Over the course of sports history there are some extreme statistical outliers. From Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 48.5 minutes a 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’s career points leader even if he had never scored a goal, certain stars have put records so far out of reach that discussing them can seem pointless.
Rickey Henderson, the well-traveled vagabond who frequently found his way back to Oakland, was that way with stolen bases. And as the popular Twitter account Super 70s Sports noted on ThursdayHenderson began May 12, 1982 as the MLB leader in steals – with 35.
It is a number that appears more absurd the longer you look at it. Last year only two players managed that many stolen bases all season. In 2019, only five players got there. Henderson, who in 1982 was on his way to record 130 steals in 172 attempts, was averaging more than a steal per game in mid-May. It was a pace so relentless that it throws off the curve for any other stolen base discussion.
If you can adjust your base-stealing expectations back to modern reality, though, Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners is off to an impressive start in 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 steals in 11 attempts, Rodríguez, 21, is on pace 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 game’s other great stolen base threats? Not if he keeps up his recent hot streak at the plate.
Rodríguez’s transition to the majors was initially very rough. After a loss on April 29, he was hitting .211 with a .550 on-base plus slugging percentage. He had mitigated those poor results a bit with defensive effort and by being aggressive on the basepaths: Through 19 games, he had a major league-leading nine stolen bases. Since then, his highly regarded talents at the plate have come around, with an .835 OPS in 12 games – but he has stolen only one more base.
It is far too soon to tell how things will play out for a young player like Rodríguez. But in the current environment, it is not surprising for a player who can hit, particularly one who can hit for power like Rodríguez, to focus on that rather than finding ways to make offense through stealing bases.
In the 1980s, pitchers’ nightmares were filled with the image of Tim Raines, Vince Coleman or Henderson taking a long lead off first base. But in recent years, even players with the blend of speed and know-how to steal in huge numbers have gone another way. From Mike Trout’s bulking up to focus on his power to Trea Turner’s trying to protect his body from wear and tear, the game’s best base stealers have walked away from what used to be a highly marketable skill.
Overall, teams are averaging 0.49 steals a game this season, which is a mild uptick from last year but would also be the fourth season in a row in which the average is below 0.5. That is down from a modern peak of 0.85 a game in 1987 – the era of Raines, Coleman and Henderson. Over the course of the season, that seemingly small fraction can add up. Last season the Kansas City Royals led MLB with 124 steals; in 1987, the average team table 138.
Major League Baseball has identified this as a problem. A player taking off for second, sending a jolt through the crowd, makes for a more compelling game than a few solo home runs and a dozen strikeouts. So MLB, as it experiments at the minor league level, has prioritized finding ways to encourage running like limiting the number of times a pitcher can step off the rubber in one league and requiring pitchers to step off the rubber before attempting a pickoff in another.
Despite that, it can sometimes feel as if there will never be another José Reyes, let alone another Henderson. As we wait to see if MLB’s initiatives can make a dent, it is worth remembering that there is an ebb and flow to statistics in baseball and that we are not actually at the nadir of stolen bases.
There have been only six seasons in which the major league average was below 0.3 steals a game, and all six came between 1949 and 1956. In 1957, the Washington Senators set a truly dubious record, stealing only 13 bases as a team over the course of 154 games. Making matters worse, they were caught trying to steal 38 times.
A year later, Henderson was born in Chicago and would go on to steal a record 1,406 bases.
And it was hardly just Henderson. The resurgence of stolen bases after that low point in the 1950s happened surprisingly quickly. In 1958, Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants led the majors with only 31 steals. By 1962, Maury Wills of the Los Angeles Dodgers was changing the game – and setting a new modern record – with 104.
Steals became so frequent that in 1976, 10 players had 50 or more in the same season, and the average number of steals topped 0.7 a game – a figure it would reach in 22 consecutive seasons.
In that spirit, a return to stealing bases may seem unlikely right now, but all it would presumably take is a player wanting to do it and a team not telling him to stop. The resurgence could blossom from there.
Should that happen, Henderson will not need to lose sleep about his records.
If Rodríguez, or anyone else, gets to 50 in a season, they could repeat that feat for a span of 28 consecutive seasons and still be six short of tying Henderson. It’s not impossible, of course, but like the feats of Chamberlain and Gretzky, it is a record so outlandish that it is best not to spend too much time pondering whether anyone could threaten it.