Saturday, March 26, 2011


Stolen bases have been given a mild version of the bum's rush over the past twenty years as isolated power has become the game's "unified field theory" during our "revenge of the nerds" era. Our sixty-year chart (at left) shows the ebb, flow, and ebb or stolen base rates, and the slow but steady increase in success rates.

As a result, few remember how electrifying it was when Maury Wills made his assault on the stolen base record mid-way through the 1962 season. (What's astonishing to contemplate is the fact that the stolen base record was only 96, given that the rate of stolen bases per game was so high back in the deadball era. What's easy to forget is that on-base percentage was low in that time frame, and triples were the power hit, not the speed hit, so more attempts to get into scoring position were needed in order to score runs.)

It wasn't quite that bad--at least not yet--in 1962, when Wills struggled out of the starting gate, hitting just .233 in April. The Dodgers were loaded with hitting talent that year (Tommy Davis and Frank Howard came into their own, pushing Duke Snider and Wally Moon to the bench), and at first it didn't seem as though they were going to need a speed-oriented approach to scoring runs.

Before there was Maury Wills,
there was Bob Bescher.
Wills stole 19 bases in May, however, and he was suddenly on pace for 80 steals (the NL record at the time was 81, set by Bob Bescher in 1911). But even in late August, there was no real thought that Maury was going to make a run at Cobb's record. He had 69 steals in 129 games--notable, but not record-threatening.

What happened, of course, was that Maury stole 35 bases in the next 36 games. As the rest of the Dodger hitters took a nosedive in September, Wills (.361 for the month), Tommy Davis (.364 with 25 RBI en route to a league-leading 153) and Frank Howard (9 HRs) did their utmost to keep things on an even keel.

Suddenly that September, there was Maury Wills
coming at you from every conceivable angle...
From September 6-10, Maury stole 13 bases in five games (!!) to rocket past Bescher and put Cobb's mark in his gun sights. Another steal on the 11th brought him to 90 and forced Commissioner Ford Frick to contemplate the "separate record" clause that he'd imposed the previous season when Roger Maris was threatening Babe Ruth's home run record. Frick first intimated that Wills was in the same boat, but students of the record book stepped forward and pointed out that Cobb had played 156 games in 1915, the year he'd set the record. Wills stole two bases in game 156 to slip past Cobb, just as the Dodgers were in the process of losing six out of their last eight games to fall into a tie with the San Francisco Giants on the final day of the regular season.
That rosy glow around Stan
Williams was lost forever when
he walked in the pennant-winning
run to the Giants on 10/3/62...

Maury did everything he could in the third playoff game to bring the Dodgers home victorious--he went 4-for-5 and stole three bases, including two in one inning against Juan Marichal in the bottom of the seventh, coming in to score on a wild throw to third. The Dodgers led 4-2 going into the ninth, but everyone knows why Stan Williams was sent packing over the off-season...

A certain type of analytical question looms over Wills's achievement in 1962. While the numbers crowd respects Wills's incredible proficiency at swiping bases that year (104 out of 117, just a tad under 90%), they are hard-pressed to see the value of the performance, since value models seem to give more credit for reaching base on errors than they do for stolen bases (an odd little fillip in their scheme). So we've taken it upon ourselves to follow in the footsteps of the Grand Poo-Bah of Retrosheet (David Smith), who was the first to study the nuances of Maury's high-octane years with the Dodgers.

So here are a few facts gleaned from a steal-by-steal examination of Wills in 1962. His 117 "stolen base events" occurred across 75 games, during which the Dodgers posted a 55-20 record. (That means they were 47-43 when he didn't try to steal.) However, in September/October, the Dodgers were only 11-8 in such games--which may be more indicative of the team's collective slump down the stretch than anything else.

It's a well-known fact that players' performance splits are dramatic when we compare what they do when their teams win or lose. Even with that, it's rather astonishing to note that Wills hit .387 in the games in which he had some kind of stolen base action, as opposed to just .234 in the games where he didn't.

Packed into those games is a bases created average of .780 (133 total bases plus 97 net extra bases on steals plus 30 walks, for 261 bases created in 336 plate appearances).

Of course, we need to remember that this same average is only .330 in the 90 games in which Maury didn't steal a base, lest you think he really was the NL MVP in 1962.

Still, Maury's base-stealing antics were so electrifying that he sparked the revival of the speed game that reached its peak in the late 80s.

One other analytical notion has surrounded the stolen base ever since play-by-play data became a big-ticket item (and lest you forget, this happened back in the 80s). What is that? Simply, there is a thought that basestealing disrupts the man at the plate and is likely to compromise that at-bat in terms of overall performance.

There doesn't yet seem to be a definitive answer, though some of our old pals (Doug Drinen) studied some aspects of this back around the turn of the century. What we can tell you (as shown in the table above at left) is that the hitters who batted for the Dodgers while Wills was involved in stolen base actions had a loss of batting average and power, but a big rise in on-base percentage.

Johnny Podres and Jim (Junior) Gilliam: the more you look
at this picture, the less sense it makes...
The aggregate batting line above works out to .202/.374/.286. (That's a .660 OPS). The man who did most of the hitting when Wills was running was Jim (Junior) Gilliam, a man who knew how to work the count in all situations and was not particularly affected by taking pitches in order to give Wills a chance for the optimum moment to steal bases. Gilliam's line: .230/.437/.307.

The rest of the hitters didn't fare so well: 5-for-32 (.156), but you can see that familiarity might tend to breed greater success. Willie Davis, the only other man to have more than five at-bats with Wills in running mode, had passable success (.235/.278/.412). Those with less than five at-bats were just 1-for-15 in such situations.

Also interesting, but not necessarily indicative of anything, is the fact that Dodger hitters did pretty well in the first five innings when Wills ran (.273/.394/.400), but crashed to earth from the sixth inning on, going just 2-for-29 (.062).

I'm still wondering if Wills's 35 steals in 36 games is some kind of record (Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock, just to name two, seem like good bets for having topped it), but let's leave that for another time. For now, let's just think back to a point in history when there were only two super powers in the world and in baseball, and enjoy the odd confluence of a late-blooming player with marginal big-league talent standing the game on its end. Here's to you, Maury.