Over the course of sports history there are some extreme statistical outliers. From Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 48.5 minutes a game within the 1961-62 season (there are only 48 minutes in an N.B.A. game), to Wayne Gretzky, who had so many assists that he can be the N.H.L.’s profession points leader even when he had never scored a goal, certain stars have put records to this point out of reach that discussing them can seem pointless.
Rickey Henderson, the well-traveled vagabond who steadily found his way back to Oakland, was that way with stolen bases. And as the favored Twitter account Super 70s Sports noted on Thursday, Henderson began May 12, 1982 because the M.L.B. leader in steals — with 35.
It’s a number that appears more absurd the longer you take a look at it. Last 12 months only two players managed that many stolen bases all season. In 2019, only five players got there. Henderson, who in 1982 was on his approach to a record 130 steals in 172 attempts, was averaging greater than a steal per game in mid-May. It was a pace so relentless that it throws off the curve for some other stolen base discussion.
Should you can adjust your base-stealing expectations back to the trendy reality, though, Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners is off to a powerful start in his rookie season. He and the Mariners will open a series against the first-place Mets at Citi Field starting Friday night, and with a significant league-leading 10 steals in 11 attempts, Rodríguez, 21, is on pace to be the primary player with 50 or more in a season since Dee Strange-Gordon had 60 in 2017.
Could Rodríguez be the longer term of baseball, as he boldly suggested before this season? Absolutely. Could he be the torchbearer for Henderson and the sport’s other great stolen base threats? Not if he keeps up his recent hot streak on the plate.
Rodríguez’s transition to the majors was initially very rough. After a loss on April 29, he was hitting .211 with a .550 on-base plus slugging percentage. He had mitigated those poor results a bit with defensive effort and by being aggressive on the basepaths: Through 19 games, he had a significant league-leading nine stolen bases. Since then, his highly regarded talents on the plate have come around, with an .835 O.P.S. in 12 games — but he has stolen only yet one more base.
It is much too soon to inform how things will play out for a young player like Rodríguez. But in the present environment, it isn’t surprising for a player who can hit, particularly one who can hit for power like Rodríguez, to give attention to that reasonably than finding ways to fabricate offense through stealing bases.
Within the Eighties, pitchers’ nightmares were stuffed with the image of Tim Raines, Vince Coleman or Henderson taking a protracted lead off first base. But lately, even the players with the mix of speed and know-how to steal in huge numbers have gone one other way. From Mike Trout’s bulking as much as give attention to his power to Trea Turner’s attempting to protect his body from wear and tear, the sport’s best base stealers have walked away from what was once a highly marketable skill.
Overall, teams are averaging 0.49 steals a game this season, which is a gentle uptick from last 12 months but in addition can be the fourth season in a row by which the typical is below 0.5. That’s down from a contemporary peak of 0.85 a game in 1987 — the era of Raines, Coleman and Henderson. Over the course of the season, that seemingly small fraction can add up. Last season the Kansas City Royals led M.L.B. with 124 steals; in 1987, the typical team stole 138 and Coleman’s Cardinals paced the majors with 248.
Major League Baseball has identified the shortage of steals as an issue. A player taking off for second, sending a jolt through the group, makes for a more compelling game than just a few solo home runs and a dozen strikeouts. So M.L.B., because it experiments on the minor league level, has prioritized finding ways to encourage running like limiting the variety of times a pitcher can step off the rubber in a single league and requiring pitchers to step off the rubber before attempting a pickoff in one other.
Despite that, it could possibly sometimes feel as if there won’t ever be one other José Reyes, let alone one other Henderson. As we wait to see if M.L.B.’s initiatives could make a dent, it’s value remembering that there’s an ebb and flow to statistics in baseball and that we are usually not actually on the nadir of stolen bases.
There have been only six seasons by which the most important league average was below 0.3 steals a game, and all six got here between 1949 and 1956. In 1957, the Washington Senators set a very dubious record, stealing only 13 bases as a team over the course of 154 games. Making matters worse, they were caught attempting to steal 38 times.
A 12 months later, Henderson was born in Chicago and would go on to steal a record 1,406 bases.
And it was hardly just Henderson. The resurgence of stolen bases after that low point within the Nineteen Fifties happened surprisingly quickly. In 1958, Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants led the majors with only 31 steals. By 1962, Maury Wills of the Los Angeles Dodgers was changing the sport — and setting a latest modern record — with 104.
Steals became so frequent that in 1976, 10 players had 50 or more in the identical season, and the typical variety of steals topped 0.7 a game — a figure it could reach in 22 consecutive seasons.
In that spirit, a return to stealing bases could seem unlikely immediately, but all it could presumably take is a player wanting to do it and a team not telling him to stop. The resurgence could blossom from there.
Should that occur, Henderson won’t have to lose sleep about his records.
If Rodríguez, or anyone else, gets to 50 in a season, they might repeat that feat for a span of 28 consecutive seasons and still be six in need of tying Henderson. It’s not inconceivable, in fact, but just like the feats of Chamberlain and Gretzky, it’s a record so outlandish that it’s best to not spend an excessive amount of time pondering whether anyone could threaten it.