The decline of the stolen base in college baseball
Since the majority of teams started keeping track of major statistics in 1970, virtually every offensive stat has increased.
The introduction of aluminum bats and new bat standards has caused peaks and valleys in all, but since 1970, the average batting average has gone from .262 to .275, home runs per game have increased from .4 to .61, scoring has jumped from 4.96 to 5.57 runs per game, and stolen bases have fallen from 1.15 to 1.01.
Yep. Stolen bases per game have decreased by 12.2 percent since 1970.
Let’s take a closer look. Here’s what it looks like if we chart the individual stolen bases per game leader since 1970:
That’s a crazy dropoff. In 1959, the third year that stolen bases were recorded in the college game, the season leader had just 0.93 per game. In every single year from then through 2007 — a span of 58 years — the best college baseball base stealer has averaged at least one per game.
In 1988, Bethune-Cookman’s Lawrence Smith even nabbed an eyebrow-raising 1.93 bags per game — still the NCAA single-season record.
Then, in 2008, UT Rio Grande Valley’s Roly Gonzalez put up 0.82 stolen bases per game and won the title. Mississippi Valley’s Jeff Squier did the same the next year. And that was that. No player has averaged a stolen base per game for a season since.
Through 30 games this year, Michigan State’s Bryce Kelley is averaging 0.77 stolen bases per game, leading the NCAA.
So why are stolen bases becoming less common?
Baseball America’s Michael Lananna believes that pro baseball is to blame.
“The decline in stolen bases is likely due to the Moneyball-era principles at the MLB level trickling down into the college game, as well as the overall rise of analytics at the college level,” Lananna says. “Stolen bases, in general, are frowned upon by the sabermetrics community. Giving away an out on a steal attempt is often not worth the statistical risk. You see coaches in the college game, particularly younger coaches, adopt those newer ideas more and more."
Baseball Prospectus, a website dedicated to advanced baseball analytics, backs that theory up.
“If you’re stealing at less than a 75 percent success rate, you’re better off never going at all,” one article on the site says.
So how did Baseball Prospectus come to that number? They explain with a sample run-expectation table:
|Bases||0 outs||1 out||2 outs|
|1st, 2nd, 3rd||2.4366||1.525||0.7932|
“A runner on first with no one out is worth .9116 runs. A successful steal of second base with no one out would bump that to 1.1811 runs, a gain of .2695 expected runs. If that runner is caught, however, the expectation–now with one out and no one on base–drops to .2783, a loss of .6333 expected runs. That loss is about 2.3 times the gain.”
But of course, all runs aren’t equal. In lower-scoring games, advancing a runner from first to second can be the difference. So an inverse relationship between scoring and stealing bases only seems natural. And if you're going to steal still, you better be sure you're beating the odds.
This year, of the top 50 college teams in stolen bases, only 11 have success on fewer than 75 percent of their attempts, and none of those are lower than 66.7 percent. The average team in the top 10 of total stolen bases is successful on 81.6 percent of all attempts.
Will stolen bases ever become trendy again in college baseball? Probably not at the rate that they were in the late 70s and 80s, when teams averaged 1.44 per game. But a succesfully stolen base is still a valuable weapon in a team's aresenal, so don't expect the downward spiral to continue too much longer.