The Sultans of Swipe

Ask any Bostonian to tell you the single greatest moment in Red Sox history and you’re almost certain to hear about Dave Roberts’ stolen base in game four of the 2004 ALCS (I did and my buddy “Boston Steve” immediately cited Roberts’ larceny as his #1 Red Sox moment). After working a lead-off walk, Kevin Millar was immediately replaced with the recently acquired Roberts.  The Dodgers had dealt the speedster to the Sox on July 31st in exchange for minor leaguer Henri Stanley.  In 45 games for Boston Roberts slashed .256/.330/.442, stole five bases and was caught twice over 101 plate appearances.  This is one of those situations that occurs in baseball where everybody on both teams, in the stands, and watching on TV, knows exactly what is about to happen.  It was never, ‘Will he go?’ it was ‘What will happen when he goes?’  Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera threw over to first three times before finally throwing a pitch, at which point Roberts broke for second.  Posada was set up over the inside corner (Bill Mueller was batting left-handed) but Rivera’s offering to Mueller was high and outside, towards Posada’s left shoulder.  His release was quick but due to the pitch location he couldn’t fully close his front side, which limited his hip rotation and cost him some velocity.  His throw was high and to the Shortstop side of second base, forcing Jeter to catch the ball up near his head and bring his tag down to the bag, some two to three feet away.  While this probably only added another few tenths of a second onto Posada’s pop time, baseball, as they say, is a game of inches.  Roberts dove headfirst toward the bag, Jeter tagging him on the forearm a split second later.  Safe.  The rest is history.

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Today, traditionalists still fume at Oakland’s continued assertion that attempting to steal bases is inefficient and unnecessarily risky. But ask yourself; Where’s the excitement in watching Billy Butler work a 9 pitch walk then trod down to first base only to stand 2 ½ feet from it, motionless?  While Billy Beane and his brainy charges can definitively back up their claims using statistics, this single play is the antithesis of Oakland’s station-to-station approach.  Boston, both the team and the city, was barely clinging to life.  Fans, despite holding signs that said, “BELIEVE” and “THE GREATEST COMEBACK IN SPORTS HISTORY!” were surely preparing for another off-season of heartache and despair.  The previous season they had at least made it through seven games before Aaron Boone stomped all over their dreams, but now they were being swept (swept!) by their long-time nemeses.  Until one play, one single play, changed everything.

Dave Roberts is certainly not the first pinch runner to steal a base (10 career attempts, 8 steals, 10 runs). Ironically, Oakland (yes, Oakland) seems to have been at the forefront of the “specialist base runner” movement.  While pinch runners have been used for decades, the idea of having the human equivalent of a Thoroughbred racehorse sitting at the end of your bench didn’t emerge until the late 60’s.  After stealing 116 bags for the Royals’ single A affiliate, the Leesburg A’s in 1966 (exactly 50% of the team’s total of 232), Allan “The Panamanian Express” Lewis was called up by the Royals for 34 games in 1967.  During his rookie campaign, Lewis stole 14 bases, scored seven runs and was thrown out five times.  Ignoring the likely cries of a then five year old Billy Beane, the Athletics brought Lewis to Oakland where he played 122 games but made just 25 plate appearances from 1968 to 1973.  During that span Lewis stole 30 bases, 27 of them when employed as a pinch runner.  In 1973, listed as a DH, Lewis appeared in 35 games, had no plate appearances and played zero innings on defense.  He stole seven bases and was thrown out four times.

The A’s continued to experiment with the use of specialist pinch runners when they acquired former sprinter “Hurricane” Herb Washington in 1974. Washington signed as an amateur free agent at the age of 22 and in 105 games with the A’s in 1974 and ’75, he made a grand total of zero plate appearances.  The ’74 A’s went on to win the World Series (their 3rd of three straight), with Washington taking home 29 bags and scoring 29 runs in the process.  He was however picked off during a crucial ninth-inning situation in game 2 and was released early in 1975.  To this day, whether or not Washington actually owned a glove is unknown.

