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Will the Cardinals improve their base running in 2017?

Whiteyball may never return, but can the Cardinals become a more efficient running team this season?

Miami Marlins v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images

In 2016, with the Chicago Cubs, now-St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Dexter Fowler stole 13 bases and was caught four times. He was a solid and efficient base runner, but nobody would confuse him with vintage Rickey Henderson or Lou Brock. Fowler was one of 67 Major League players to swipe ten or more bases while successfully converting two-thirds of his steal attempts, typically considered the break-even point at which attempting to steal bases are worth the trouble.

MLB teams averaged 2 14 such players last season. The St. Louis Cardinals had zero.

In 2015, 73 MLB players reached this level, and just one, Jason Heyward, was a Cardinal. In 2014, 77 players did, with Kolten Wong doing so for the Cardinals. In 2013, none of the 69 players in baseball with ten steals and a 2:1 steals to caught stealing ratio were Cardinals. In the Mike Matheny era, only his first team in 2012 was above-average by this measure, with four of the 101 players spending the season in St. Louis: Carlos Beltran, Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay, and Yadier Molina (Tyler Greene made this list as well, though part of this accomplishment came with the Houston Astros).

In the last two seasons, three Cardinals have had an inverse season—being caught stealing more than five times and successfully stealing on fewer than two-thirds of his attempts: Stephen Piscotty in 2016 (7 steals, 5 caught stealing), and Peter Bourjos (5 steals, 8 caught stealing) and Kolten Wong (15 steals, 8 caught stealing) in 2015. This puts the Cardinals at a slightly above-average rate of inefficient base thieves—54 players fit this criteria over the last two seasons (thank you now, forever, and always to the Baseball Reference Play Index for making this statistic extremely easy to calculate).

The St. Louis Cardinals have been noted for their base stealing acumen over the years. Two of the five most plentiful base stealers in the World Series era, Lou Brock and Vince Coleman, spent most or all of their careers with the Cardinals. Half of the 100 steal seasons in the same era were produced in a Cardinals uniform. The 1985 Cardinals stole 314 bases, 52 more than the next team since then—the 1986 Cardinals. Half of the 200-plus steal seasons by a team since 1985 were from Cardinals teams from 1985 through 1992, with only the 1989 team’s 155 steals falling (well) short.

But even this 1989 mark is well in excess of the totals produced by the 21st century Cardinals. Only the 2004 squad, aided by a team-leading twenty-six from Tony Womack in his lone season in St. Louis, went over 100 steals, swiping 111 bags. To put this in perspective, Vince Coleman alone stole one, four, and two fewer bases than that in his first three MLB seasons.

Part of the decline in Cardinals base running is a reflection of baseball’s overall stylistic changes—the power surge of the mid-to-late 1990s was followed by a statistical revolution which placed increased emphasis on simply avoiding outs, both of which conflicted with an aggressive approach on the bases. But even relative to baseball, the Cardinals have stolen a well below-average number of bases.

  • 2012: 91 steals (tied for 24th)
  • 2013: 45 steals (29th)
  • 2014: 57 steals (28th)
  • 2015: 69 steals (tied for 21st)
  • 2016: 35 steals (29th)

For comparison, here is a look at their numbers and MLB rank by times caught stealing.

  • 2012: 37 caught stealing (tied for 18th)
  • 2013: 22 caught stealing (28th)
  • 2014: 32 caught stealing (19th)
  • 2015: 38 caught stealing (tied for 11th)
  • 2016: 26 caught stealing (tied for 23rd)

In each season of the Mike Matheny era, the Cardinals have ranked higher in times caught stealing than in steals. In the last three seasons, the Cardinals were successful in fewer than two-thirds of their attempts—64% in 2014, 64% in 2015, and 57% in 2016.

The Cardinals are unlikely to ever revert back to their aggressive 1980s ways, and they almost certainly do not have the personnel to be able to do so anyway, but in 2017, the Cardinals could, and should, work towards the reasonable goal of a more efficient approach on the bases. Only the Oakland Athletics rated worse in 2016 by Baserunning Runs, of which stealing bases is a major factor, than the Cardinals.

The 2016 Baltimore Orioles, a playoff team, stole just 19 bases all season. They never stole third base. Joey Rickard led the team in steals with four. Michael Bourn tied for second on the team with two steals after having only reached base for the team seventeen times. For perspective, this is the same number of times that Eric Fryer reached base in 2016 for the Cardinals.

In the meantime, the Orioles also were caught stealing 13 times, which, as with stolen bases, ranked dead last in all of baseball. And while the Orioles did have an unfavorable ratio of steals to times caught stealing, their attempts were so rare that their lack of success did not hurt them that much. And in 2016, the Orioles were disciplined enough to accumulate above-average Baserunning Runs, ranking tied for 12th. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, a team which missed a playoff spot by one game, lost about two Wins Above Replacement by FanGraphs’s measure on the bases alone.

The acquisition of Dexter Fowler may be a step in the right direction, but if the Cardinals maintain their ultra-aggressive approach, this may not matter. And as last year’s Orioles demonstrated, a team can be very successful while stealing very few bases, as long as they are efficient and as long as they are effective in other ways.