderson and the game’s other stolen base threats? If he can keep his latest hot streak on the plate.
Rodriguez’s transition to the majors was initially rough. After the loss on April 29, he was hitting .211 with a .550 on-base and slugging percentage. He somewhat mitigated those poor results with a defensive effort and was aggressive on basepaths: Through 19 games, he had a major league-leading nine stolen bases. Since then, his most respected talents have come on the plate with an .835 OPS in 12 games – but he has only stolen one base.
It’s too quick for a young player like Rodriguez to tell how things are going. In the current climate, however, it is not surprising that a player who strikes for power, such as Rodriguez, focuses on it rather than finding ways to make offense through stealing bases.
In the 1980s, the pitchers’ nightmares were filled with images of Tim Rains, Vince Coleman or Henderson taking the long lead from first base. But in recent years, players with a mix of speed have also taken a different route on how to steal huge numbers. Tree Turner tries to protect his body from erosion and tears as Mike Trout focuses his energy on stepping away from the best-selling skill of the game’s best base stealers.
Overall, teams are stealing an average of 0.49 a game this season, a mild increase from last year but for the fourth consecutive season with an average of less than 0.5. That is down from the modern peak of 0.85 per game in 1987 – the era of Raines, Coleman and Henderson. Over the course of the season, a seemingly small portion can add up. The Kansas City Royals led MLB with 124 steals last season; In 1987, The Average Team 138 stole.
Major League Baseball has identified this as a problem. The player goes out for a second, sends a jolt through the crowd, and makes a few more solo home runs and a stronger game than a dozen strikeouts. MLB therefore, as it is experimenting in the minor league stage, prefers to find ways to limit the number of times a pitcher can run out of rubber in one league, and to promote a race in which pitchers need to get out of rubber before attempting to pickoff in another.
In spite of that, it may sometimes feel like leaving another Henderson and never another Jose Reyes. While we wait to see if MLB’s initiatives can make a dent, it is worth remembering that there is a tide of statistics in baseball and that we are not really in the nadir of stolen bases.
There have only been six seasons where a major league average is less than 0.3 steals a game, and all six came between 1949 and 1956. In 1957, the Washington Senators set a truly dubious record, of course stealing only 13 bases as a team. In 154 games. To make matters worse, they were caught when they tried to steal 38 times.
A year later, Henderson was born in Chicago and went on to steal a record 1,406 bases.
And it was hardly Henderson. The resurrection of stolen settlements occurred surprisingly quickly after the low point in the 1950s. In 1958, the San Francisco Giants’ Willie Mays led the Majors with just 31 steals. By 1962, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Maury Wills had changed the game – and set a new record with 104.
In 1976, 10 players had 50 or more in the same season, and the average number of steals topped 0.7 a game – which would reach 22 consecutive seasons.
In that spirit, the return to stealing bases seems unlikely now, but the player and team who want to do so may not tell him to stop. From there the resurrection can bloom.
If that happens, Henderson won’t have to lose sleep over his records.
If Rodriguez or anyone else gets 50 in a season, he can repeat that feat for 28 consecutive seasons and Henderson has six more to tie it up. It’s not impossible, but like the adventures of Chamberlain and Gretzky, it’s a very bizarre record, it’s best not to spend too much time threatening anyone.