Baseball Needs 100-Swipe Swaggerstars And Homeplate Larceny To Make This A Golden Era For Stolen Bases

Rule changes have led to more stolen bases, but MLB needs it's speedy stars to keep pushing the boundaries for us to enter a new Golden Era.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MAY 31: Elly De La Cruz #44 of the Cincinnati Reds looks on against the Chicago Cubs during the seventh inning at Wrigley Field on May 31, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Welcome to the new age of steal, where rule changes have combined with roster trends toward youth and athleticism to cause an explosion in stolen bases that pitchers and catchers have struggled to keep up with.

MLB’s 3,503 steals in 2023 (more than a 40% jump from 2022) were the second-highest in the modern era and the league is on pace to come in around that same number this year. But while limiting pitcher disengagements, installing the pitch clock, and enlarging bases have added more excitement to the game, there is another frontier that can’t be unlocked solely by volume.

Baseball doesn’t just need disruptions on the basepaths, it needs icons and viral highlights.

The 100-Steal Men

There was a time early this season when it seemed like Cincinnati Reds phenom Elly De La Cruz was heading toward the century mark, but his pace has slowed to the point where he’s more likely to land somewhere ahead of Ronald Acuna’s league-leading 73 steals from last year (quite possibly becoming the first player to pass 80 since 1988).

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A stellar mark, but one that lacks the impact and history of 100.

In the modern era (post-1900), there have only been eight 100 steal seasons – three by Rickey Henderson, three by Vince Coleman, and one each by Lou Brock and Maury Wills.

For comparison’s sake, there have been nine seasons where someone has hit 60 home runs or more. It’s a special occurrence, swiping 100, though certain factors in the game have had an influence on how rare it is, like more players bulking up and selling out for power and the rise of risk aversion on the basepaths and in the dugout.

As with an actual crime, assessing the chances of someone actually stealing 100 bases again comes down to means, motive, and opportunity. The rule changes only check the opportunity box.

While you can make the case that players are bigger, faster, and stronger now, they aren’t likely to be as schooled or skilled in the art of the steal as they were when it was a regular weapon in any manager’s game plan. Now, however, coaches and players can more freely lean into the running game. Having the means to steal 100 bases is a work in progress, but the best is surely yet to come.

Rickey Henderson had supporters along the way that helped develop his raw talent and refine his instincts. A-ball manager Tom Trebelhorn helped with late night sessions on how to take a lead.

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There was also teammate Davey Lopes, a two-time stolen base champ who is ranked 26th all-time and who Henderson previously credited as a mentor. Billy Martin, Henderson’s manager with the A’s in the early ‘80s also encouraged him to run, correctly predicting in Spring Training 1982 that Henderson was going to break Brock’s single season record that year.

In terms of motive, that’s the real separator.

There are plenty of guys who can steal 30 or 40 bases in a season. Who really wants to steal 70, 80, 90, 100? Who has the kind of aggression and dedication to being not just a pest but a game-changing force?

Henderson stole three or more bases in a Major League game 71 times in his career. He stole five in a game in 1989, scoring four runs and terrorizing a young Randy Johnson.

Coleman, Tim Raines, Kenny Lofton, Harold Reynolds, and especially Henderson didn’t just want to steal, they wanted to dominate – the pitcher, the catcher, the opposing manager, but also each other as they competed for crowns and the pride of knowing they out-ran the competition.

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Reynolds, the 1987 AL stolen base champ, loves to recount the hilarious story of the time Henderson called him up after that season, the only one in the ‘80s where he didn’t win the AL steals crown (injuries held him to just 95 games – he still finished 5th), to tell Reynolds that he oughta be ashamed for only stealing 60 bases. Then Henderson abruptly hung up.

Means, motive, and opportunity – I can see Elly De La Cruz as the clearest candidate to put it all together and get to 100 steals while, at the same time, having a good time doing it and becoming an even larger star in the process. He’s got such a rare combination of league-best speed, power, eye, and hit tool that it seems inevitable that he’s going to be top 5 in steals every year until he decides he wants to start hitting 40 home runs a season. Or maybe he’ll just do both for a while.

Like De La Cruz, Ronald Acuna is a blessed, multi-tool young star with the potential and ambition to be a dominant threat on the bases, but Acuna’s second major knee injury raises questions about what kind of player he’ll be when healthy. Acuna has already lost a step from his debut in 2018, but he still stole 73 bags with a sprint speed in the 68th percentile last year, so technique may continue to carry him forward. Can it carry someone to 100 steals? What a story that would be.

Corbin Carroll? Trea Turner? With Carroll, it’s too early to tell what this season’s struggles mean for his future, but he was so good last year and has the skill set to be an elite threat on the bases when he turns things around and gets on base more.

Turner has all the tools to get to 100 steals, but does he want it?

He’s got two stolen base titles (pre-rule changes), has steal king swagger, and is still 96th percentile sprint speed at the age of 31. He’s also wildly efficient, with an over 86% success rate.

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Still, he doesn’t run enough to seriously be in this conversation. It’s possible that stealing more than 30-40 bases is just not his top priority, which is more than fine, especially with a player who contributes in so many other areas.

Nobody is going to accidentally steal 100 bases. A player needs to go into a season wanting to hit that number — needing to do it. It’s a marathon and a sprint that comes with increased injury risk. That’s why the four players who have done it are so impressive and why, if someone threatens to join their ranks, it needs to be covered with the same fervor of a McGwire/Sosa, Bonds, or Judge home run chase.

The Most Exciting Play In Sports?

Chaotic, unexpected, and ripe with opportunities to flip the momentum of a game, the steal of home has always been as rare as it is exciting, specifically the straight steal when a runner on third breaks while the pitcher has the ball on the mound. It never feels like a particularly good idea, but when it happens and it’s successful, it’s euphoria.

Randy Arozarena’s straight steal of home in the playoffs in 2021 is one of the best highlights in recent memory. Nobody knew what the hell was going on and then when the dust cleared, Randy was standing there like a superhero. If you don’t think it’s the most exciting play, can we at least agree that it’s the gutsiest?

We’ve seen plenty of players be advantageous with it recently, including Ryan McMahon of the Rockies the other day, taking home on lazily tossed throws from catcher to pitcher. There are other moments of waned focus on the defense with similar results. It’s great. This Elly De La Cruz play, in particular, will leave you breathless.

“The most thrilling man in baseball stole second, third, and home!” An extremely rare stealer’s cycle demonstrating both De La Cruz’s skill and appetite for on-base carnage.

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The list of home plate steal all-time leaders is near exclusively guys from a century ago when speed and not power ruled the game. Ty Cobb is the all-time leader with 54. Rod Carew and Paul Molitor are the only guys who played as recently as the ‘80s that rank in the top 32. That’s how longstanding the tradition is to not attempt such a wildly dangerous play. And yet, I can’t help but want more.

With the pitch clock, disengagement rules, high-end player speed, and the widespread inability of relievers to limit the run game, the time is right to test baseball’s commitment to on-base-boldess. Beyond scoring a few extra runs, you also add a new layer of excitement every time someone is on third base. You also add the promise of a moment everyone on baseball Twitter can unite behind in awe.

There’s no rule change that can necessitate this. Baseball just needs more lunatics to push this boundary and prove that it can be done and that steals are as fun, integral, and dangerous as they were always meant to be.