He may only be 21, but Billy Hamilton is already in the history books.
Last season, the Cincinnati Reds prospect burst onto the national scene when he racked up 155 stolen bases in just 132 games of minor league baseball, breaking the record of 145 set by Vince Coleman in 1983. If Hamilton had been in the majors, he would have shattered the 30-year-old Big League record of 130 held by Rickey Henderson. Or think about it this way: Hamilton's single-season total put him just behind the entire Milwaukee Brewers roster, which led baseball in steals last year with 158. Hamilton's blazing speed rocketed him up the rankings — Baseball America lists him as the Reds' top prospect and 20th overall, up from 48th in 2012 — and now he's expected to debut in Cincinnati sometime this season.
Unfortunately for Hamilton, this is 2013, and speed is not the hot commodity it once was. Three decades ago, the stolen base was the weapon of choice for many Major League teams, as speedy players racked up steals by the hundreds over their careers. The high point was 1987, when the league average for team steals was 138, led by St. Louis' 248 swipes and Coleman's 109.
Since then, the stolen base has experienced a slow decline. The low point came in the mid-2000s, when the team stolen-base average was a mere 86 for three years running. The numbers have picked up since, but just barely. The MLB average was 117 in 2011, and 108 in 2012. Baseball just isn't a sprinter's sport anymore.
Why is the stolen base, once so popular, going the way of the bullpen cart? For one thing, the statistics revolution exposed just how inefficient stealing could be. As books like Moneyball helpfully reminded us, the most valuable thing you can do in baseball is not make an out. Any time you take off for second or third base, no matter how good a base-stealer you are, you risk making an out.
The commonly accepted break-even point for the value of a steal attempt is when you're successful between 70 and 75 percent of the time. That number can be found in run-expectancy charts: For a runner on first with no outs, getting caught stealing will lose a team two-thirds of a run, on average, and a successful steal gains a third of a run. So for every three steal attempts, you need to convert at least two, or the only thing you're stealing is runs from your team.
Many variables impact that percentage — the number of outs, who's at the plate, the score, and more. But on the whole, teams that fall below that break-even mark are less efficient, offensively, than teams that don't. Take the Brewers: In 2012, they went 158-for-197 in stolen bases, an 80-percent success rate, and finished the year third in runs per game, at 4.79. Houston, meanwhile, converted just 69 percent of its stolen-base chances, and was dead last in runs per game, with 3.60. (Of course, a team's run total is effected by far more than stolen-base success rates.)
Offensive tactics have also evolved. The boom in home runs over the last decade has altered the way coaches use the stolen base. After all, having runners thrown out stealing means no one to circle the bases when your power hitters do their job. Most of those power hitters aren't the fleetest of foot, either. Hamilton's own Major League team, Cincinnati, attempted only 114 steals last year, in large part because their lineup was full of lumbering power hitters like Joey Votto, Ryan Ludwick, and Jay Bruce.
Does all this mean that Hamilton's talents will go to waste? He surely won't get the green light 192 times, as he did last season in the minors. But his combination of elite speed and good instincts — his success rate was 80 percent in 2012 — suggests that he'll be given every opportunity to run. The bigger issue will be proving that he can steal against the best catchers in the world, and not teenagers and former college kids perfecting their technique in the minors. Hamilton will also have to show that he can hack it at the plate; he finished last season at Double-A, and will likely have a crack at Triple-A pitching to start this year. And as the old adage goes: You can't steal first base.
In the end, the stolen base may be endangered, but it's not extinct. Teams still run, just more sparingly. The smart teams are far more strategic in choosing when to steal and when to sit tight, and as a result, they run the bases more successfully.
It's been 26 years since the 100-steal barrier was last broken, and 2013 will likely be the 27th season in a row. But if Hamilton thrives, it might not be long before he's reminding people of Coleman and Henderson — and making teams give the stolen base a serious second look.