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How important are stolen bases? In an article in the 1976 Journal of the Society of American Baseball Research, George Wiley reported on many years of study to determine the correlation between records in each statistical category and team success. He found the correlation between stolen bases and team wins "so low as to conclude that in themselves they have little or no effect on final team standing." Wiley was studying baseball history from 1920 to 1960; you may be heartened to learn that the correlation is a little higher in our own time. But not much: This year the fifth-place A's lead the American League in stolen bases, last year it was the sixth-place Cleveland Indians.
Some teams, like the A's, Royals and Expos, do generate a few extra runs by stealing bases, but other teams, like the Orioles, Red Sox and Cubs, would score more runs than they do if they never attempted to steal a base.
Pete Palmer of the Sports Information Center in Quincy, Mass., one of the premier analysts of the game, estimates that each stolen base creates .2 of a run for a team, and that each player caught stealing costs that team about .35 of a run. If those figures are accurate, then Henderson's base stealing this season has produced a net gain of about a dozen runs for the A's. That's a nice auxiliary contribution from an outstanding player, but in the context of the hundreds of runs that can separate the best offense from the worst, it's peanuts.
You may not find those arguments convincing. I understand. I never believe anything an economist says, myself. But in a strange way, most people already know that the stolen base isn't really important. Nobody votes for the stolen-base champion as the MVP. In the 19 years since Wills's big MVP season, not another stolen-base champion has won the award. Thirteen home-run champs have been MVPs in that period, eight batting titlists, 14 slugging percentage leaders, 18 RBI leaders, 10 runs-scored leaders, plus three or more who led in walks, at bats, hits, doubles, triples, shutouts and ERA. Obviously, many MVPs have led in more than one of these categories. Six players who didn't lead in anything have won the award. If people really believe that stolen bases are important, why are stolen-base champions the only ones who have been blanked? Will Henderson win this year? My personal favorite is Milwaukee's Robin Yount.
I sometimes point out that in the last 20 years, eight teams have led their league in stolen bases and still finished last—twice the number of last-place finishers who led their league in all the other major offensive categories combined. This provokes an inevitable response: Teams that don't have very much power are more likely to steal. Sure they are—but on the other hand, teams that don't have very much speed are more likely to hit home runs. They don't finish last. Nobody seems surprised to learn this.
Where are stolen-base totals going? If more stadiums are built with wide-open spaces in the outfields, we could be entering an era in which it will take 100 stolen bases to lead the league. But the three newest stadiums in baseball, the Kingdome, Minnesota's Humpdome and Montreal's Olympic Stadium are home-run hitters' parks, and home-run totals seem to be rising again. Any team that can build an offense around power, will.
One year when Maury Wills was in the Class-A Western League, along with Bill White, who went on to be the Cardinal first baseman and now is a broadcaster, White led that league with 40 stolen bases. Wills had 28. When Wills broke the major league record, White was asked if it showed how hard Wills had worked to improve himself. "It sure does," White replied. "Besides, I don't have to steal bases to stay in the majors."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]