Atlanta Braves:  a Forgotten Weapon May Have Been Found

Saying that the Atlanta Braves haven’t been known for having a running game isn’t exactly news.  For that matter, that’s really been the case for most teams over the history of baseball… at least since roughly 1918. Things are about to change, though.

Historically, base-stealers once ruled the diamond, with the season-high of 4,573 steals coming way back in 1914… and mind you, that happened with a 24-team league playing only a 152 game schedule. 

Over the next 4 decades, though, the art of the steal dwindled into obscurity with the nadir coming in the early 1950’s — with all teams combining for just 650 steals in 1950.

Once players like Maury Wills (1959-1972) and Lou Brock (1961-1979) reminded clubs of the utility of taking that extra base (Brock led his league in both steals and runs scored categories in 2 seasons and scored 100+ runs 7 times), the practice ticked back up significantly.

By the time Wills and Brock were winding down their careers, 3000+ steal seasons for the league started to be common again.  In fact, 1976-2001 was the modern hey-day for the stolen base.

Since then, though, slugging has become more prevalent than running and that 3000 mark hasn’t been eclipsed – or approached – since 2012.

But watch out his season… and our Atlanta Braves may be well-positioned to take full advantage.

The Braves’ franchise record for career steals stands at 220… held by Hank Aaron.  In more recent times, Rafael Furcal posted 189 swipes as a Brave.

Only a dozen Braves have recorded 100 or more steals – Ronald Acuña Jr. is on that list (11th, with 107).  But there’s a fair chance that he will pass up the likes of Ralph Garr (137), Andruw Jones (138), and even Chipper Jones (150) during the next six months.

Release the Hounds!

You’ve heard of the rule changes, of course, but it’s more than just that.  It’s the combination of all the elements involved that should conspire together in resurrecting an almost forgotten element of baseball.

Here’s the full list to consider:

  • Base sizes (3 inches wider, putting 2nd base closer to both first and third by 4-1/2 inches).
  • The bigger bases will also have an extra unintended effect:  runners should have fewer problems in over-sliding second base.  If nothing else, there’s at least more surface area they can grab onto.
  • The “oven mitt” sliding gloves, which immediately “lengthen” the hands of a runner.  These are typically 10-11 inches in length, which can buy a runner another 2 inches by themselves.
  • The pitch clock, plus the step-off restrictions that pitchers also face.
  • Stepped-up enforcement of the balk rule (it’s yet to be seen if this actually happens, but if so, it’s one more thing the pitcher will have to think about).

There’s another aspect of this that directly addresses the Braves:  stealing bases is generally a younger man’s game. 

There is the occasional freak of nature out there (Otis Nixon holds the franchise record with 72 steals at the age of 32 and nabbed 59 during his age 38 season), but in scouring the list of Atlanta’s 30 most-prolific single-season thieves since 1980, Nixon’s name is the only over-age-30 player on it (Kenny Lofton was 23rd in 1997 with 27 swipes during his age-30 season).

But check this lineup of spry youngsters for 2023:

Grissom hasn’t a big steal threat in the majors so far, but he did take 27 bags in the minors last season… before getting 5 more in just 41 major league contests.

Albies has likewise been a bit reluctant to take a speed-earned extra bag, but he had also been limited in some years thanks to injuries… but he’s the only who recently suggested in TheAthletic (subscription required) that his own goal is for forty bags in 2023… never mind suggesting fifty for his buddy Ronald.

Acuña, for his part, snagged 37 steals in 2019… before the rule changes.  With a full year of knee rehab behind him, the only thing seemingly acting to limit his assault on a 50-plus campaign might be his own hitting (whether we’re talkin’ about just getting on base or… just trotting around all the bases).

Harris II stole 20 in just 22 tries during his first turn through the league in 2022… not counting 11 more at AA Mississippi (where he was actually caught three times!).  It seems he simply ran at will.

More History

40 bags?  50 bags?  That’s a big ask, but for a couple of these guys, it’s not that far-fetched, either.

The franchise record for steals in a single season came back in 1887 when the Boston Beaneaters raced to 373 steals.  In fact, pre-1914 Braves teams hold all of the top 17 spots.

In the “modern era” (since 1914), it was the 1991 Atlanta Braves setting the high-water mark with (just) 165 steals.  That number could be in serious danger of falling this year even though the 2022 Braves only recorded 87 steals.

Of course, we aren’t talking about a situation specifically exclusive to the Braves.  Other teams know about the rule changes, too, which is why I anticipate that run-scoring will be up significantly this season – perhaps back up to ‘steroid era’ levels of close to 5 runs per game per team (that would be a jump of close to three-quarters of a run over 2022).

That’s why the Braves went out of their way to bring in Sean Murphy… it was a means to try and make base-runners think twice before leaving.

As for the Braves, though, most of the best defensive catchers are in the American League.  JT Realmuto is the biggest threat to base-stealers, but Yadier Molina – for a prime NL example – is no longer playing.

Thus, there won’t be many stop signs posted around Truist Park this year.  So get ready to enjoy the races.

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