Going into 2019, the Kansas City Royals boasted a pair of the most talented base stealers in Major League Baseball. In 2018, Whit Merrifield led the entire league in steals with 45, a year after he led the American League in 2017 with 34. In addition, Adalberto Mondesi broke out in a big way in 2018, playing very well and racking up 32 stolen bases in a mere 75 games.
To this duo, the Royals added Billy Hamilton. Hamilton is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest base stealers in the 21st century. That year Merrifield led the AL with 34 swiped bags? Yeah, Hamilton had 59. In fact, between 2014 and 2017, Hamilton stole at least 56 bases. During that time, only three other players accomplished the feat even once.
The Royals were not done adding speed on the basepaths. Terrance Gore is back—on a big league deal, no less, which all but guarantees him playing time in Kansas City—which forms the fourth leg of one of the fastest chairs known to mankind. Gore only has 27 regular season stolen bases to his name, but his success rate of 87% ranks 10th among all players with at least 25 stolen bases since the Designated Hitter became a thing in 1973.
The natural response to all this speed is twofold. First, just how good could a 4x100m relay with Hamilton/Merrifield/Gore/Mondesi be? And second, just how many bases could the 2019 Royals steal?
We’re in an undeniably different age recently. Teams are wise now to the reality of stolen bases, which is that a failed attempt is so much worse than a successful one; in other words, there is a success threshold that you must meet for stolen bases to make any sense. In other other words, an attempted steal is not in and of itself a good thing to do.
Over at The Ringer, Zach Kram discussed the Royals’ recent addiction to speed and included the following graph. The leaguewide stolen base rate is basically at a half-century low, and stolen bases are two thirds as common as they used to be from the late 1970s through the early 1990s.
In our current millennium, the most bases a team has stolen in a given year is 200. That honor belongs to the 2007 New York Mets, who are the only team this century to hit 200 stolen bases. This was primarily due to the baserunning brilliance of Jose Reyes that year, who swiped a mind-numbing 78 bags at a quite good 79% success rate. Only two other players—Carlos Beltran and David Wright—managed to steal even 20 bases.
So could the 2019 Royals steal 200 bases...or more? The short answer is, yes, that’s certainly possible. The longer answer is that they will probably not do so.
There are two main things standing in the way of that bicentennial figure. First is that, outside of the Four Horsemen of the Stealpocalypse, the Royals just don’t have very many base stealers. Alex Gordon and Brian Goodwin are likely to max out at 10 swiped bags apiece, if that. Outside of the rookie leagues, Hunter Dozier, Ryan O’Hearn, Jorge Bonifacio, and Jorge Soler have never stolen more than eight bases in any professional season, and are therefore unlikely to hit even five at the big league level.
Salvador Perez, meanwhile, is a semi truck loaded to the brim with concrete and another semi truck hastily taped on top, pulling along a third semi truck full of Gatorade and random luggage.
There are some bright spots if you want to dream on stolen base figures in 2019. The Royals have a bunch of fast guys. Brett Phillips, Chris Owings, and the aforementioned Goodwin are quick dudes with theoretical breathing room and enough velocity to steal bases if that’s a priority. The problem is that speed does not directly translate to stolen base ability. In 2018, only four Royals had even more than three stolen bases. To expect these same guys to suddenly take off running like mad isn’t particularly realistic.
The other problem with the Royals’ potential record-breaking 2019 is simple math, specifically on base percentage. Reyes stole 78 bases in 2007 in part because he had a bunch of chances to do so. With an OBP of .354 and a huge number of plate appearances at 765, Reyes was on first or second base 247 times. Reyes attempted 99 steals, meaning he attempted to steal a base 40% of the time he could do so (I am counting instances in which the next base was occupied, as double steals are legal).
None of the Royals’ speedsters get on base remotely as often, leading to a greater pressure to steal, steal, steal. In 2018, Mondesi attempted 39 stolen bases against 72 opportunities, meaning he attempted a steal a bonkers 54% of the time. For Terrance Gore, who is projected by STEAMER to get on base at a .279 clip but who seems possible (if not likely) to get on base at an even lower rate, he will in particular need to attempt steals at crazy rates to contribute.
Still, all of this is to say that if the Royals can average 40 steals apiece from Mondesi, Merrifield, Gore, and Hamilton, they’ll only need 40 more from the rest of the team to hit 200 on the year. Especially considering the significant speed of the Royals’ upper minor leaguers, who could get a call and contribute at some point, that is certainly possible.