Theft on the rise: How the Dodgers became baseball’s improbable men of steal

The Dodgers’ preferred method of attack is to bludgeon opponents with a loaded array of power hitters who are adept at making counts, chasing mistakes, and smugly patting the sides of their helmets as they circle bases.

Pointing out their base-stealing skills is a bit like reaching under a stack of C-Notes to rummage through the change drawer.

Stealing bases is so pre-analytic, so anti-moneyball, so Maury Wills. Risking an out on the basepaths is almost as passé as a sacrificial bunt. Stand still or be the target of a running gag.

Then why are the Dodgers exemplary men of thievery?

When the Dodgers came into play on Monday, they had 78 stolen bases while only being caught 14 times. You’re on your way to stealing 105, by far the highest total since 2014, when Dee Strange-Gordon spun the category at 64. Their win rate this season (84.8%) is the second-best in baseball behind the Chicago White Sox, who are 41-48 (85.4%).

The increase in steals should also keep the Dodgers fit for the punchy playoffs when stealing bases becomes easier and more effective. They were 16-16 in the 2021 playoffs and 31-32 in the last three postseasons, an impeccable 97% win rate.

Sabermetricians say the success rate at which attempted theft helps a team is around 70%. The overall win rate this season in Major League Baseball is 75%, and the league has had a win rate of at least 70% for 15 consecutive years, a rate matched in only one season from 1982 to 1993.

Although the success rate has remained constant, stolen bases have steadily declined among the majors over the past five years. The 2,474 stolen bases in 2018 marked the lowest total since 1973, and the number continued to decline in 2019 and 2021. The nine full seasons with the lowest stolen totals over the past 50 years include all six full seasons played between 2015 and 2021.

So while stealth has been snatched from the game, the Dodgers’ propensity to distract and swipe right has proven rewarding.

Somewhere, Wills smiles. We know where to find Dave Roberts — on the top step of the Dodgers’ dugout — and he’s smiling, too, because he knows how great theft can be.

The Dodgers’ manager has picked up what may be the most famous stolen base in baseball history. The Boston Red Sox was close to elimination from the 2004 American League Championship Series, trailing the New York Yankees 4–3 in the ninth inning of Game 4 after the Yankees won the first three games.

Roberts ran for Kevin Millar and in first place stole second from Mariano Rivera to Bill Mueller, sliding headfirst and touching the base with his left hand a split second before Derek Jeter’s tag.

Mueller scored for Roberts and the Red Sox went on to win the game, the ALCS and their first World Series since 1918, a flimsy stolen base that set the end of the Curse of the Bambino.

Deep down, Roberts is tickled that the Dodgers are even better at stealing bases than he is – Roberts had 243 steals in 301 attempts in his 10-year career, an 80.7% success rate. Still, he digests the daily sabermetric reports the Dodgers front office produces and realizes that it’s usually prudent for runners to stay put and hope a teammate flips an outfielder with an extra base hit .

“I’m happy with the win rate and I think we’re doing a good job picking our spots,” said Roberts. “If Trea, Belli, Mookie, Freddie steal bases, that’s a good thing. It helps us be dynamic.”

These four are indeed the masterminds of the Dodgers Den of Thieves: Trea Turner was 20 for 22 on Monday, Cody Bellinger was 11 for 13, Mookie Betts was 11 for 12, and Freddie Freeman was 10 for 12.

But sometimes a Dodger that opponents least expect to run throws a surprise. As? The same reason Freeman, whose speed is decidedly average, succeeds: preparation and guile.

Justin Turner, the slowest Dodgers player at regular position, is picking his spots but is a safe bet, 10-10 since 2018. Slow-footed catcher Austin Barnes has been nine-10 since 2019, a winning streak that began when he made the second place win against the Cincinnati Reds sets up a triple home run by AJ Pollock in a Dodgers win.

Barnes noted that Reds first baseman Joey Votto rushed to home plate prematurely in a sacrificial brood situation. With Barnes leaving and pitcher Walker Buehler kicking into the batter’s box, Barnes figured Votto would initially give up holding him and break after the plate before the pitcher began his delivery.

Indeed, Votto attacked early and Barnes was breaking up for second the moment he did and was safe without a throw.

“Austin, in particular, has great instincts, and he’s done something like that his entire career,” said Clayton McCullough, the Dodgers coach in charge of the running game. “He won’t amass big numbers, but he has a knack for when there’s something there to ambush someone.”

Dodgers baserunner Mookie Betts steals second base Sunday ahead of Miami's Joey Wendle.

