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Examining Orioles base-stealing since 1954

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The 2016 Orioles may set a new post-war record for fewest steal attempts per game. We use the occasion to look through history at the Orioles’ attitude towards theft.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

If you like stealing bases, the 2016 Orioles aren’t your team. Through Saturday’s game, the team’s attempted 25 steals in 1,484 player-games. (1,484 is what you get when you add up the individual games played for the 27 players used as batters.) That’s a rate of 1.6 attempts per 100 player-games when the league-average rate is about six attempts per 100 player-games. Media outlets are starting to notice.

Math places the Orioles’ rate at 28% of league average. If this rate continues, it'll be be the lowest by any team in 66 years. The current record low is 30% of league average, set in 1960 by the Kansas City Athletics. They’re followed by:

Many teams from the 1970’s and 80’s make this list. That was the high-water mark for steal attempts, so it was easy to look weak by comparison.

Here’s the leaderboard, just for context:

  • 1976 Athletics: 259% of league average
  • 1992 Brewers: 236%
  • 1965 Dodgers: 233%
  • 1962 Dodgers: 227%
  • 1975 Angels: 221%

The following chart shows the Orioles' own history at attempted steals, where 100 is attempts at the league-average rate:

The year 1973 jumps out. That year the Orioles attempted steals at 175% of league average. That’s the most in team history.

Don Baylor was a machine that year, running 41 times and getting caught only nine times. Al Bumbry bolted 33 times that year, while Rich Coggins, Paul Blair, and Bobby Grich each had 26 attempts.

1973's rate of 175% of league average was a huge jump from 1972's rate of 103% of league average. In 1972 Baylor attempted only 26 swipes. What caused him to nearly double his run rate? He played only 16 more games in ‘73. And Earl Weaver, no fan of the bag swipe, managed both teams.

Perhaps he was just keeping up with the rest of the league. The following graph shows league-average SB attempts per player-game since 1951:

Stolen base attempts surged between 1971 and 1976, rising from six attempts per player-game to ten attempts. That doesn't sound like a lot, but given the number of players and the number of games they played, it's an increase from 2,804 attempts 4,596. For reasons, see this essay by John McMurray.

Historically, the Orioles aren’t a running team. In 43 of the 63 years the franchise has been in Baltimore, they've attempted fewer steals per player-game than league average.

Perhaps Weaver's long tenure tamped down on attempts. His emphasis on power probably shaped not only how his teams played, but who the GMs drafted. But it's curious that the talent and management philosophy required for stolen bases didn't align more often.

2007 was the last year the Orioles attempted more steals than the average team. That year a healthy Brian Roberts ran 57 times. Remember that? Good times. Among qualified hitters only Juan Pierre, Hanley Ramirez, and Carl Crawford attempted more steals. Eric Byrnes matched Roberts' total.

Corey Patterson was also on the 2007 Orioles team and made 46 attempts. Nick Markakis attempted 24 steals and was safe 18 times. Melvin Mora and Miguel Tejada hardly ran at all.

2007 concluded a seven-year run during which the Orioles' were mostly above-average at steal attempts. The start of that run was Mike Hargrove's first year as manager. The high attempt rate lasted through his tenure and those of Lee Mazzilli and Sam Perlozzo. (It feels really, really weird to type those names out. Who are those guys?) It seems these guys pushed the team to steal more.

2008 was Dave Trembley's first full year at the helm and that's when the Orioles reverted to a below-average attempt rate. Their attempt rate dropped sharply from 142% of league average to 91%. Trembley's years at the helm led to a few games of Juan Samuel in 2010 before Buck signed on as manager. Relative to Hargrove/Mazilli/Perlozzo, Trembley/Samuel/Showalter seem to want to steal less often. Maybe they’re embracing the spirit of Weaver.

So far in Buck's reign, 2013 was the high-water mark in terms of steal attempts. You remember that season, right? It wasn't that long ago. The Orioles had Nate McLouth for 142 games and he bolted 37 times. Adam Jones chipped in with 17 attempts. A young(er) Manny Machado also attempted 13 steals ... and was thrown out in six of them.

The good news is, the Orioles don't have to steal much. With home run threats up and down the lineup, runners on base will come around to score without risking an out on the basepaths. Without many steals the Orioles have scored 4.32 runs per game, 4th-most in the AL. So while they may make history this year, it'll be a mere trivia question.

***

On a personal note, this is my last article at Camden Chat. I'll be joining FanGraphs and The Hardball Times to write there ... sometimes about the Orioles, but probably not as much as I do here :-)

Thanks to Stacey and Mark for giving me a shot and for keeping me on staff for almost four years. I’ve learned so much about not only baseball, but also writing, and I’m happy my time here coincided roughly with the team’s rise to annual contention. Thanks to all of you for reading my articles and commenting as well. You kept me motivated to write more.

If you like you can follow me on Twitter to keep up with what I'm doing. And I may pop into a Game Thread from time to time. I'll definitely keep coming back for my daily Orioles fix I can't get anywhere else.

It’s been a pleasure! Here’s to many more years of Orioles Magic!