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Stolen Bases and the New Rules

by Lincoln Mitchell

June 1, 2023


Stolen Bases and the New Rules

Larger bases and limiting pickoff throws will lead to more stolen bases, but it will take some time


NOTE - This article comes from Lincoln Mitchell's Substack page, Kibitzing with Lincoln . Please click HERE to follow Lincoln on Substack.


I’ve been going to big league baseball games for over 45 years and, although I just missed seeing Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson and Willie Mays play, I have seen many of the greatest players of the last half century including Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Joe Morgan, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Randy Johnson, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton. The best player I ever saw was Barry Bonds, but the most exciting player I ever saw was Rickey Henderson.

In Henderson’s first years with the A’s the excitement was palpable every time he came to the plate and grew even more when he got on base as Henderson took daring leads and stole bases seemingly at will. Henderson also frequently made highlight reel catches in left and even smashed the occasional home run.

Rickey Henderson was the best of a group of base stealers, including Ron Leflore, Willie Wilson, Omar Moreno and Tim Raines. who made a big impact on the game in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For a brief period, it looked like stolen bases were going to take over the game. The Yankees infamously adopted this strategy for about half a season in 1982 before phasing out speedy but relatively punchless players like Ken Griffey Sr. and Dave Collins.

Building an offense around the stolen base worked well for the Cardinals, but for few other teams in the 1980s. Even Henderson’s A’s relied on more than the stolen base to drive their offense. In 1981, when they won the American League West and had the best overall record in the league over the strike shortened split season, the A’s were fourth in stolen bases, but led their league in home runs. However, despite its tenuous value, the stolen base brings excitement and a fun dimension to the game.

Over the last four years, the stolen base had almost disappeared as an offensive weapon. There was an average of between 0.6 and 0.7 stolen base attempts a game during those years, down from more than 0.9 in 2011 and 2012. Between 2018 and 2022, no big league player stole even 50 bases in a season. In 1982, when Henderson set the record for stolen bases in a single season, with 130 swipes, six players stole 50 or more bases.

This season baseball introduced two new rules to encourage to encourage base stealing, as well as to speed up the game and reduce collisions. The first of these restricts the number of pickoff attempts a pitcher can make with a runner on base. The second expands the size of the bases, which makes first and second, and second and third, 4.5 inches closer than in the past.

Thus far, with the season about 30% over we have seen a slight increase in stolen bases. Currently teams are attempting about 0.9 stolen bases per game, the most since 2012. An increase from 0.6 to 0.9 stolen bases a game may seem like a lot because it is an increase of about 33%, but for a casual, or even relatively intense fan, it is barely noticeable. During the average three game series in the previous few seasons, each team would attempt to steal roughly two bases. In that same series this season, some teams would attempt two stolen bases, while others would steal three. Over the course of the season, that adds up, but this is hardly Billy Ball or the 1976 version of the A’s who stole a record 341 bases and had three players with more than fifty, and six players with more than thirty, stolen bases.

The new rules will increase base stealing, perhaps substantially, but it will take some time. Increasing the size of bases and limiting pickoff throws is not like, for example, using a more lively ball. The latter will immediately turn long fly balls into home runs, but the former only significantly changes the game for players who are already base stealers. For years very few players were scouted, developed or promoted because they could steal bases, so today’s rosters are made up of players who have never been base stealers. That is not going to change because of some new rules. Players like Yordan Alvarez, Max Muncy or Pete Alonso are not going to begin stealing bases just because of some rule changes-and there are lot of players with similar, if not as formidable, skill sets as those players.

Additionally, over the last few years baseball strategy has changed substantially. The days when almost every team’s leadoff hitter was a speedy leftfielder or centerfieder without much power are ancient history. Few teams view the stolen base as a central part of their offense. By around 2019 it had devolved into mostly being something of a quirky or surprise play.

.The new rules may change all this, but it will take time. Just as pitchers will become more accustomed to the pitch clock over time as young pitchers begin to see it simply as part of the game, base stealing will come back as more players are identified, drafted and developed who can take advantage of the new rules. Within a few years baseball may have a stolen base revival, but it will probably not be led by anybody who is currently a big league veteran.

Expanding the bases, and particularly limiting pick-off throws is gimmicky way to bring back the stolen base. On the off-chance that any player threatens Rickey Henderson’s career or single season stolen base record, it will be in part due to these new rules. That is unfortunate both because it undermines the continuity of the game, but it also speaks to the complex relationship baseball has with its history as it both celebrates and occasionally seeks to erase it.


Jun 02, 2023

I’m in minority on this…. larger bases and limiting pickoffs are changes to rules …… for the better imho. You call them gimmicks I call them changes. You don’t see players like Henderson with his base stealing ability often. I actually thought we would see more stolen bases this year we should it’s an exciting part of the game but baseball managers have been timid in using the stolen base. That should change!


Jun 01, 2023

Nice piece. Agree, Rickey was an unbelievably exciting player. I can still remember the night they announced the deal bringing him to NY!


Jun 01, 2023

Yeah I don't like the gimmicky rules changes about limiting pick off attempts (excuse me, disengagements) and the bigger bases. You have it right - if you want more stolen bases recruit guys who can do it. But MLB seems to love gimmicks.

Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
Jun 01, 2023
Replying to

"in the best interests of baseball" means in the best interests of maximizing owners profits!


Jun 01, 2023

A nit to pick, but going from 0.6 to 0.9 attempts per game is a 50% increase.

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