When the calendar turned to May, Cleveland had swiped 35 bags through the first month of the season, more than any other team in the league with the lone exception of Pittsburgh.
But then the Guardians only stole 13 bases in May. It wasn’t as if their luck turned either, as they were only caught stealing three times. What is most puzzling is that their stolen base attempts dropped precipitously from 42 to 16, representing a 61% decline month-over-month.
June has been a similar story to May. Cleveland has 17 stolen base attempts, though their success rate has dropped. They’ve only been able to convert 52% of those attempts into steals.
Major League Baseball implemented two new rule changes this offseason that were widely expected to work to the advantage of base stealers:
- Base size increased from 15 inches square to 18
- Pitchers are limited to two disengagements per at-bat
The Guardians seemed to be among the primary beneficiaries of these new rules early in the season, but their stolen base attempts have since fallen off, leaving fans baffled.
Let’s try to get to the bottom of it.
Which Guardians are stealing fewer bases?
After their prolific base-stealing through the month of May, Cleveland boasted five different players with at least five steals already this season: Myles Straw, José Ramírez, Andrés Giménez, Steven Kwan, and Amed Rosario. No other team had more than three players.
Let’s see how each of them has fared since then:
Stolen Base Attempts by Month
As you can see, everyone’s stolen base attempts fell off a cliff in May, none more so than Myles Straw’s. He led with the team with eight stolen bases in April and was 8-for-9 after only getting caught stealing once. On top of that, Kwan was 7-for-8, Giménez was 6-for-7, Ramírez was 5-for-7, and Rosario was 5-for-5. So not only were the Guardians stealing bases at a torrid pace, but they were doing so with an astonishing success rate. So what happened?
It’s difficult to say. Did those five players reach base less in May, limiting their opportunities to swipe bags? Yes and no. Straw and Rosario both saw an uptick in their on-base percentages, whereas Kwan, Gimenez, and Ramirez all saw theirs decline from April to May. As a team, the Guardians were one of the worst offensive teams in Major League Baseball in May, ranking 28th in on-base percentage (.293) and 30th in wRC+ (76).
Now when you’re struggling to get runners on base, you can approach base-stealing one of two ways. You can use it to maximize your limited opportunities on the basepaths and try to move runners into scoring position, theoretically reducing the requisite number of hits you need your lineup to string together to score a run. Or you can treat your baserunners as precious commodities and not risk them getting thrown out on the basepaths.
Obviously I can’t say for certain whether the latter approach factored into the Guardians’ thinking, but I have to believe their offensive struggles likely contributed in some way.
Have other teams pulled back on their base-stealing?
At the end of April, these teams led the league in stolen base attempts:
- Pittsburgh (50)
- Cleveland (42)
- Baltimore (35)
- Oakland (35)
- Tampa Bay (34)
- Chicago Cubs (34)
Here are the stolen base attempts for each of those teams in May:
- Tampa Bay (59) +73% increase from April
- Pittsburgh (40) -20%
- Oakland (33) -5%
- Chicago Cubs (25) -26%
- Baltimore (20) -42%
- Cleveland (16) -61%
All but Tampa Bay saw a decline, though none as steep as Cleveland’s.
The total number of stolen bases across the league did decline from April to May, but only by a marginal decrease of 1%. The league-wide success rate on stolen base attempts was a nearly identical 79% in April and May. So if you were expecting stolen base attempts to slow as teams adapted to the new rules, that does not seem to have been the case.
Has Cleveland changed its baserunning philosophy?
Back in May, The Athletic’s Brittany Ghiroli highlighted Cleveland’s early season success on the basepaths in an article examining the lack of “burners” taking advantage of the new rules.
She interviewed first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. for the article, which makes sense considering his reputation as the club’s “cheat code” when it comes to base stealing. Ghiroli mentions that Alomar will study pitchers’ tendencies to inform the guidance he gives Guardian baserunners.
Alomar is quoted throughout, but perhaps his most illuminating quote is related to how Cleveland tracks each individual player and how they recover on a daily basis:
“Let’s say José Ramírez hits a double, then he tries to steal third base. And he’s making all the plays (in the field) and he’s doing it with maximum effort. I just don’t think the next day is gonna be as efficient as he was the day before. You have to pick and choose when the right time is to do that if you’re going to steal a bag.”
Manager Terry Francona, who is credited in the article with helping to instill an emphasis on baserunning within the clubhouse, also offered a caveat to the Guardians’ base stealing:
“We don’t run because it’s in our skill set, we run because we think it helps us win,” said Cleveland manager Terry Francona. “There’s times when José (Ramírez) is hitting, we’ll have the guy at first not run even though we know he could steal it, but we like where we’re at with José hitting, leave the hole open and let him swing away.”
Both Alomar’s and Francona’s quotes allude to the kind of behind-the-scenes decision-making that could be impacting Cleveland’s deceleration on the basepaths.
Alomar may have even let slip that health could be hampering one Guardians player in particular when he said Myles Straw could be a burner “if he’s fully healthy.”
To be clear, there have been no reports that Straw is not 100%, but that might help explain why there has been such a drop-off in his Gold Glove-winning defense this season. According to Baseball Savant, he ranks 62nd in Outfield Jump (-0.3) and 69th in Directional Outs Above Average (-2) after finishing 44th (0.2) and 4th (13) in those respective categories a year ago.
If Straw is not 100%, it certainly has not affected his playing time. Only Kwan has appeared in more games this season, and Straw is sixth on the team in plate appearances.
The truth is that this is a puzzle to which we don’t have all the pieces. It’s unlikely that Francona and co. decided to pump the brakes on base-stealing on a whim. Do they have concerns about the health of their top base-stealers? Are they trying not to run them ragged before the All-Star break? Have the conditions simply not been ideal when their top base-stealers have reached base? Have they gotten more conservative on the basepaths due to their offensive struggles? It could be any one of the above, a combination of them, or none of them at all.
Your guess is as good as mine.