They say less is more, but in Oakland, when it comes to guys who do nothing but pinch-run, apparently more is more. Following Washington’s departure in 1975, Don Hopkins and Matt Alexander were drafted in to fill the void.  Hopkins had 21 pinch-steals, scored 20 runs and was caught 7 times during the ’75 season while Alexander put up numbers of 17SB / 8R / 9CS.  Hopkins left the following year but Alexander, in three seasons with the A’s, made 88 plate appearances over 214 games, stealing 63 and getting caught 31 times.  From 1975 to 1977 Alexander pinch-stole 17, 19 and 20 bags respectively.

During his career, this green-and-gold-clad Prince of Thieves pinch-stole a total of 90 bases in 126 attempts, 26 more than Otis Nixon’s 64 bags in 88 tries. Alexander reached base more as a pinch runner than he did of his own accord, amassing just 36 hits, 18 walks and one hit-by-pitch over his career (55 times on base).  He had just 195 plate appearances in 374 games.

Pinch-stealing was most prevalent during the mid-70’s, with the top seven single season totals coming between 1974 and 1978, three of which belong to Alexander. The single season leader is another Oakland speedster, Larry Lintz, who swiped 30 bags (caught 11 times) in 1976 and ranks 4th all-time with 47.  Herb Washington is second with the 29 he stole in 1974.  The downtrend can, at least partially, be attributed to the Sabermetric assertion that in order to have a positive impact on a team’s run totals, a steal must be successful at least 75% of the time.  Clearly, many of these proprietors-of-pace are well below that mark.  The top 21 all-time pinch-base stealers have a combined success rate of just 74.79%.  The top 10 are even worse at 72.54%.

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But what could have sparked this sudden need for speed in the first place? Was the league’s motivation (or Oakland’s at least) based on gut feeling, some kind of statistical trend, or just the thought that; because there are specialist pinch hitters, there should be specialist pinch runners too?  It’s possible that, during the decade of the pitcher (1960’s) when hits, and offense in general, were scarce, teams were trying to gain a competitive advantage by stealing bases in order to manually generate more opportunities to score.

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Other than a few minor exceptions, home runs had plateaued or decreased throughout the 60’s, the low-point being 1968. It was around this time that “The Panamanian Express” first appeared.  Home runs got a small bump in 1969, due mainly to expansion, but the renaissance was short lived as long balls again began to wane in 1971.  The AL went so far as to adopt the designated hitter in 1973.  Judging by the figures, these “specialist hitters” must have finished developing around 1977, as evidenced by the subsequent increase in AL home run totals.  While the NL also saw a rise in round-trippers, the AL totals were well and truly separated from their NL counterparts.  This remained so until the steroid era’s hey-day in the mid 90’s.  Interestingly, 1977 was right around the time that the use of specialist pinch-base stealers began to decline.

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Was this decline in base stealing due to an emergence of power across the leagues? Perhaps managers felt it would be more beneficial to carry an extra slugger on their bench, who could bring a handful of players (as well as himself) home with one mighty swat, rather than waste a roster spot on a base path bandit who could do little else on a ball field.  Remember, stealing second only puts a runner into scoring position.  He still needs one of his teammates to bring him around.  A muscled up basher is in scoring position the moment he steps into the batter’s box.

Inevitably the practice died off. The 80’s single season pinch-stolen base leader Bob Dernier pilfered just 14 bags in 15 attempts in 1983.  Damian Jackson led the way in the 2000’s with 12 bags in 18 attempts in 2003 while Jarrod Dyson currently carries the torch in the 2010’s, grabbing seven bags in 2013 and eight bags in both 2014 and 2015.  Regardless of whether or not it’s statistically beneficial to attempt to steal bases, no one can deny that it’s one of the most exciting plays in baseball. A single, glorious moment that can change the outcome of a game, a series, or in Boston’s case, franchise history.

Just ask my buddy Steve.

One thought on “The Sultans of Swipe

  1. Pingback: 5 Ways to Make Baseball Exciting Again | Michael D Johnson

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