The stolen base has been stolen from baseball, an afterthought when spring training starts next week.
The Orioles stole only 19 bases last season, the fewest for any team in more than four decades. In 1982, Rickey Henderson stole his 19th base on April 28 — in the Athletics’ 20th game of the season.
‘‘You’re not going to have the stolen-base numbers like Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines and those guys had,’’ Orioles manager Buck Showalter said after arriving at camp Thursday in Sarasota, Florida. ‘‘When you’ve got a lot of guys that hit the ball out of the park, it makes the baserunners real cautious. What’s the analyst and all the people on TV going to say when a guy gets thrown out with Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo hitting?’’
The A’s set an American League record with 341 steals in 1976, six shy of the post-1900 major-league mark established by the 1911
Giants. The game has changed since Raines swiped 70 or more bases each season from 1981 to 1986, among the 808 he accumulated in 23 big-league seasons.
‘‘Today’s game is the long ball and strikeouts,’’ Raines said after he was elected last month to the Hall of Fame. ‘‘Pitchers have gotten so good that teams are relying on their bats more than they’re relying on their speed.’’
The 2016 Orioles were the third team since the start of the expansion era in 1961 to steal fewer than 20 bases, joining the 1964 Red Sox (18) and 1972 Tigers (17), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
There were 2,537 steals in 2,428 games last season. The averages of 1.04 steals per game last season and 1.03 in 2015 were the two lowest since 1972, when it was 0.97, Elias said.
Henderson had 100 steals or more in three of his first four full seasons with the A’s, setting a single-season record with 130 in 1982 and a career record of 1,406 from 1979 to 2003. Only four major-league teams topped Henderson’s single-season record last season.
‘‘I don’t think I would probably steal as many bases as I stole when I played because they dictate when you run and when you do not run,’’ Henderson said.
There will be drills galore on back fields across Florida and Arizona starting Tuesday. But the simple old steal seems suppressed, gone the way of sacrifice bunts and pregame infield practice.
Stolen bases used to be such a priority that Harrison Dillard, a four-time Olympic gold medalist in 1948 and 1952, became a spring-training running instructor for the Indians and Yankees.
The A’s signed Herb Washington, an All-America sprinter at Michigan State, to be a ‘‘designated runner’’ in 1974-75. He earned a World Series ring in his first season and scored 33 runs in 105 games in his big-league career — without making a single plate appearance.
Sabermetrics have played a huge role in the steal’s slide. When a hitter steps into the batter’s box and a runner takes a lead, managers and coaches know the pitcher’s delivery time to home plate and the catcher’s pop time — the second-plus it takes from the ball hitting the mitt to touching the middle infielder’s glove.
‘‘When they’re teaching changeups in rookie ball, they’re teaching times to the plate,’’ Showalter said.
Split seconds separate superb from slipshod. The Indians’ Josh Tomlin (1.32 seconds) and the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez (1.33) had the fastest average delivery times to the plate last season among those with 350 pitches or more with a runner on first and second base open,
according to Baseball Info Solutions. The Rangers’ Cole Hamels (1.84) and the Royals’ Danny Duffy (1.75) were the worst.
The Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto (1.85 seconds) and the Royals’ Salvador Perez (1.86) had the fastest pop times to second and the Braves’ Tyler Flowers (2.04) and A.J. Pierzynski (2.01) the slowest among catchers with 30 or more attempts, Baseball Info Solutions said.
During the offseason, MLB
senior vice president Chris Marinak gave general managers a presentation on the dwindling totals of steals and sacrifices.
‘‘The metrics say that it’s not a high-percentage play to score a run, so clubs are relying more and more on the long ball for run production,’’ Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said after that session. ‘‘If you’re going to be in love with your long ball, you’ve got to have a little more patience at the plate, so you have a few more baserunners on.’’
But there still is a place for steals. In the late innings of close postseason games, a stolen base becomes a priority when a leadoff batter reaches. Many think back to the 2004 AL Championship Series, when the Yankees had a 4-3 lead and were three outs from sweeping the Red Sox. Mariano Rivera walked Kevin Millar, and pinch runner Dave Roberts stole second and scored on a single by Bill Mueller, sparking the Red Sox to a 12-inning victory, an eight-game winning streak and their first World Series title since 1918.
‘‘You’re facing better relievers late in the game, and you know the chance of getting three hits against them isn’t good,’’ Showalter said.
But fashion is fickle in baseball. A new speedster might spark a counterrevolution.
‘‘I think it’s an art that’s coming back,’’ former Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale said.