Olney: What's behind the decline and fall of the stolen base?

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Jose Altuve has hundreds of games to play before he reaches his 30th birthday, and he is among the most prolific base stealers of his generation. But as he waited for his turn in batting practice at the Astros' camp last week, he mentioned that he probably will again never come close to reaching his career-high of 56 steals, accomplished in 2014.

Too much risk, he concluded. Altuve was referring to a specific concern he has, but he might as well have been speaking more broadly, for the entire industry.

The number of stolen bases is generally declining. It might just be that this trend is part of another cycle in baseball, merely a precursor to a time when teams will again find value in players capable of taking 90 feet on the bases without the need for a swing of the bat. Or it might be that, in a sport in which risk assessment now drives everything from free-agent investments to the development of young pitchers, the base stealers have become the outlier, like motorcyclists without helmets.

In 2017, there were only three players with 40-plus stolen bases -- Dee Gordon, Billy Hamilton and Trea Turner. There were also only three in 2015 -- Gordon, Hamilton and Charlie Blackmon. Before 2015, there hadn't been three or fewer (in any non-strike-shortened season) since 1967, when only Lou Brock and Bert Campaneris reached 40.

Some evaluators chimed in with some reasons for the decline in stolen bases:

1. Generation Long Ball: Everybody seems to aspire to rack up home runs these days, from sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge to pitchers like Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta. Last year, 117 players generated 20 or more homers; 29 had 20 or more stolen bases. In spring training this year, the Cubs, Rays and other teams are counseling their players on how to get the ball in the air, and are probably devoting more time to that concept than on getting a good break from first base.

But the change is not only about the focus on the hitters -- it's also in the strategy used when there's a baserunner at first base.

"I don't think these [players] even want someone running on the bases ahead of them," one evaluator said. "I think their feeling is, you get on base and I'll go deep and drive you in."

In other words: It's easier for a hitter to focus on clubbing the ball if they don't have to concern themselves with giving a runner at first an opportunity to steal a base, or be distracted by the movement of the baserunner. And if the baserunner successfully moves to second, the pitcher and catcher might be more apt to work carefully to the hitter and be less apt to throw a meaty strike.

For a lot of players, it has become less about taking the extra 90 feet and focusing on the 360 feet they can stroll around the bases if they blast a homer.

2. Injuries: Ask any big-time baserunner about Rickey Henderson and his 1,406 steals and they will marvel at Henderson's endurance, particularly for someone who slid headfirst. Despite his incredibly aggressive style, Henderson managed to mostly avoid the finger, hand and wrist injuries that all baserunners risk.

Altuve's moneymakers are his hands and wrists; he needs to do what he can to keep that part of his body healthy. The same is true for Mike Trout and Carlos Correa, who both tore thumbs running last year and missed many weeks.

These days, teams prescribe and adhere to innings limits for pitchers to keep them healthy and productive over a longer period of time. MLB changed the plate-blocking rules in an effort to keep catchers such as Buster Posey on the field.

For Altuve, for Trout and for a lot of front offices, the potential big-picture gain from a stolen base -- an additional 90 feet in one potential rally in one game of 162 -- might not be worth the increased risk of injury.

3. Instant replay: The Nationals' Turner is among the best base stealers in the big leagues, and he mentioned an impact of replay discouraging for baseball thieves: Unlike previous generations of runners, Turner and his peers must now be absolutely sure to maintain contact with the base all the way through the end of the slide. Henderson was fast and powerful in how he took bases, slamming headfirst into bases -- and wayward fielders -- like a linebacker, and undoubtedly, there were times in Henderson's career when he would come off the bag as he zoomed over it.

You cannot do that anymore because of the managerial challenges and the many camera angles on slow-motion replay. For base stealers such as Turner, this means going into second base with a little more control -- and maybe a fraction less reckless speed, which just adds to the risk of getting caught.

4. The percentages: The Cardinals' Tommy Pham was incredulous as he shared in a conversation recently about a prolific base stealer of a bygone era who would sometimes get thrown out 20 or 25 times in a season. "You have to be at 80 percent," said Pham, who was at the edge of that line last year, successfully stealing 25 bases in 32 attempts (78.1 percent).

Pham is correct -- through the use of analytics, teams have determined that if you are below 80 percent in your success rate, then you probably shouldn't run. The numbers say it's just not worth the risk. Brett Butler stole more than 40 bases five times in his career, from 1981 to 1997. But if he played in the current era, it's possible that his front office would've ordered his manager to hold him rather than have him get thrown out 28 times in 66 attempts, which is what happened in 1991.

The players whose value is built on the volume of bases they steal seem to be going the way of the ace pitcher who throws complete games.

5. Pickoff manners have changed: When a visiting pitcher throws to first base, he'll draw loud boos from the home crowd, and the reaction only gets louder on a second throw, or a third or a fourth. There was a time when players responded to this more than they do these days; they felt some peer pressure to move the game along, and so they'd relent and throw the ball homeward.

But players and their bosses don't seem as concerned about this anymore, in the college game as well as MLB. Rather, they are more focused on the task at hand. If the best method for slowing a base stealer is to throw to first base over and over and over -- wearing out the runner physically and mentally -- they will do that, pace of play be damned. Pitchers will step off, they will look over, or maybe they'll just hold the ball, doing what they can to disrupt the base runner.

"If you've make up your mind you're going to stop a baserunner from going," one evaluator said, "you can do that, with only a few exceptions, like Billy [Hamilton]."

6. The slide step and streamlined deliveries: As pitchers work to make their mechanics more efficient, with less margin for error, some have refined their deliveries -- such as Stephen Strasburg, who pitches without a windup even when there are not runners on base. In 2012, Strasburg gave up 14 stolen bases in 16 attempts. In the past three seasons, he has surrendered a total of 14 steals in 23 attempts.

Not every pitcher is as good as Strasburg at slowing a running game, of course. Last year, the Braves' Julio Teheran gave up 26 steals, and opponents went 21-for-23 against the Phillies' Aaron Nola. But more and more, pitchers are perfecting their mechanics, aided by the new and improved technology. Fourteen runners tried to steal against Zack Greinke last season and only five were successful, and opponents went just 4-for-8 against the Cardinals' Carlos Martinez.

7. The focus on catcher defense: Going back to the days of "Sandlot," the typical catcher was big, burly and powerful, probably chosen for the position because of a lack of speed. The prototypical catcher was someone like the Braves' Javy Lopez, who might have some defensive deficiencies but also contributed 30 bombs a year.

But these days, catcher is mostly a defense-first position, with bodies like cornerbacks and safeties rather than O-linemen. Teams prefer catchers with quick feet, with the ability to move well behind the plate. Tall catchers, such as the 6-foot-5 Matt Wieters, have become dinosaurs. Catchers are now often former infielders, like the 5-foot-10 Austin Barnes -- and most of them throw effectively. Gary Sanchez is a throwback catcher, in his size and hitting power, but he, too, throws well.

The fact is that the archenemies of the elite base stealers are better than they used to be. "I don't think any position has changed more in the last two decades than catcher," one executive said.

Maybe the art of stealing bases will be in vogue again in another couple of decades, if the juiced baseballs go away, if pitchers are eventually required to work under the weight of a pitch clock with runners on base.

Because of the decline in stolen bases and the heightened game planning that goes on for every pitch, the number of pitchouts has plummeted, with managers (and catchers and pitchers, perhaps) unwilling to swing a ball-strike count in favor of the batter.

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