The Oakland A’s are not known for stealing bases these days. Despite playing on a field named after Rickey Henderson, the all-time icon of running in baseball, they just haven’t been that into it during the 21st century.
One of the core strategies of the original Moneyball philosophy was to not make mistakes and hand your opponent extra outs, and steals were not considered worthy of the gamble. Pretend general manager Brad Pitt succinctly explained it like this in the movie adaptation:
“I pay you to get on first, not get thrown out at second.”
Accordingly, those 2000s A’s teams ranked toward the bottom of the majors in this department for a decade, often not even cracking 50 for the year regardless of how much speed was on the roster.
Moneyball later evolved away from strictly playing for walks and three-run homers, as that strategy ceased being undervalued in the market, and Oakland eventually adapted to accept some action on the bases. They averaged 132 steals annually from 2009-12, as speedsters like Rajai Davis, Coco Crisp, Cliff Pennington, and Jemile Weeks sprinted through town. But by 2013 they were slowing down again, and outside of the brief flash of Billy Burns and the brief return of Rajai they’ve mostly remained stationary.
From 2016-19, the A’s finished 26th or lower in steals each year, and for all four seasons combined they were comfortably last place with 191 total. In 2020 they rose to the middle of the pack, but it’s difficult to take the weird 60-game sample fully seriously, and anyway the club leader with eight swipes was Robbie Grossman who since departed as a free agent.
That brings us to the current season, which is now two weeks old. Here are the MLB stolen base rankings by team entering Wednesday, but with one small change.
- Rangers, 12
- Rockies, 9
- Ramon Laureano, 8
- Marlins, 8
- Phillies, 8
- Cubs, 8
- Padres, 7
- White Sox, 7
- Royals, 7
- Brewers, 7
The full A’s roster has 10, which ranks second behind Texas, but really it’s pretty much been Laureano flying solo. (Mark Canha and Tony Kemp also each have one.) Next on the MLB leaderboard is Garret Hampson of the Rockies, with four. Granted, Oakland leads the majors in games played so far at a dozen, with most other clubs one or two behind, but this is a stark enough difference to exceed that footnote — and anyway, Laureano missed a couple games to a jammed wrist so he’s only played nine times.
Ramon’s wheels have made an actual impact, too. On Opening Day against the Astros he doubled and then swiped third, and due to advancing himself he was able to come home on a sac fly when the game log says he otherwise would have been stranded. Against the Dodgers he reached first, stole second, stole third when the defensive shift handed it to him, and then scored on a wild pitch, creating an entire run out of nothing but hustle.
On Monday his aggressiveness nearly got him in trouble when he got effectively picked off second base by the pitcher. But the defense botched the play, allowing him to complete his steal of third and then continue all the way home, having created enough chaos to open a new opportunity out of thin air. He should have been picked off first base again on Tuesday but the ump missed it and Arizona didn’t challenge it. Even when it goes wrong it’s going right.
And perhaps that’s the beauty of the lost art of stolen bases. We (myself included) often judge them purely by their raw success/fail rate, but there are indirect consequences too. That might mean the pitcher being distracted from fully focusing on the batter at hand, or the defense needing to choose between shifting for the hitter or holding the runner, as Laureano exploited against Los Angeles. And every extra play created by a steal attempt brings with it a certain BABIP element, due to the ever-present chance of an error along the way that might turn 90 feet into 180 or 270 feet plus an unearned run, like on Monday.
There also could be a benefit for a team that’s good enough at reaching first base but struggles to hit with runners in scoring position. If you can’t raise your average with RISP, you could at least increase the number of at-bats you get in those situations by stealing your way to second, even if you get caught a few times along the way. A .220 in 100 tries w/ RISP gets you more runs than a .220 in 75 tries, and a caught stealing counts the same in the final score as a runner stranded at first or eliminated in a GIDP.
We’re not even 10% of the way into the season yet, so we’re still well within the range of small-sample flukes. It remains to be seen if this is a new Unleashed Ramon, or just a fun surge to kick life into a team that slept through the opening week. But if this is real, then the good news is that it’s working so far and it’s a blast to watch.
There’s plenty of room for optimism that the running might continue. Rickey himself is a consistent feature around the A’s organization, seemingly always ready to impart wisdom from the world’s foremost expert on the subject. And last winter’s addition of Elvis Andrus, from the very Rangers squad that still runs more than anyone, has been recent a catalyst too even without attempting any himself just yet.
For now, the Laser Show is shining even brighter than ever, and Oakland is enjoying a new dimension to their game in the first couple weeks of 2021 that we haven’t often seen this century.