If there is a modern day Maury Wills in Major League Baseball, he won’t need to dive back into first base nearly as much this year as Wills did while sparking the sport’s first stolen base revolution.
According to a Sports Illustrated story from June 1966, the San Francisco Giants were so obsessed with neutralizing Wills — who stole 376 bases for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1960 through 1965, including 104 in 1962, when he was became the first player in the modern era to reach the century mark in a single season — that pitcher Ray Sadecki made 19 throws to first base the two times Wills reached against him on June 18, 1966.
This year, such a philosophy would earn the runner on first base a quick and easy trip to second base.
Baseball’s most fascinating experiment in generations officially begins with Opening Day next Thursday. In an attempt to speed the game along and add some action to what has become an all-or-nothing endeavor, Major League Baseball has limited pitchers to two “disengagements” — i.e. pickoff throws or calls for a timeout — per plate appearance.
Any additional disengagements during the plate appearance will result in a balk being called and the baserunners advancing 90 feet.
Zack Greinke must be working on pick offs because he's made several today. One was an errant throw that put Ketel Marte on second. Then Greinke made two attempts and didn't get an out on the third, so Marte advanced on a forced balk.
— Anne Rogers (@anne__rogers) March 19, 2023
The bases have also been increased from 15 square inches to 18 square inches in hopes a shorter distance and a safer destination will nudge player to attempt more stolen bases.
There is little doubt baseball could use the jolt of excitement the stolen base can provide — one rarely seen or experienced by an entire generation of fans.
The big league leader in stolen bases has finished with fewer than 50 thefts each of the last five seasons after doing so just five times in the 61 seasons from 1957 through 2017. Dee Strange-Gordon, Elvis Andrus, Billy Hamilton and Starling Marte, the only four active players to collect 300 stolen bases, have combined for 1,309 thefts, or 97 fewer than Rickey Henderson had all by himself in his Hall of Fame career.
Just three players have swiped 70 bases in a season this century, a feat reached most recently by Jacoby Ellsbury in 2009. A player recorded at least 70 stolen bases 47 times from 1962 — when Wills became the first player since Ty Cobb in 1915 to steal at least 70 bases — through 1999. A player stole at least 80 bases 14 times in the 1980s, when Henderson and Vince Coleman each had three 100-steal seasons.
Astros catcher Yainer Diaz just showed off his arm by throwing out Marlins leadoff hitter Jon Berti trying to steal second. Berti led the majors with 41 stolen bases last season.
— Matt Young (@Chron_MattYoung) March 14, 2023
Of course, reviving the stolen base may be easier said than done. Stolen bases have been down this century because they are considered a risk not worth taking by analytics-minded front offices filled with disciples of Theo Epstein, the analytically savvy Hall of Fame-bound former general manager who helped design the new rules.
Will these changes and the new limits on the infield shifts likely resulting in more singles generate enough traffic at first base to make the stolen base more enticing? Or will an entire generation of executives and hitters trained in launch angle and Three True Outcomes continue to ignore small ball?
We’ll find out beginning next Thursday. Here’s a look at 10 candidates to lead the majors and our pick to win the big league stolen bases crown. All odds from DraftKings as of March 24:
Ronald Acuna Jr. (+600)
Acuna is a former National League stolen base champion who was on pace to flirt with a 40/40 season in 2021 before he suffered a torn right ACL. The prospect of a full season and looser stolen base rules have enticed bettors, who have vaulted Acuna past Adalberto Mondesi over the last few days.
Adalberto Mondesi (+700)
The range of outcomes is Grand Canyon-esque for Mondesi, who averages a stolen base every 2.7 games, which works out to a 60-steal pace over 162 games under the old rules. But the injury-wracked Mondesi has never played more than 102 games in a season and will open the season on the IL recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee. Mondesi could lead the world in steals, or he might steal as many bases as those of us reading this article.