New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy isn't what I'd call fast. I mean, he's not a catcher or a plodding first baseman, but he won't ever be mistaken for a burner. He has maybe average-ish speed. He was never much of a base stealer. He topped out at 14 stolen bases in the minors. In 2011, he was 5-for-10 with the Mets while playing 109 games. In 2012, he was 10-for-12 in playing 156 games. Through June 8 of last season, he was 1-for-4. He was 28 years old. Players don't get faster as they approach 30.
Then, a weird thing happened. Murphy started picking his spots and running more often. He stole eight bases in June, three in July, six in August and four in September. He wasn't caught. He's 6-for-6 this season and has now swiped 28 in a row, the second-longest streak in Mets history behind the 33 in a row Kevin McReynolds stole in 1987-89. Murphy is proving basestealing is as much the art of reading pitchers and knowing when to steal as it is a skill that relies purely on speed (Billy Hamilton is 10-for-15, meaning Murphy has provided more value from stealing bases than Hamilton has).
Hall of Famer Lou Brock, the great base stealer, was certainly fast but not considered fast. He described stealing bases this way: "Baserunning arrogance is just like pitching arrogance or hitting arrogance. You are a force, and you have to instill that you are a force to the opposition. You have to have utter confidence."
Murphy's streak got me thinking of guys who were good base stealers without having a lot of speed, guys with that confidence to steal based on their smarts. There's no sure way to measure this, not without having a database of home-to-first times. Jeff Bagwell is a guy who jumps to mind. A first baseman with average-at-best speed, Bagwell was a terrific baserunner due to great instincts and twice stole 30-plus bases with decent success rates (31-for-41 in 1997 and 30-for-41 in 1999). He finished with 202 career steals. Bagwell hit 32 triples in his career, giving him a stolen base/triples ratio of 6.3 to 1.
Triples are generally a good way to measure speed, so is this a good way to measure slow base stealers? Not necessarily. The top two guys since 1901 by steals/triples ratio are Otis Nixon and Rickey Henderson, two fast guys. Nixon had so little power that he rarely hit triples (27 in his career); Rickey has a high ratio because he stole so many bases although, surprisingly, hit only 66 triples. That's sort of interesting in itself: Rickey never hit more than seven in a season, and, while right-handed batters don't hit as many triples as left-handed batters, that still seems low. Juan Samuel, for example, had seasons with 19, 15, 13 and 12 triples. Chuck Knoblauch had seasons with 14 and 10. Robin Yount hit 98 triples in his career.
Anyway, just scrolling down the list, I do bump into some guys who weren't noted for plus-plus speed:
Jose Canseco: 200 steals, 14 triples
Canseco famously became baseball's first 40-homer/40-steal player in 1988. He might have had above-average speed back then but quickly lost it as he beefed up (he was 40-for-56 stealing bases in '88). Canseco was 26-for-32 in 1991 but battled injuries the next two seasons and basically quit running, except for 1998, when he went 29-for-46 as a 33-year-old DH for the Toronto Blue Jays. (Tim Johnson, of faux-Vietnam veteran infamy, was the manager that season, and he apparently loved to run. The Jays led the AL in steals and runners caught stealing.)
Gary Sheffield: 253 steals, 27 triples
Sheffield never hit more than five triples in a season and was a career 71 percent base stealer -- about the break-even point. He stole 25 bases at age 21 and then went 22-for-27 as a 38-year-old with the Detroit Tigers.
Alfonso Soriano: 288 steals, 31 triples
Would you describe the younger Soriano as a speedster? I'm not sure I would, but he stole 40 bases three times. He was 18-for-27 last season, almost as many steals as he had the four previous seasons combined (20).
Carney Lansford: 224 steals, 40 triples
I don't remember Lansford being fast, but maybe it was the glasses that made him seem slow. Baseball-Reference.com rates him at plus-17 baserunning runs for his career (factoring in stolen bases, advancing on hits, etc.), so maybe he was sneaky fast. What's interesting is that he quit running midcareer -- he was a dismal 3-for-11 in 1983 and swiped just two bases in 1985 -- but from 1987 to 1989, ages 30 to 32, he stole 27, 29 and 37 bases. I can't imagine many players have their career high in steals at 32.
I did another search for most stolen bases in a season without hitting triple, but that didn't reveal much (record: Miguel Dilone, 50 in 1978). Bagwell and Canseco show up high on this list as well. How about Don Baylor? I remember him in the '80s, when he was a big, burly DH with the Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Oakland A's, but he ran a lot early in his career -- 285 career steals, including 52 for the A's in 1976 (that team holds the major league record with 341 steals). Baylor hit just 28 triples in his career, including one in 1976 and none in both 1977 and 1978, in which he stole a combined 48 bases.
There are also guys like the aforementioned McReynolds, who had one or two seasons in which he decided to run. McReynolds was 21-for-21 in 1988 but had just 93 steals in his career. Or opportunistic runners like Chase Utley, who went 23-for-23 in 2009 and is 129-for-146 in his career.
Anyway, Murphy seems pretty unique. It will be interesting to see if pitchers start paying a little more attention to him while he's on the basepaths now.