Which base stealers are toughest to throw out?

With his first stolen base of this young season, Twins outfielder Byron Buxton joined elite company with his 30th consecutive theft without being caught. After the jump, more on base stealers who have been toughest to throw out.

The table below shows the players with 30 consecutive successful steals. While I believe the list is complete, it was more an art than a science to find these, so I welcome any additional streaks you may be aware of.

Consecutive Steals Players
50 Vince Coleman (1988-89)
45 Ichiro Suzuki (2006-07)
40 Tim Raines (1993-95)
39 Jimmy Rollins (2007-08)
38 Davey Lopes (1975)
37 Tim Raines (1983-84), Stan Javier (1996-97)
36 Max Carey (1922-23), Paul Molitor (1993-95), Brady Anderson (1994-95), Coco Crisp (2011-12)
35 Davey Lopes (1983-85), Jimmy Rollins (2001)
34 Eric Davis (1992-93), Eric Young Sr. (2000-01)
33 Kevin McReynolds (1987-89), Eric Davis (1988), Carlos Beltran (1999-2001), Byron Buxton (2017-19)
32 Willie Wilson (1980), Julio Cruz (1980-81), Tony Womack (1997), Carl Crawford (2008-09)
31 Rickey Henderson (1986-87), Carlos Beltran (2004), Nate McLouth (2008-09)
30 Eric Byrnes (2007), Jimmy Rollins (2009-10), Mike Trout (2012), Alcides Escobar (2012-14)

An extended streak of consecutive stolen bases requires a lot of things to go right, the right pitcher and catcher, the right pitch, a good jump, good speed (though that may be the least important requirement), perhaps an evasive slide, and just plain good luck.

Max Carey is the pioneer of consecutive steals streaks, with his record total of 36 the standard for more than 50 years and never really challenged in that period. Indeed, only Lou Brock (28 steals in 1974), Frankie Frisch (27 in 1927-28) and Luis Aparicio (26 in 1957-58) threatened even the 30 consecutive steal plateau before Davey Lopes broke Carey’s record in 1975.

The list above includes some notable base stealers in their primes (Coleman, Lopes, Raines, Davis, McReynolds, Beltran, Wilson, Cruz, Womack, Crawford, Henderson, Rollins, Trout). But, there are almost as many who accomplished this feat in their thirties (Ichiro, Lopes, Raines, Carey, Molitor, Rollins, Javier, Crisp, Davis, Young, Byrnes), with Lopes and Molitor doing so late into their fourth decade. So, experience, and the guile and cunning that comes with it, can help “turn back the clock” and compensate for a lost step or two, enabling an older player to continue to steal bases successfully.

While Vince Coleman tops this list with his 50 consecutive steals, that is something of an aberration for Coleman who, despite a stellar 81% career success rate, still led his league in caught stealing three times, including in the season in which his streak began. Contrast that with Ichiro in second place who was thrown out just twice in 47 attempts in the season his streak began. McReynolds, Molitor and Alcides Escobar all have streaks spanning three seasons, including a middle year with 20+ steals and, of course, zero CS.

Mike Trout is the youngest player at age 21 to record 30 consecutive steals, and the earliest to do so in his career with his milestone steal coming in only his 138th career game. Davey Lopes is the oldest, maintaining his second 30 game streak to age 40, while Paul Molitor ran his streak until age 39, over 2200 games into his career. The longest streak to begin a career is 26 consecutive steals by Mitchell Page in 1977, while the longest to close out a career is 29 consecutive steals by Jack Perconte in 1985-86.

No doubt you will have noticed that most of these streaks have occurred in the past 30 years or so, testament to the influence of analytics in helping baserunners choose the most opportune time to attempt a steal. That trend is depicted in the chart below.

Up until the 1950s, stealing bases was barely a break-even proposition, making it a poor strategy generally with a benefit of only one base, but with the potential cost of a baserunner and an out. From the 1950s to the early 1990s, base stealing success improved steadily in tandem with the number of steal attempts. But, since then, while base stealing success has continued its rise, base stealing attempts have moved steadily lower to levels today not been seen for 50 years. This change in the correlation between base stealing success and attempts is one of the big influences of analytics, dictating that you better be as certain of success as possible before attempting to steal, more especially given the predominance of scoring via the home run.

Looking at the leading base stealers provides a bit different picture as shown below.

The chart above is showing the average number of players per team with 20 stolen bases which, like stolen base attempts, rose steadily from the 1950s to early 1990s, but has declined since then. While overall stolen base success has steadily improved since the 1920s, the improvement for these leading base stealers has been much smaller, staying mainly in the 70%-80% range since the 1930s. However, while these leading base stealers accounted for 20% or less of total stolen bases prior to the 1950s, that proportion has risen to the 30%-50% range since then. In sum, teams have gotten smarter about the players they allow to steal, concentrating base thefts among those who are best equipped to succeed in that role.

