In watching the Astros over the first quarter of the season, there is much to be gleaned, and much still to learn. After a sluggish start to the year, the squad is back to where most figured it would be: atop the AL West standings. The pitching is generally strong, aided by a league-leading defense. The offense has been a bit different from past seasons, in that the Astros’ are not anywhere close to leading the league in batting average. However, they have been climbing up the rankings for runs scored and OPS, mainly due to the use of the long-ball.
Yet, in looking at some of the numbers, there is something else that is standing out. As of this writing, the team is in the top half of the league for stolen bases. Presently, they stand 12th (out of 30) in MLB for bases stolen at 22. Since 2018, the Astros haven’t finished the regular season ranking higher than 17th (2019) in stolen bases. Last season, the team swiped only 53 bases (27th in the league). At this point, the team, should it hold to that pace, will blow well past that number.
The role of the stolen base in the modern game is shifting. With the evolution of modern analytics in baseball, the idea of a stolen base is not seen as statistically advantageous. The potential loss of a baserunner/scorer has seen the role of the stolen base deemphasized.
A 40 home run/40 stolen base season is not as likely a statistical target as it was 25-30 years ago. The Astros are seen as on the forefront of that effort. In 2015, they finished 3rd in bases stolen (121), but the numbers have sharply fallen off since then. However, given that they are among the best in the league in runs scored, batting average and on-base percentage since 2017, the loss of stolen bases has not hurt the team’s on-field success.
However, starting last post-season, stolen bases were becoming a more common occurrence. What would change? Players still strove for the home run, and the 3 true outcomes dominated, none of which involve a stolen base. Yet, this past post-season was in the all-time top 6 for stolen bases (the Astros were 12-12 on base-stealing attempts at one point during the playoffs).
Offense in the playoffs can be at a premium, and moving runners over can enable those non-home run hits that beat a shift to drive in critical RBIs. With the start of the 2022 season, given the inconsistencies of the baseball and overall struggles of hitters league-wide, manufacturing runs is at a premium, and successfully stealing a base is one way to get there.
This change in philosophy came early to the 2022 Astros in the form of Altuve. Whereas Altuve was good for nearly 30+ steals a season in the mid-2010s, he has not run near as much, mainly due to age and injury. Still, when healthy, as he showed in the 2021 post-season, he can achieve high-end base-running speed, which is a must for successful base-stealing. Within the first week of the season, Altuve recorded two successful steals. Given that he only stole all of 5 bases in 2021, he appeared to be off to a “fast” start. However, he has not logged another successful stolen base since then. Right now, Kyle Tucker leads the Astros with 9 SBs. There is some speed on the roster, between Pena, McCormick and Siri. Even some of the veterans, like Gurriel (2), are swiping a few bags this season.
As the season unfolds, it will be curious to see how the Astros handle base-stealing. The team hasn’t really required it for offensive success, but even for a team like this, a stolen base can rally this squad. Think back to the May 15th game against the Nationals. When McCormick successfully swiped second, it seemed to trigger something in a dormant/unlucky Astros offense, and Maldonado managed a rare hit for a 2-run homer. So, there is a place for base-stealing, even for the analytically-minded Astros.
This is not to say that the Astros are going old-school on base-stealing. Maybe the Astros come close to stealing 100 bases as a team, but that is not for certain. Most of their offense is coming from the long-ball (one of those dreaded “true outcomes”). However, especially compared with 2020, they are on pace to be in the top half of the league in base-stealing. This will add some excitement to the game and offer some more discussion points for this team.