Dodgers baserunner Mookie Betts steals second base Sunday ahead of Miami’s Joey Wendle.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

McCullough, whose most visible role is first base coach, earned the Dodgers players’ trust by unearthing information that boosted the stolen base’s success rate.

“Clayton is really smart and puts a lot of work into it, so I think that’s why the success rate went up, it’s probably him,” said Trea Turner. “It gives us information on what to look out for in every situation.”

Studying videos of enemy launchers meticulously and applying the knowledge in real time can reduce much of the risk of theft. McCullough, a former minor league catcher and manager who joined the Dodgers’ major league in 2021, is adept at spotting weaknesses in opponents’ steal prevention efforts.

Some pitchers are as inattentive as someone who leaves their car key in the ignition overnight. Others are often conscientious about holding runners, but allow their attention to lapse in certain—sometimes predictable—situations. And when a catcher drops to one knee to prepare for a pitch, it’s time.

“Early on the count, some pitchers are quicker on the plate and trying to make it hard to run,” McCullough said. “Then he falls behind, now he’s in front of you [Max] Muncy or a gymnast and his focus has shifted 100% to the batsman so it’s time to go.”

The increasing emphasis on speed — particularly from relievers — creates stealing opportunities as fewer pitchers are willing to use a quick slide-step delivery that could slow their fastball.

“The importance of speed and what guys are doing to throw harder, the quality of the hitter they’re facing, that’s what they focus on,” McCullough said.

Additionally, front-office sabermetricians, aiming to minimize risk on the base paths, discourage stolen base attempts. Some pitchers get lulled into believing that opposing baserunners will just stay put.

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts steals second while Twins second baseman Jorge Polanco can't get a glove on the throw.

The Dodgers’ Mookie Betts steals second while Twins second baseman Jorge Polanco can’t get a glove on the Aug. 9 throw.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Even Betts, who has a career 157 stolen bases and an 82.6% success rate, believes stolen bases are a weapon best used sparingly.

“For some of us, it’s part of our game. I think we focus on stealing bases when the opportunity arises and try to leave when we’re pretty sure we’re going to make it,” he said. “But we have a really good lineup, so there’s no point in trying to steal a lot of bases.”

A countercurrent to why it might be easier to steal is PitchCom, a handheld device that transmits audible signals to a pitcher at the touch of a button. The purpose of the technology, approved for use by MLB this season, is to eliminate sign stealing and improve the pace of the game.

The catcher wears a forearm cuff similar to a nine-button remote control for calling up the pitch and location. Pickup is another option. The pitcher has a receiver in his cap, the catcher has one in his helmet, and receivers may also be carried by three other fielders, usually the shortstop, second baseman, and center fielder, to allow them to position themselves based on the pitch called.

An unintended consequence is that pitchers are more likely to keep a runner close because the catcher can tell the pitcher to attempt a pickoff move. The infielders connected to PitchCom also know when a pickoff move is coming.

“I’ve never had so many pickoffs on second base in my career,” said Trea Turner. “It’s so much easier for pitchers not to screw this up. The catcher just clicks ‘Inside Move’ on the PitchCom and the pitcher wakes up.”

Replay is another technology that prevents base stealing because if a runner goes off base for a split second during their slide, they’re out.

“It just seems like every step along the way, whenever something is added, doesn’t necessarily benefit baserunning,” Turner said. “It seems like it helps in some areas but hurts baserunning. You have to be perfect.”

Cody Bellinger steals second while Cleveland Guardians second baseman Andres Gimenez jumps to catch a high throw.

Cody Bellinger steals second when Cleveland Guardians second baseman Andres Gimenez leaps to catch a high throw during a June 17 game.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

When asked if the Dodgers’ front office would curb base theft if the success rate dropped, Roberts responded sourly.

“No way,” he said, shaking his head and repeating, “No way. We’re not changing course because of a brief glitch in any aspect of the game.”

Considering the Dodgers’ near-perfect success rate over the past three postseasons, base-stealing should actually get an October boost.

“Even though it was the biggest moments of the year, with the information we had, we knew this could be our best shot,” McCullough said. “It can be difficult to string a few hits together, especially in the postseason. If we get a chance to put some weight on a pitcher and put a guy in goal position, we’re going to do it.

At least fans hope so. A stolen base is infinitely more exciting to watch than a strikeout or a walk, two of the three true outcomes. A home run is the third, and rest assured the Dodgers will have plenty of those mixed in along with their steal.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2022-08-23/dodgers-stolen-bases-success-rate-trea-turner-clayton-mccullough Theft on the rise: How the Dodgers became baseball’s improbable men of steal

Emma Bowman

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