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47 Comments on "Which base stealers are toughest to throw out?"

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Bob Eno (epm)
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The long term trend and its interpretation are laid out here with great clarity, Doug. We can see the new, technocratic era of baseball highlighted by this stat. But I wonder about the trade-off. From the mid-’80s through the ’90s we see the success rates in the range of 67-70%, while today’s seem to be 73-74%. That’s a significant improvement, but is it enough to justify the loss of what appears to be up to about 80 attempts per team per year? It seems to me almost a wash, and the high-SB game certainly was interesting to watch. Looking at… Read more »
Doug
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While the speed game of the 70s and 80s was fun to watch, with so many runs today scoring via the home run, there is an understandable premium placed on avoiding outs on base. So, it shouldn’t be too big a surprise that stolen bases are down despite stolen base success continuing to rise.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

I can understand that thinking, but I’m not sure it’s valid — you might equally note how many runners fail to advance to scoring position because of the high number of strikeouts. How the run scores seems to me a tangential issue; the question would be how many runs are scoring vs. runners left on base. Teams still hit about a thousand more singles than home runs each season.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

(Should be, “about a thousand more base hits than home runs . . .”)

mosc
Guest
It’s not just home runs. The general league wide OBP is the highest determining factor in the relative success rate of stealing bases. If we had a league wide .500 OBP on average lets say, stealing base would be dumb in nearly every circumstance. Similarly, if the OBP gets low enough, you need to score on pretty much any hit because they’re so unlikely so stealing becomes paramount. The value of an out is dependent on the run scoring environment. Basically runs/27 outs is baseball. I’m just saying it is easy for people to blame the death of stolen bases… Read more »
Paul E
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Bob,
Here’s something related to your disappointing phenoms list from Bill James. Failed careers of promising rookies:

https://www.billjamesonline.com/disappointments_and_surprises_ii_/

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
Ah ha! This is the source of that Dick Allen comment we were discussing last string, Paul. I knew I’d read it — your comments on Vada Pinson during the CoG Redemption Round sent me to this Jamesian source. James’s list isn’t really what I was thinking of — for example, Tony Conigliaro, Ken Hubbs, Bill DeLancey had their careers brought to a halt by massive forces beyond their control; Hal Trosky was similar in some ways. (And how could Pete Reiser be off the list?) Pinson is closer to what I was thinking of; Carlos May another — not… Read more »
no statistician but
Guest

Eric Davis. Actually, Davis’s career was so injury plagued that he reminds one of Pete Reiser, not Vada Pinson.

Paul E
Guest

nsb,
re Eric Davis, I don’t believe, with his body type, he was ever going to play 155+ games per year. But, yeah, he was producing very well playing 135 games/year. He damaged a kidney and it was downhill for a while. Then colon cancer? and recovered nicely with the Orioles. IIRC, I believe he was a wee bit bitter about the kidney injury in the World Series and taking a coach flight home after being released from the hospital? He had a boatload of talent, for sure.

Paul E
Guest

Reiser had 34.4 Win Shares as a 22 year old…and possibly a projected total of 490 (in lieu of 128). But, I don’t know if I’m calculating the projected career total correctly ( I believe James just took their rookie totals and multiplied by seasons played through age 35 ? ). But, no doubt, right up their with Tony C as far as a disappointing career.

Mike L
Guest
Great charts. I wonder about Doug’s causality though–he says “No doubt you will have noticed that most of these streaks have occurred in the past 30 years or so, testament to the influence of analytics in helping baserunners choose the most opportune time to attempt a steal. ” So, why is that necessarily true as a decisive factor? We know, by looking at track and field results, that the modern athlete is faster than his counterpart sixty years ago. The 100 meter dash record is six tenths of a second lower than it was in 1956. That could explain some… Read more »
Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
I think that’s a good question, Mike. When Doug notes that good speed may be the least important requirement, I recognize that as conventional wisdom stretching back at least to my childhood, and conventional wisdom is often pretty shaky stuff. And even if it were true in this case, the question isn’t how important speed is (since older players sometimes improve in SB%, clearly it’s not decisive); it’s how well increases in speed correlate to increases in SB%. Perhaps Statcast is collecting data that would be relevant to determining that. Still, thinking about it, perhaps conventional wisdom in this case… Read more »
Mike L
Guest
Thanks for the well-thought-out response. I’m going to disagree just a bit on the speed thing. We have clearcut demographic evidence that people are taller and otherwise larger than they were 60 years ago, and we see the fruits of that in all sports (not everyone, of course, I freely admit that while I still run, my times are more appropriate for a 15th Century monk wearing robes and sandals). People are faster and stronger, a consequence, in part, as you note, of better public health. As to the 100 meter, it was just a metric. In 1896, the first… Read more »
Richard Chester
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In 1901 25% of all players were at least 6 feet tall. In 1918 that number had risen to 85%.

