Remember the 1980’s? Yeah, me either.
However, I remember my dad telling me about the League that he grew up watching. During the 1980’s, you couldn’t find a league leader with less than 60 stolen bases. In the ’80s there were six seasons in which players had more than 100 steals, six different players stole at least 80 bags, 11 stole more than 70, and 31 stole at least 50 in a season. Rickey Henderson set a single-season record with 130. That is unheard of in today’s game. In 2017, Whit Merrifield led the American League with just 34 bags, and in the National League, Dee Gordon led with 64 bags. Granted the National League is more aggressive offensively, these numbers are nowhere close to the likes of Ricky Henderson. Stolen bases per game in 1987 had doubled from 20 years earlier. The game began to be played faster. Teams were built around the stolen base, and the ‘hit-and-run’ technique began to be implemented by almost every team.
Baseball today is still fast and very exciting to watch. The league now is a stage full of the world’s biggest and best stars — absolute freaks of nature. But still, the game is still slower compared to the 80’s, and a decrease in stolen bases is one of the reasons.
There are plenty of factors that can be considered; better catching techniques and quicker pop times (time it takes the ball to leave the pitcher’s hand and hits the catcher’s glove), lineups loaded with power hitters, introduction of balk rules and more. However, some statisticians like to believe that current-generation pitching techniques have been a major cause to a decrease in stolen bases.
In the past couple years, the MLB has seen some incredible pitching. In the early 1990’s, very few pitchers were able to break triple-digit MPH on their fastballs. According to Statcast, in the 2015 season, 627 pitches were thrown 100 MPH or over. With phenomes such as Noah Syndergaard keeping a consistent 97-102 fastball range, and Aroldis Chapman throwing a whopping 106 MPH, the league now has to deal with a shorter pop-times. In 2015, 31 different pitchers threw over 100 MPH. Ever since the 90’s, the league gains a few more flame-throwers every few years. For instance, in 2008, 4.1 percent of all pitches were thrown 95 MPH or over. By 2015, more than 13 percent did.
The league has gotten used to this. The days of Rickey Henderson are just tales told to children, just like my dad told me. Instead of triple-digit stolen bases and hit-and-run after hit-and-run, we see infield shifts and insanely fast heaters. Yes, the game is slower, but the league is filled with phenome pitchers and super sluggers. While style and tactics have changed, it’s still America’s pastime.