Last month's interleague series between the Cubs and White Sox featured 33 runs, 65 hits, 11 home runs, two triples, 11 doubles, seven hit batsmen, three errors and six stolen bases.
Six stolen bases amounts to 1 1/2 per game over a four-game series, and move over, Rickey Henderson — by today's standards, that's blatant thievery. Baseballs may be flying out of ballparks at an unprecedented rate this season, but runners remain rooted to their bases like grounded adolescents to their bedrooms: As of Sunday, major-league teams were averaging slightly more than half a stolen base per game.
One of the rare outliers will be at Wrigley Field this week when the Reds' Billy Hamilton visits. Hamilton is the major-league leader with 49 steals in 58 attempts, an 84 percent success rate, and he might surpass his average of 57 steals over the previous three seasons. The Marlins' Dee Gordon (40-for-50, 80 percent) is the only other major-league player with as many as 40 steals after averaging 54 the last three seasons.
Trea Turner of the Nationals was leading the majors with 35 steals in 68 games and succeeding on 85 percent of his attempts when a pitch from the Cubs' Pedro Strop broke his wrist June 29 — two days after Turner had swiped four bags in three innings and prompted the outburst that got Cubs catcher Miguel Montero banished to the Blue Jays. Turner is expected back in the Nationals lineup by September.
Dusty Baker, Turner's manager, became a proponent of the running game while watching Davey Lopes average 50 steals over the first four seasons they played together on the Dodgers.
"Trea Turner is a weapon," Baker said. "The pitcher, the catcher, the infielders … everybody gets nervous when he's on base."
For the most part, though, MLB has become the province of plodders — the Mariners' Jarrod Dyson leads the American League with a mere 27 steals, and 15 thefts by the Diamondbacks' A.J. Pollock and the Reds' Jose Peraza crack the top 10 in the National League.
Gone are the days when brazen, prolific thieves such as Henderson, Vince Coleman, Tim Raines, Lou Brock and Maury Wills might as well have been awarded second base by virtue of getting to first — they were taking it anyway. The stolen base seems headed the way of Sunday doubleheaders and two-hour games.
"I believe in the running game," Joe Maddon insisted, even though his scrupulously honest Cubs had stolen just 43 bases in 115 games through Saturday. "We'd run more if we had more runners, obviously, but we don't have a lot of guys with that particular ability."
Cubs second baseman Javier Baez discusses his steal of home plate during Game 1 of National League Championship Series. (Paul Skrbina/Chicago Tribune)
Carl Crawford and Melvin Upton Jr. combined for 82 steals per season in the four years they played together in the Rays outfield for Maddon. With seven thefts apiece, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Ian Happ had combined for nearly half the Cubs' total.
"You can't force it if it's not there, and I absolutely hate running into an out that's not necessary," Maddon said. "You get a pitcher who's slow to the plate or his attention wanders, or a catcher who's having trouble throwing … we'll never be afraid to run. It's a risk/reward-type thing depending on the situation."
The stolen base could be considered a casualty of the analytics revolution. An oft-cited Baseball Prospectus theory maintains a 75 percent success rate on steals is necessary to override the risk of forfeiting one of a team's 27 outs. In other words, losing an out generally hurts a team more than gaining a base helps it.
By that measure, 10 of MLB's 30 teams can justify aggression on the basepaths, led by the Royals at 81 percent and the Yankees and Reds at 79 percent through Saturday. Another 12 teams make it on 70 to 75 percent of their attempts. That leaves eight teams for whom honesty is probably the best policy, including the Cubs (68 percent) and White Sox (61 percent).
"To me it's a skill a well-rounded player should have, like bunting," Sox manager Rick Renteria said. "We might not ask you to do it very often, but if we need you to do it, you should be able to. I came up in an era when teams like the Cardinals ran all the time, but other teams like the Orioles hardly ran at all."
Indeed, Orioles manager Earl Weaver, a staunch proponent of "pitching, defense and three-run homers," guarded his outs as zealously as he guarded his money and had little use for steal attempts or sacrifice bunts.
By contrast, Whitey Herzog's pennant-winning 1985 Cardinals hit just 87 homers but stole 314 bases — nearly two per game — with Coleman swiping 110, Willie McGee 56, Andy Van Slyke 34 and Ozzie Smith and Tommy Herr 31 apiece.
Renteria's Sox bear little resemblance to their Go-Go forebears; they were 41-for-67 on steals through Saturday.
"It depends on the situation and the player involved," he said. "If you have guys who can do it, it's a good weapon to have."
Terry Francona, manager of the defending American League champion Indians, is an advocate for the running game, even though his club stole only 63 bases in its first 114 games.
"Last year," Francona said, "we had Rajai Davis, so we ran a lot (134 steals in 165 attempts, with Davis swiping 43). This year we don't run as much. It depends on a lot of things — park, personnel, game situation."
Francona recalls the game-changing presence of a former Expos teammate who ran his way into Cooperstown.
"I came up with Tim Raines, who was so good it was ridiculous — he never got thrown out," Francona said.
Raines, enshrined in the Hall of Fame last month, was 808-for-954 in career steals, an 84 percent success rate. In 1983 he swiped 90 bags and was caught just 14 times.
"If you have a guy like that, you would be crazy not to run," Francona said. "I played against those great Cardinals teams in the '80s. They played in a big ballpark and they didn't have a lot of power, so they were built on speed. I don't know if you'll ever see a team like those Cardinals again, but stealing bases always will be part of the game."
"It surprises me that more teams aren't running because when you're in the playoffs or playing the games that really count, you have to be able to manufacture runs," said Scott Podsednik, who stole 59 bases for the White Sox' 2005 World Series champions and led the National League with 70 thefts for the Brewers in 2004.
"You can't depend strictly on power, especially when you face good pitching. That's one of the reasons our '05 team was so successful. We hit a lot of home runs, but we also had the ability to scratch out runs when we needed to."
Podsednik was 309-for-413 in career steals, hitting the accepted 75 percent success rate. He believes the best base bandits are made, not born.
"There's more to stealing bases than just running fast," he said. "It took me a while to learn all the nuances, the cat-and-mouse game with the pitcher. For me, that was the most difficult part. And I don't think it can be taught — you have to experience it for yourself.
"Plus you're sliding and diving every time you run … it takes a toll on your body. The year I stole 70 bases, I was pretty beat up by the end of the season. My knees, my legs … I still have some scars."
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, an expert base stealer over 10 seasons with six teams, sees the ethnic composition of MLB rosters as a reason stolen-base totals have declined so precipitously.
"Fewer African-American players," he said.
African-American players held roughly 9 percent of the spots on opening-day rosters this season.
"Those Cardinals teams that ran all the time had Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith," Roberts said. "The greatest base stealer of all time is Rickey Henderson. Lou Brock, Tim Raines … it's the way we were brought up in the game."
Roberts stole 243 bases in 301 attempts in his career, an 81 percent success rate. He was 38-for-41 in 2004, and his brazen theft of second in the ninth inning of Game 4 in the '04 American League Championship Series is credited with igniting the Red Sox's miraculous comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees and subsequent World Series sweep of the Cardinals. Francona was the manager who gave him the steal sign.
The Dodgers were 57-for-78 (73 percent) on steal attempts through Saturday. Seeing Roberts preside over a team that rarely runs is akin to seeing a Formula One racer behind the wheel of a dump truck, but the Dodgers' sedentary ways have produced the best record in baseball.
Yet in New England and elsewhere, Roberts' name always will be linked to the beauty of the well-timed stolen base.