The stolen base is a dying art. Last season the 30 major-league teams combined for only 2,280 stolen bases, the fewest since there were 2,258 steals in the strike-shortened 1994 season. You have to go back to 1970 for the last time there were that few steals in a non-strike season, and even then there were only 24 teams in the league. Given how easy it is to hit home runs these days, why risk losing a runner and making an out on the bases? Just stay put and wait for the multi-run homer.
A few weeks ago we looked at three of the. This week we're going to shift gears and look at the guys on the mound, specifically three pitchers who excel at controlling the running game. We're going to focus on right-handers because lefties have the natural advantage of staring directly at the runner on first base. Righties don't have that luxury. Here are three righties who shut down the opponent's running game.
White Sox ace Lucas Giolito is a regular in these pages. Last offseason he overhauled his mechanics and refined his approach, and it allowed him to make the jump from worst starter in baseball in 2018 -- Giolito was the first pitcher in 10 years to qualify for the ERA title with an ERA north of 6.00 -- to a bona fide ace in 2019. He was an All-Star and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting.
Giolito's improvements went beyond the obvious. He also improved his ability to hold runners, and he had to, because in 2018 runners went 26 for 30 stealing bases when he was on the mound. Only two pitchers allowed more stolen bases. His stolen base attempt rate -- the rate at which runners attempted a steal when the base ahead of them was open -- was 11.2 percent. The league average is 5.2 percent. Runners ran at will against Giolito.
Last year runners went only 3 for 6 stealing bases against Giolito, and their stolen base attempt rate dropped to 2.7 percent. James McCann and Welington Castillo, Chicago's primary catching tandem, combined for caught stealing (25 percent) and stolen base attempt (4.5 percent) rates that were slightly lower than the league averages (27 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively), so it wasn't them. It was all Giolito.
"Every time a guy would get on first, he was pretty much standing on second," Giolito told NBC Sports Chicago's Chuck Garfien in May 2019. "I was slow to the plate, I wasn't varying my times, I wasn't varying my looks. I would get into that snowball. You could call it a rhythm, but it was an anti-rhythm. Everyone on the bases was a carousel."
White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper worked with Giolito to add a slide step last spring training, and he also made a conscious effort to vary his looks and pay more attention to the runner at first base. It certainly helped that he allowed fewer baserunners overall -- Giolito allowed 79 fewer baserunners in 2019 than 2018 despite throwing 3 1/3 more innings -- but hitters did not attempt to steal as often. His ability to hold runners went from a weakness to a strength.
Zack Greinke is a baseball savant. He's a great pitcher, obviously. . Greinke can also hit a little bit -- over the last seven seasons he's hit .240/.281/.346 in 475 plate appearances, making him Barry Bonds by pitcher hitting standards -- and he's a six-time Gold Glover. The man does it all.
It is no surprise then that Greinke also holds runners exceptionally well. Last season runners went 2 for 6 stealing bases against Greinke, and over the last four seasons they're 12 for 36. That's a 33 percent success rate. The league average is close to 70 percent. We're talking about a 777 1/3-inning sample here. Not one season or something like that.
Over the last four seasons runners have attempted a stolen base in only 3.5 percent of their opportunities against Greinke, well below the 5.2 percent league average. Greinke is second among active pitchers in innings but only 39th in stolen bases allowed. He's allowed 24 fewer steals than Madison Bumgarner, a lefty, in 1,026 more innings. Crazy.
Greinke helps his team in more ways than maybe any other pitcher in the game. That includes shutting down the running game all by himself with a slide step, a deceptive pickoff move, and varied times to the plate. If Greinke has a weakness, I don't know what it is. He's great at everything.
Rays righty Charlie Morton was not always good at holding runners. With the Pirates from 2010-15, runners went 70 for 88 stealing bases against Morton, a well-above-average 80 percent success rate. They attempted a steal in 7.5 percent of their opportunities, a tick higher than the 5.2 percent league average. Morton was stolen-base prone once upon a time.
That is no longer the case. Over the last three seasons runners have gone 11 for 18 stealing bases against Morton, and their 2.6 percent stolen base attempt rate is a third of what it was from 2010-15. Opponents are not running as often as they once did against Morton, and, when they do run, they're much less successful.
Morton got better at holding runners once he arrived in Houston in 2017. The Astros helped him streamline his mechanics a bit, and he's now much quicker to the plate, giving basestealers that much less time to get to the next base. Morton also has a good pickoff move, and he varies his times to the plate well. That all keeps runners on the toes.
Similar to Giolito and Greinke, Morton is an exceptional pitcher who limits baserunners. And, when there are runners on base, he helps his cause by forcing runners to stay put. He doesn't give up the extra 90 feet easily. So, not only is it tough to string together hits and walks against Morton, you can't steal bases either. His 3.24 ERA the last three seasons is well-earned.