May 31, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Seattle Mariners center fielderMichael Saunders
(55) slides into second base before Minnesota Twins shortstopPedro Florimon
(25) can catch the ball in the second inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
In 2013, perhaps the emptiest thing in Safeco Field other than the stands has been the base paths after an opposing pitcher has made his slide step towards home.
The M’s as a team have only swiped a total of 49 bags on the season, and with only a couple of games left that number probably won’t change much. While 49 stolen bases is nowhere near being a record low of any sort (the Tigers only have 35 total this season), it’s 55 less than the M’s stole in 2012.
There are several factors that have probably helped contribute to this abrupt drop off in aggressiveness on the paths.
First off, the M’s have a few key contributors who are simply not equipped to steal bases. If Edgar Martinez still played he would look like a cheetah compared to Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, and Raul Ibanez when they lumber around the bases. None of these guys should be attempting steals, and since Ibanez and Morales are new additions this has probably contributed to the drop off.
A second factor could be the absence of Ichiro Suzuki. Despite being traded during the 2012 season and having lost a step or two, Ichiro still snagged bases at a reasonable clip, and the assortment of players who have filled right field since his departure —like Mike Morse and Ibanez— were not acquired for their base running.
But beyond these two reasons, the roughly 50% decrease in stolen bases is relatively perplexing.
Since the late 80s, teams have been stealing bases at an increasingly lower rate, but for many teams the stolen base is still an integral part of manufacturing runs.
Despite moving in the fences this offseason, Safeco Field is still cavernous and an environment where producing offense is difficult; if there is a place in baseball where the stolen base can help a team score more runs, it would probably be Safeco.
Safeco’s dimensions aside, the M’s aren’t running, so it’s entirely possible that it’s a deliberate tactic.
The stolen base is a polarizing stat: some teams and players run like crazy, while others don’t bother with it at all. Baseball stat-head Bill James has asserted that base stealing is only useful if a player can steal at a high percentage, and that the rate of success is more important than the total. According to James, a player needs to steal at nearly a 70% success rate to make it worthwhile.
To go along with 49 successful bag pilfers, the M’s have also failed 23 times this season — and that averages out to a 68% percent success rate. If the team has truly embraced this Bill James/ Moneyball base running philosophy, then they are more or less achieving the goal of effectively and efficiently stealing bases.
But just last year the team stole 104 bases while only getting caught 35 times, which averages out to a 74% success rate. So last season the M’s stole more bases at a higher success rate, and over the course of a year have inexplicably abandoned the tactic.
While removing Ichiro from the equation may have removed a potential 20ish steals, that nowhere near accounts for this massive drop off in base swiping. Michael Saunders leads the team with 13 bags, and in second is Kyle Seager (who isn’t terribly speedy) with nine.
Jul 24, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley (13) beats the throw to New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano (24) and steals 2nd base during the 8th inning at Safeco Field. Seattle defeated New York 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
It’s strange that players like Dustin Ackley (who by all accounts is quite fast) and other youngsters like Nick Franklin and Brad Miller haven’t been unleashed upon the base paths: together they’ve only stolen 13 bases all season.
Perhaps Ackley’s beard is weighing him down this season, but he looks like a guy who has the athleticism to steal 25 bases a year quite easily, and it’ll be interesting to see if the M’s let guys like him or Saunders loose in 2014.
It’s interesting to wonder if the M’s have deliberately been avoiding steal attempts this season. Last year with a 104 stolen bases the team scored a total of 619 runs; this season, with only a few games left they’ve scored 609 runs.
If base stealing really is crucial in producing runs, then how have the Mariners managed to score roughly the same amount of runs with half as many steals?
The uptick in long balls this season can probably account for some of that, but in the end it’s irrelevant how many homers the M’s hit or how many bases they steal if they still can’t win more than half their games.
Perhaps the lack of stolen bases in 2013 can be lumped together with all the other inexplicable things the Mariners do to avoid winning games.