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The decline of speed as a Cardinals weapon

Although the franchise famously ran their way to success in the 1980s, the 2016 Cardinals do not appear to pose much of a threat on the bases.

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The 1985 St. Louis Cardinals were one of the greatest teams in the history of the National League's most successful franchise. That particular version of the Cardinals went 101-61 and was one game away from winning its second World Series in four seasons. But even more significant historically than its existence as a functional  baseball team is the idea of the 1985 Cardinals.

The notion of the 1985 Cardinals as ideological standard-bearers is likely somewhat exaggerated: had Whitey Herzog's left and center fielders been Pedro Guerrero and Dale Murphy rather than Vince Coleman and Willie McGee, the club certainly would have swung for the fences more and executed double steals on the Busch Memorial Stadium AstroTurf less.

But as it was, the 1985 Cardinals had an offense built around speed, and on the season tallied 314 stolen bases. Rookie Vince Coleman managed 110, NL MVP Willie McGee had 56, and three more players cleared 30 steals on the season: Andy Van Slyke, with 34; and Ozzie Smith and Tom Herr, with 31.

In 2015, the Cardinals steals leader was Jason Heyward, now of the Chicago Cubs, with 23. The steals leader among those remaining with the club was Kolten Wong, who had 15. In third on the team last year in steals was Peter Bourjos, now on the Philadelphia Phillies. Tied for fourth, and thus tied for second among current Cardinals, were Matt Carpenter and Randal Grichuk. Each had four.

The Cardinals of last season were already not the fleetest of foot, but with the departures of Jason Heyward, their most efficient base stealer, and Peter Bourjos, their fastest player, the 2016 Cardinals may have a historic lack of stolen bases.

In the expansion era, since 1961, the Cardinals record for fewest stolen bases in a season was in 2013, when the club stole 45. Last season, the Cardinals had 69, and if you omit the departed Heyward, only had 46. The 2013 squad was uniquely mediocre, however, in its complete lack of base-swiping standouts. While Heyward and Wong may not have qualified as all-universe threats on the level of Billy Hamilton or Dee Gordon, each was prime Rickey Henderson compared to 2013's leading thieves.

Player 2013 steals
Jon Jay 10
Matt Holliday 6
Daniel Descalso 6
Shane Robinson 5

There is no sugarcoating how poor this team was at stealing bases. Only twelve men stole any bases for the 2013 Cardinals, and one of them was Jake Westbrook. But the important headline of the 2013 club isn't that they didn't steal bases. It's that they won 97 games.

Stolen bases, since the Whiteyball era, have generally fallen out of fashion, not just with the Cardinals but across baseball. It's not that they are no longer exciting (having not experienced the Herzog years first-hand, I couldn't possibly say for sure, but I would imagine the rarity of steals, if anything, makes them more exciting on a per capita basis, though I will gladly defer this point). It's that they no longer make sense on an actuarial level.

With 69 last season, the Cardinals tied for 21st in MLB in team steals. But they were a somewhat more efficient team by Baserunning Runs, finishing 15th. They were helped tremendously by the efficiency of the departed Heyward, somewhat surprisingly hurt by the speedy yet also prone to being caught stealing Bourjos, and hurt dramatically by Jhonny Peralta, who tied for being the 7th worst baserunner in baseball last season with Prince Fielder.

By reputation, the closest thing modern baseball has to the 1980s Cardinals is down I-70 in the Kansas City Royals, but the numbers don't particularly bare this out. Sure, they stole a bunch of bases in the first game a lot of casual baseball fans watched of theirs in a generation, but when you are facing Jon Lester, who can barely even attempt a pickoff move, with Derek Norris (who only threw out 1/6 of would-be base thieves in 2014) at catcher, teams are going to be a bit more aggressive than they normally are.

The 2014 Royals led MLB in steals, but ranked only 10th in Baserunning Runs--a perfectly respectable performance, but to cite the Royals as the kings (puns!) of baserunning leading to wins is overly simplistic. The Royals were also blue-bloods in more chic forms of baseball prowess: they had baseball's lowest strikeout rate and baseball's fourth-best team defense by runs saved.

And in 2015, the Royals were 5th in steals while 19th in Baserunning Runs. But once again, they did not strike out, and used their contact hitting ability to guide themselves all the way to a World Series title.

When it comes to the Cardinals, while they will almost certainly come closer to the 2013 Cardinals than the 1985 Cardinals in steals, this isn't really a problem. Sure, elite baserunning would be nice, but in 2016, there are even more reliable ways to build a winner. If the Cardinals can cut down on strikeouts, hit for more power, and continue their recent defensive excellence, this could be an even bigger boon for the Cardinals than swiping a bunch of bags.