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Teams are stealing wins this October

Well, maybe they are. It’s hard to tell.

MLB: NLDS-Atlanta Braves at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in an interesting era in baseball. Players have never been better, stronger (probably) or more athletic. Each night the five big tools are on display across the diamond, with even first basemen like Cody Bellinger looking a bit like middle infielders of old. The Bigger, Faster, Stronger mantra has never been more plain. That said, the second part of that - faster - is less on display than ever before, at least by one traditional metric. Since 1990 we’ve seen less stolen bases than we saw in 2018 just once, and that was in the strike-shortened ‘94 season. As the home run has risen to it’s incredible zenith as the centerpiece of baseball, the stolen base has fallen into obscurity. And yet, this October, there’s one trend thus far that seems - so far at least - to lean in the winner’s direction in these series. To a team, the series winner in the Division Series - and the seeming favorites in the Championship Series - has stolen more bases. What could this mean? Anything at all?

It’s been said time and time again, but this time of year is as unlike the regular season as Spring Training. Bullpens are more in use, and each at bat seems to carry the weight of a weeks’ worth of games in July or August. And you see weird trends and odd blips, like when Matt Barnes threw 14 curveballs in one at-bat the other day. Or Orlando Arcia matching his season home run total in just two or so weeks. Things get a little weird. But the stolen base thing is a bit odd. The general thought is that they’ve fallen off because of the simple measure of risk/reward. Smart teams just don’t do it much. Part of that is that smart/good teams hit a ton of home runs to score runs, so they don’t need it. But in general it can be understood that there’s a bit too much risk. In any given game you only have 27 outs - it’s the one finite resource any team has to work with. When you have a guy on first base, what is the cost to benefit of getting him to second, based on the many moving parts of stealing a base?

Adding to that, many pitchers these days have dropped the windup anyway, so they’re already comfortable in the stretch. It’s no longer a new, uncomfortable situation for them. Along with the ever-increasing velocities, it makes sense that the margin of error is shrinking time and again. And yet:

Stolen bases by series

Series Winner SB Loser SB
Series Winner SB Loser SB
AL WIld Card 1 0
NL Wild Card 0 2
ALDS1 (Bos/NY) 5 0
ALDS2 (Cle/Hou) 1 0
NLDS1 (Mil/Col) 5 1
NLDS2 (LA/ATL) 8 0

The Cubs muddle it up a bit in their brief appearance, but by and large the numbers tell some kind of story. That story could be mostly noise instead of signal though. After all, how do you get stolen bases? The first step is obviously having guys on base. The Braves had 28 baserunners in their series against the Dodgers, while LA had 52! They drew 25 walks, which is insane and not talked about enough. With that many guys on base you almost think Dave Roberts would get bored and want to mix it up a bit.

Which could be the real reason behind it. If we’re being honest with ourselves, most of those series were some level of trouncing, and one team simply didn’t have the opportunities to swipe bases. So maybe this is all pointless. But one thing can’t be ignored, and that’s the possible trend in the Championship Series thus far. As of this writing we’ve seen just three stolen bases over six games - two by the Brewers and one by the Astros. Why is this troubling? Two reasons - stolen base as are fun, and action is always good on the basepaths, Second, and much more selfishly, I want free tacos.

There were 1.02 stolen bases per game played across baseball this year. This October that number is 1.09 per game. So it’s not like we’re in outlier territory here. There just haven’t been enough games to be able to get a closer number. But it is more, by a bit at least. Whether or not they’re actually doing anything to help the winning is up for debate. But we like trends. And even now, the team a lot of people think will win the Championship Series has the lead. It’s something. Maybe nothing important. But it’s a thing.

Merritt Rohlfing studies the small nothings of baseball at Beyond the Box Score, and raves about the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. He’s other places too. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.