Run Like the Wind

Ty Cobb sliding into third. The lack of fans in the stands may indicate this picture is staged

When I think of the Deadball Era in baseball I generally think of three things: pitching, low scores, and base running. Our image of the era is of low scoring games with lots of stolen bases, gap power, and great pitching. As a rule that’s true, but there is another element that needs to be considered. The baserunners weren’t very good.

Here’s a set of numbers for you: 185/182, 258/168, 276/157, 273/151, 194/131, 213/193, 247/184, 176/174. Those are the stolen base numbers for each American League team one hundred years ago (1912). The first number is the number of successful steal, the second number is the number of caught stealing. Percentages are as follows (teams in the same order): 50.4, 60.1, 63.7, 64.4, 59.7, 52.5, 57.3, 50.3. Not real good, are they? Now the kicker. These aren’t in order of finish in the league, but are in hitting order. Boston finished first and is listed first (50.4% success rate), but Washington, which finished second is listed fourth (64.4%). Detroit,which finished sixth is listed third  (63.7%). So there’s not much correlation between stealing bases at a successful rate and winning a pennant. Boston finished next to last (the 50.3% belongs to St. Louis which finished seventh) while Detroit finished second in success rate, but ended the season deep in the second division.

Selected players? Well, here’s a handful of well-known names. Tris Speaker stole 52, but was caught 28 times (a 65% success rate). Ty Cobb stole 61 and was caught 34 times (a 64% success rate). Sam Crawford was 42 and 13 for a success rate of 76%. Eddie Collins is 63 and 22 for a 74% rate. And Clyde Milan, who led the AL in stolen bases was 88 and 31 for a success rate of 74%. Milan, Collins, Cobb, and Speaker were the top four in the AL in stolen bases for 1912. And before anyone asks, the caught stealing stats are incomplete for the National League in 1912.

How’s this stack up against more modern players? using only three, Rickey Henderson had a 80.1% success rate, Luis Aparicio a 78.4% success rate, and Tim Raines as 84.7% success rate for their careers. All are better than the 1912 guys, but Crawford is close with the 76%.

For the entire AL in the entire season the numbers are 1822 stolen bases and 1340 caught stealing for a 52.6% success rate. Ninety years late (2002) the numbers are 1236 and 579 for a 68% success rate. True the total numbers are down but we are in a power era when stolen base totals tend to decrease. As a check, I looked at 1911 and 1913. The stats were incomplete but what stats there were indicated that 1912 wasn’t out of line for the era. I acknowledge that this is only a three-year look at incomplete stats and that a more in-depth study might yield different results.

What do I make of all this? A couple of things jump out at me. First, the guys who steal a lot of bases aren’t that much worse than their modern counterparts, but are below the newer guys when it comes to success. Second, the guys who aren’t great base stealers in 1912 are really, really awful. Take, for instance, the pennant winning Red Sox. Four of their primary starters actually had more caught stealing than successful stolen bases and one guy was at 21/20. A lot of other teams have similar numbers. Also, and this is a bit of a stretch, but you have to conclude that Deadball Era catchers had much better arms than we’ve been led to believe or a lot of pitchers had really first-rate pick-off moves. Further study could indicate how correct these conclusions are for the entire era.


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6 Responses to “Run Like the Wind”

  1. Kevin Graham Says:

    I know the hit and run was more prevalent during the Deadball Era. I wonder how many of those caught stealing are the result of botched hit and runs.

  2. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    I think a lot of it would be the fields. The basepaths were built with laser-precision equipment, special dirt wasn’t used, and groundskeeping was sketchy at best.

    The basepaths were probably like going out to your local park and running on whatever dirt path is available.

    Also, just from watching old footage, pitchers seemed to release the ball a lot quicker than they do nowadays.

    Catchers also were two-handed back then (before the new mitts came into being) and were able to transfer the ball quicker than they do now.

    Just some opinions. Don’t know how accurate any of it is.

  3. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    basepaths were built with laser = weren’t built

  4. William Miller Says:

    The value of good base-running skills (and stolen base percentage is just one measure of this talent), is easily the most overlooked of all baseball skills. It would be interesting to see an all-time ten best list of the best base-runners of all-time. I wonder how you would even go about beginning to put together such a list?

  5. Slide Guy Safe at Third | bavatuesdays Says:

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