Mike L
Guest

In 1918?

Paul E
Guest

i think he means 2018….
in 1918, if I did the search correctly:
179/309 over under 72″ (every day 8) or 36.68 %
122/80 over under 72″ (pitchers) or 60.396 %
43.62 % overall are at least72″ tall

Paul E
Guest

forget it….I think I’ve doubled the count for 1918 since all pitchers batted and there was no need to “re-search” them (“player pitching”) separately after doing the PI search thing for “player batting”

Richard Chester
Guest

2018 it is. That’s what happens when you’re typing and watching TV at the same time.

Mike L
Guest

No worries, thought that might have been it. As for distractions, it’s been a Twilight Zone day

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
The size increase was general for Americans and for other developed countries. Improved nutrition and medicine allows more people to reach their genetic potential in both height and muscle mass. However, the correlation between height/size and sprint-speed is not a simple one. Look at the top base stealers from the postwar era on: Henderson, 5’10”, Brock, 5’11”, Raines, 5’8″, Coleman, 6’0″, Morgan, 5’7″. (Ben Johnson is 5’9″ without the PEDs.) There certainly are good thieves who are tall, like Eric Davis (and Usain Bolt is 6’5″), but the combination of sprint-speed and agility necessary for success on the basepaths does… Read more »
Dr. Doom
Guest

Streakers:

Paul Molitor (39 games), Jimmy Rollins (38 games), and Eric Davis (30 games) also have hit streaks of 30+. That’s a VERY cool 30/30 club to be a part of! Rollins and Davis also had 30 HR seasons in their career. Trout probably walks too much to ever join them, so I think it’ll be a while before we see another player pull off that career 30/30/30.

no statistician but
Guest

Which player has the highest SB% whose career ended before 1970?

Doug
Guest

The Twins had a good day on Saturday at the expense of the Orioles.
– 8 home runs in the 2nd game ties a franchise record, as does 3 players with multiple homers
– 11 home runs in a double-header is one off the franchise record set in 1963

But, no stolen bases or attempts for Buxton, who was 3 for 8 for the twinbill.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

A side note: Our previous string is more or less closed, but Artie Z has added to the Voomo-inspired sub-string on HBPless players by identifying the longest HBP-free streak ever.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Thairo Estrada made his MLB debut today, with a sacrifice bunt.
Anybody know how to search for when that was last done?

Richard Chester
Guest
I assume you mean he got the bunt without having yet played the field. Use the BR PI Player Game Finder and set it for All matching games, Player’s first game, SH> = 1 and sort by date. Clicking on Sub also shortens the search. There are 514 players on the list. You would then have to examine the box score of each game, starting with the most recent, to see if the player had not yet played the field. Chris Nelson of the Rockies debuted on 6/19/2010 with a PH sacrifice bunt. I haven’t done a complete search so… Read more »
Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Excluding Pitchers, limiting it to players whose only PA in their debut at the plate was a Sacrifice bunt, and searching for after 1919 (the system says there is missing info before 1920), that gets us to 19 players.

Chris Nelson, yes, was the last one before Estrada. Nelson is the only one of the 19 to both reach base on his sacrifice and score a run.

Two notable names on the list, but only notable for their names.
Joe Morgan and Brian Giles.
But the not-good Morgan and Giles.

Doug
Guest

10 games on Sunday decided by one run. I’m guessing it’s been a while since that’s happened.

Richard Chester
Guest

Not that much of a while. It last occurred on 8/5/2018. Altogether there have been 18 days in which there were 10 1-run games and 4 days with 11 1-run games (from 1901-2018).

Paul E
Guest

Richard,
…which begs the question: “Have there ever been a day(s) in the major leagues when the full slate was decided by one run”? Like, 8 games on a weekday between 1901-1960……(not so much on double-header Sundays – certainly unlikely) or 10 games 1962-1968, etc….

Richard Chester
Guest

I’m not 100% certain but the most games when the full slate were 1-run games was 5 on three occasions: 4/14/1906, 8/3/1919 and 9/10/1987. (Not sure of my English here.)

Paul E
Guest

Richard:
re “(Not sure of my English here.)” – Nor am I (was/were; were/was; was/was; were/were ???), but at least you’re sure of the data – Thanks !!

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