Is Julio Rodríguez the next stolen base king?

Throughout the history of sport, there are extreme statistical values. From Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 48.5 minutes per game in the...


Throughout the history of sport, there are extreme statistical values. From Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 48.5 minutes per game in the 1961-62 season (there are only 48 minutes in an NBA game), to Wayne Gretzky, who had so many assists that he would be the NHL career points leader even if he had never scored a goal, some stars have put records so far out of reach that talking about it may seem pointless.

Rickey Henderson, the well-traveled wanderer who frequently returned to Oakland, was so with stolen bases. And like the popular Super 70s Sports Twitter account noted thursdayHenderson started May 12, 1982 as MLB’s leader in steals – with 35.

It’s a number that seems more absurd the more you look at it. Last year, only two players had as many stolen bases all season. In 2019, only five players achieved this. Henderson, who in 1982 was on course for a record 130 steals in 172 attempts, was averaging more than one steal per game by mid-May. It was such a relentless pace that it throws the curve for any other stolen base talk.

If you can adjust your baseline flight expectations to modern reality, Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners is off to an impressive start to his rookie season. He and the Mariners will open a series against the first-place Mets at Citi Field starting Friday night, and with a major league-leading 10 interceptions in 11 attempts, Rodríguez, 21, is poised to be the first player with 50 or more in a season since Dee Strange-Gordon had 60 in 2017.

Could Rodríguez be the future of baseball, as he boldly suggested before this season? Absolutely. Could he be the torchbearer for Henderson and the other big stolen base threats in the game? Not if he maintains his recent hot streak at the plate.

Rodríguez’s transition to the majors was initially very difficult. After a loss on April 29, he was at .211 with .550 on-base plus slugging percentage. He had mitigated those poor results somewhat through defensive efforts and being aggressive on the bases: in 19 games, he had nine major league-leading stolen bases. Since then, his much-loved skills at home plate have come through, with an .835 OPS in 12 games – but he’s only stolen one more base.

It’s far too early to tell how things will turn out for a young player like Rodríguez. But in today’s environment, it’s no surprise that a player who can punch, especially a player who can punch for power like Rodríguez, is focused on that rather than finding ways to manufacture a flying offense. bases.

In the 1980s, pitching nightmares were filled with the image of Tim Raines, Vince Coleman or Henderson taking a long lead on first base. But in recent years, even players who combine speed and skill to fly in large numbers have taken a different direction. From Mike Trout’s grounding to focus on his power to Trea Turner’s attempt to protect his body from wear and tear, the game’s best base stealers have moved away from what was once a highly marketable skill.

Overall, teams are averaging 0.49 steals per game this season, which is a slight increase from last year, but it would also be the fourth season in a row in which the average is lower than 0.5. That’s 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, this seemingly small fraction can add up. Last season, the Kansas City Royals led MLB with 124 steals; in 1987, the medium the team stole 138 and the Coleman Cardinals paced the majors with 248.

Major League Baseball has identified the lack of flights as a problem. A player taking second place, sending a jolt through the crowd, makes the game more compelling than a few solo homers and a dozen strikeouts. So MLB, as he minor league experiencesprioritized finding ways to encourage the run, such as limiting the number of times a pitcher can get off the rubber in one league and requiring pitchers to get off the rubber before attempting an out in another.

Despite this, it can sometimes feel like there will never be another José Reyes, let alone another Henderson. As we wait to see if MLB initiatives can make a dent, it’s worth remembering that there’s an ebb and flow in baseball statistics and we’re not really at the nadir of stolen bases.

There have only been six seasons in which the major league average was below 0.3 steals per game, and all six occurred between 1949 and 1956. In 1957, the Washington Senators set a record truly questionable, stealing just 13 team goals on the course. of 154 games. Worse still, they were caught stealing 38 times.

A year later, Henderson was born in Chicago and would go on to steal a record 1,406 goals.

And it wasn’t just Henderson. The resurgence of stolen bases after this low point in the 1950s happened surprisingly quickly. In 1958, Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants led the majors with just 31 interceptions. In 1962, Maury Wills of the Los Angeles Dodgers changed the game – and set a new modern record – with 104.

Stealing became so frequent that by 1976 10 players had 50 or more in the same season, and the average number of steals exceeded 0.7 per game – a figure it would reach in 22 consecutive seasons.

With that in mind, a return to flying basics might seem unlikely right now, but all it would probably take is for a player to want to do it and not be told by a team to quit. The resurgence could flourish from there.

If that happens, Henderson won’t need to sleep on his records.

If Rodríguez, or anyone else, hits 50 in one season, they could repeat that feat for 28 consecutive seasons and still be six years away from equaling Henderson. It’s not impossible, of course, but like the exploits of Chamberlain and Gretzky, it’s such a wacky record that it’s best not to spend too much time wondering if someone might threaten it.



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