The stolen base. Arguably one of the most exciting parts of a game: The runner weighs his perceived speed against the combination of the pitcher’s concern with holding the runner and the strength of the catcher’s arm. Many MLB greats have used the stolen base as an auxiliary part of a highly successful career (Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, etc.), whereas other players lived by, died by and built a whole career around it (Vince Coleman).

Evaluating the effectiveness of a stolen base has been a growing process, from Pete Palmer’s claim about 30 years ago that a SB gave a team 0.3 runs, whereas a CS was worth -0.6 runs, to Tom Tango’s more precise 0.18/-0.43 values. The latter is what we’re using here today. These values state that, on average, a CS is 2.39 times more detrimental than a SB is helpful, meaning that a runner needs to successfully steal 70.5% of the time to merely break even.

Unfortunately for the statheads among us, Caught Stealing data was inconsistent, especially in the National League, until 1951. With apologies to Ty Cobb, Billy Hamilton and other early ballplayers, they are not included in the data in favor of robust data.

Below are the Top 10 most successful basestealers of all-time*.

Rk Player SB CS SB% From To Age G SBRuns+ CSRuns- NetSBRuns
1 Rickey Henderson 1406 335 80.8% 1979 2003 20-44 3081 253.08 -144.1 109
2 Tim Raines 808 146 85.0% 1979 2002 19-42 2502 145.44 -62.78 82.7
3 Willie Wilson 668 134 83.3% 1976 1994 20-38 2154 120.24 -57.62 62.6
4 Vince Coleman 752 177 80.9% 1985 1997 23-35 1371 135.36 -76.11 59.2
5 Joe Morgan 689 162 81.0% 1963 1984 19-40 2649 124.02 -69.66 54.4
6 Davey Lopes 557 114 83.0% 1972 1987 27-42 1812 100.26 -49.02 51.2
7 Kenny Lofton 622 160 80.0% 1991 2007 24-40 2103 111.96 -68.8 43.2
8 Ozzie Smith 580 148 80.0% 1978 1996 23-41 2573 104.4 -63.64 40.8
9 Ichiro Suzuki 444 100 81.6% 2001 2012 27-38 1890 79.92 -43 36.9
10 Lou Brock 938 307 75.3% 1961 1979 22-40 2616 168.84 -132 36.8
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/17/2012.

However, many players considered to be high-profile basestealers, contributed little to no, and sometimes negative, value with their thefts, such as Steve Sax (3.38 Net SB Runs) or Brett Butler (-10.91). Charlie Hustle was known for his aggressiveness on the base paths, but would you have guessed he was the least efficient basestealer in our study? Would Buddy Bell be considered a borderline Hall of Fame candidate by non-saberists if he wasn’t abysmal on the basepaths?

Rk Player SB CS SB% From To Age G SBRuns+ CSRuns- NetSBRuns
1 Pete Rose 198 149 57.1% 1963 1986 22-45 3562 35.64 -64.07 -28.4
2 Buddy Bell 55 79 41.0% 1972 1989 20-37 2405 9.9 -33.97 -24.1
3 Alfredo Griffin 192 134 58.9% 1976 1993 18-35 1962 34.56 -57.62 -23.1
4 Chet Lemon 58 76 43.3% 1975 1990 20-35 1988 10.44 -32.68 -22.2
5 Greg Gagne 108 96 52.9% 1983 1997 21-35 1798 19.44 -41.28 -21.8
6 Rick Monday 98 91 51.9% 1966 1984 20-38 1986 17.64 -39.13 -21.5
7 Duane Kuiper 52 71 42.2% 1974 1985 24-35 1057 9.36 -30.53 -21.2
8 Dave Parker 154 113 57.8% 1973 1991 22-40 2466 27.72 -48.59 -20.9
9 Bob Bailey 85 83 50.6% 1962 1978 19-35 1931 15.3 -35.69 -20.4
10 Lenny Randle 156 112 58.2% 1971 1982 22-33 1138 28.08 -48.16 -20.1
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/17/2012.

As you can see, the bulk of the players listed in the above tables played in the 1970s and 80s, an era with more emphasis on the stolen base and “small ball” in general, coming in the wake of a pitching-dominant era where an extra base here or there was quite valuable. Also, when expanding the lists, one will note that current players are more and more successful basestealers than those of previous generations, likely due to better pre-game scouting and paying greater credence to statistics. There are 10 active players among the 40 best basestealers, but only one among the 40 worst (sorry, David DeJesus). Teams like the 2007 Phillies stole at an absurd 88 percent clip, whereas the 1977 Cardinals were successful only 54.5% of the time, poor enough to “earn” -24 runs.

One final note for this piece: The .18/-.43 run values are for the stolen base ON AVERAGE. On a case by case basis, the values will differ, but as a rule of thumb, these are the best figures to use (according to Mr. Tango).

*All-time, for my purposes today, means 1951-present.

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