The average MLB team this season attempts a stolen base in nine out of 10 games. That may not sound dramatic, but it is compared with the state of the game just two years ago.
In 2021, teams attempted to steal in just six out of every 10 games, which was the lowest rate since 1964.
This season, the dramatic uptick in stolen base attempts should surprise no one. A series of new rules changes—particularly the pitch timer and disengagement rule—have boosted the popularity of the running game.
* The 20-second pitch timer with runners on base forces the pitcher to rapidly get on the same page with his catcher, while also taking away one of the pitcher’s greatest weapons against the running game: varying his times to the plate.
* The disengagement rule disincentivizes a pitcher from throwing over to first base to keep a baserunner close. A pitcher gets two pickoff throws or step-offs per at-bat. A third results in a balk.
Some argue that the stolen base resurgence of 2023 is artificial, a gimmick resulting from a set of rules that disrupt traditional pitcher-baserunner dynamics.
While there is truth in that sentiment, it’s also true that the heyday of the stolen base—the 30-year period centered on the 1980s—was boosted by artificial means. Quite literally.
Artificial turf shaped the way the game was played for three decades, particularly in the National League, where Cincinnati, Houston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis played home games on turf for the entire decades of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
Well technically, the Cardinals switched to grass in 1996, meaning that St. Louis played 26 of the aforementioned 30 seasons on turf. But to help compensate, the Expos moved into Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in 1977, where they remained through 2004.
Add it all up and the 12-team NL had six parks with artificial surfaces between 1977 and 1995. And for nearly 20 seasons from the mid ’70s to the mid ’90s, the six-team NL East featured four turf teams in the Cardinals, Expos, Phillies and Pirates.
By contrast, the 14-team American League during this period had just four parks with artificial turf—Kansas City, Minnesota, Seattle and Toronto—and even then only in the ’80s did they all overlap. By 1994, the Royals had switched to natural grass at Kauffman Stadium.
Why is this turf talk important?
The artificial turf of the old multi-purpose stadiums made basestealing easier, but just as significantly, the faster playing surface placed an emphasis on…