Stolen Bases Are Artificially Boosted This Year—Just As They Were In ’80s Heyday


Image credit: Ricky Henderson (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The average MLB team this season attempts a stolen base in nine out of 10 games. That may not sound dramatic, but it is compared with the state of the game just two years ago.

In 2021, teams attempted to steal in just six out of every 10 games, which was the lowest rate since 1964. 

This season, the dramatic uptick in stolen base attempts should surprise no one. A series of new rules changes—particularly the pitch timer and disengagement rule—have boosted the popularity of the running game.

* The 20-second pitch timer with runners on base forces the pitcher to rapidly get on the same page with his catcher, while also taking away one of the pitcher’s greatest weapons against the running game: varying his times to the plate. 

* The disengagement rule disincentivizes a pitcher from throwing over to first base to keep a baserunner close. A pitcher gets two pickoff throws or step-offs per at-bat. A third results in a balk. 

Some argue that the stolen base resurgence of 2023 is artificial, a gimmick resulting from a set of rules that disrupt traditional pitcher-baserunner dynamics.

While there is truth in that sentiment, it’s also true that the heyday of the stolen base—the 30-year period centered on the 1980s—was boosted by artificial means. Quite literally. 

Artificial turf shaped the way the game was played for three decades, particularly in the National League, where Cincinnati, Houston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis played home games on turf for the entire decades of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. 

Well technically, the Cardinals switched to grass in 1996, meaning that St. Louis played 26 of the aforementioned 30 seasons on turf. But to help compensate, the Expos moved into Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in 1977, where they remained through 2004.

Add it all up and the 12-team NL had six parks with artificial surfaces between 1977 and 1995. And for nearly 20 seasons from the mid ’70s to the mid ’90s, the six-team NL East featured four turf teams in the Cardinals, Expos, Phillies and Pirates. 

By contrast, the 14-team American League during this period had just four parks with artificial turf—Kansas City, Minnesota, Seattle and Toronto—and even then only in the ’80s did they all overlap. By 1994, the Royals had switched to natural grass at Kauffman Stadium. 

Why is this turf talk important? 

The artificial turf of the old multi-purpose stadiums made basestealing easier, but just as significantly, the faster playing surface placed an emphasis on players with speed and range. Infielders had less reaction time on ground balls as they skittered across the turf, while outfielders needed to be able to cut off balls in the gap to prevent them from rolling to the wall.

This had the effect of teams selecting rangier players at most field positions, and these rangier players tended to steal more bases and advance farther on batted balls that evaded defenders.  

Also, in the period before the building boom of the ’90s, ballparks tended to be larger and less homer-friendly. That was another mark against sluggers who didn’t bring speed or defense to the table. 

It all added up to an environment that incentivized the stolen base—and that’s exactly what happened in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.   

Team stolen base attempts peaked at 1.14 per nine innings in the 1980s, with most of that action concentrated in the NL, where teams made 1.30 attempts per nine compared with 1.00 in the AL. 

But the stolen base attempt rate was high in the 1970s (0.97 per nine innings) and 1990s (1.07) as well. 

For a quarter century, competing for the NL pennant required a team to be able to win on turf. Evey NL Championship Series from 1970 to 1995 featured at least one turf team, with three exceptions: 1984, ’88 and ’89.

But once MLB moved out of the turf era—which began with the Houston Astrodome in 1966 and was fading fast by 2000—stolen base attempts atrophied. 

Teams attempted 0.82 stolen bases per nine innings in the 2000s and 0.78 in the 2010s. From 2020 to 2022 the rate was 0.66. 

This season with the new rules teams are attempting 0.91 stolen bases per nine innings. Not only are players running more, but they are succeeding at an historic 78.4% rate.

So while there is an artificiality to the surge in stolen bases this season, the same was true of the 1980s, the heyday for stolen bases.

Stolen Base Rates Per Nine Innings By Decade
Decade AL NL MLB Note
1920s 1.05 1.10 1.05 Last vestiges of Deadball
1930s 0.75 0.66 0.71 Power becomes king
1940s 0.66 0.62 0.64 WWII depletes talent pool
1950s 0.51 0.53 0.52 Era of station-to-station ball
1960s 0.63 0.70 0.67 Maury Wills sparks SB rebirth
1970s 0.97 0.96 0.97 Artificial turf takes over NL
1980s 1.00 1.30 1.14 Heyday of the stolen base
1990s 1.02 1.13 1.07 Smaller parks incentivize HR
2000s 0.84 0.80 0.82 ’90s trends exacerbated
2010s 0.78 0.78 0.78 Decade of three true outcomes
2020-22 0.67 0.66 0.66 MLB trends toward ’50s style
2023 0.91 0.91 0.91 New rules boost running game

Download our app

Read the newest magazine issue right on your phone