Scoring is at its lowest point since 1992 (4.23 runs per game in the first half), but that doesn't mean the game is being played the way it was in the early '90s. In '92 there were 0.77 stolen bases and 1.15 attempts per game. This year those figures are down to 0.54 and 0.75—the lowest number of attempted steals per game since '71. The frequency of steals has jumped around throughout history, moving roughly in the opposite direction of how much power is in the game at any given time.
That the current low-run environment hasn't produced a spike in stolen bases is unusual—but sensible. Pitchers and catchers have put an end to the long-running trend of steadily improved stolen base success rates. The steals rate peaked at 74.4% in 2007 and has dropped to 72.5% this year. Pitchers are using slide steps, stepoffs and smart pitch selection to keep runners close. Catchers' mechanics have been refined, and after a period in which defense-challenged catchers such as Mike Piazza thrived, more teams are using catchers with stronger arms than bats.
But the real reason runners are staying put more often lies with the men at the plate. The value of a stolen base is highest when the next batter hits a single, and it is the single—not the home run—that is becoming an endangered species. Increased strikeout rates and more complex defensive shifts mean you are less likely to see a single today than at almost any other time in major league history. Only 2012 saw fewer singles per game per team (5.74) than the 5.80 so far this year. Take singles out of the game, and the reward of stealing second base is no longer worth the risk.
Deals to Be Done
This year there are just two weeks between the All-Star Game and the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. Who will be on the move? Keep an eye on these six names:
CHASE UTLEY, Phillies
The Phils hold the key to the deadline: They're probably not good enough to make the playoffs, but aren't far enough off the pace to convince G.M. Ruben Amaro Jr. that a sell-off is in order. Utley, who when healthy remains a high-impact second baseman, is one of several Phillies—like Carlos Ruiz, Michael Young, Jonathan Papelbon and Cliff Lee—who could fetch a good price. He'd be a great pickup for the Orioles or the A's.
ALEX RIOS, White Sox
There's no such doubt on the South Side, where G.M. Rick Hahn has to get started on the team's future. Rios hits for average and power, can run and has a strong arm. He's not a middle-of- the-order hitter, but would nevertheless be a lineup upgrade for the Rangers or the Pirates.
ARAMIS RAMIREZ, Brewers
He's currently out with a sprained left knee, but when healthy, Ramirez has enough pop to serve as a DH for AL teams that need help from the right side. His defense at third base hasn't been good for a while, so a bat-only role would be perfect. His backloaded contract features a $16 million salary in 2014, which could be the barrier to a deal. The Orioles are the best fit for him.
CARLOS QUENTIN, Padres
A 10-game losing streak crippled San Diego's NL West chances and underlined the case for them being sellers. Quentin's poor defense and inability to stay healthy—he's played just 55% of the Padres' innings in left—mean he needs to be someone's DH and occasional outfielder. The Orioles, again, but the Rangers and Rays are also fits for Quentin.
RAUL IBAÑEZ, Mariners
Ibañez's success in 2012 (22 home runs) was entirely about pulling balls into Yankee Stadium's short rightfield porch against righthanders. On the road or against lefties he was useless. But with Seattle this year he's maintained his power, slugging .641 at SafeCo and .496 everywhere else, with eight homers in 78 at bats against lefties. He's a one-trick pony, but it's a good trick. All the aforementioned teams needing outfield or DH help should be in on him. Or perhaps the Yankees will bring him back to pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez again.