Friday, September 29, 2023 Sep 29, 2023
88° F Dallas, TX

The Rangers Haven’t Joined Baseball’s Stolen-Bases Revolution. What Gives?

No team swiped more bags in 2022 than Texas, but you wouldn't know it from how the team has played as the rest of baseball runs wild. Here's why—and why you shouldn't worry, either.
By |
This hasn't been a common sight for Texas in 2023. Yet. Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The early results are in, and baseball’s radical rule changes are working out just fine. Games are breezing by, with pitch clocks reducing the time of games by half an hour. More balls are being put in play thanks to the banning of the shift. And perhaps most exciting of all, we are seeing more base thefts, as that aspect hit a growth spurt in the offseason. Extremely late bloomers, I guess.

Teams stole a whopping 70 bases on the opening four-day weekend, including 21 on Opening Day alone. We saw a paltry five on Opening Day 2022. Those 70 swipes are the most we’ve seen since the beginning of the 1998 season, when Rickey Henderson led baseball with 66 stolen bases and 13 other players cracked 35 steals. Last year, only Baltimore’s Jorge Mateo managed that, with 35 on the dot. (Reading an article like this wouldn’t have been quite as easy back then, especially if someone in your home needed to make a phone call. You can probably hear the dial-up modem sound as you scroll.) Base-stealers posted a success rate of 84 percent in the opening weekend, which was up from 75 percent in 2022. That’s more runnin’ than the intro of Black Eyed Peas’ hit “Let’s Get It Started.” (Yes, that is a music reference from 2004. Try to keep up.)

Last year, the Rangers stole the most bases in Major League Baseball, with 128. So why are we not seeing much aggression on the base paths from the club early this season, when the sport is producing stolen base numbers not seen in a generation? Through their first six games, the Rangers have stolen one base—Marcus Semien, on Opening Day—and have one caught stealing (also Semien).

For starters, consider the opposition. Texas didn’t try to run much on Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto in the opening series, which is probably a good idea considering Realmuto threw out a big league-best 41 percent of would-be base stealers last year. In the second series, Texas had to contend with Baltimore catcher Adley Rutschman, who has a pretty good arm in his own right. But the bigger culprit was offense. Against the Orioles, the Rangers were held to one hit in the opener and five non-homers in the second game before finally scratching out enough offense to help Jacob deGrom secure his first win with his new club. Hard to take an extra base without getting aboard to begin with.  

Then there’s the personnel. Texas has three players with premium wheels in Semien, Leody Taveras, and Bubba Thompson. The problem is only one of them is on the field: Taveras is rehabbing an oblique injury in Frisco, while Thompson has gotten next to no playing time. Meanwhile, guys like Robbie Grossman and Brad Miller are getting regular at-bats, which has gone well at the plate—they’re each producing above league-average offense per wRC+, which measures offense independent of park factors—but don’t pose a real threat when aboard.

Another factor could be the skipper. Chris Woodward preferred his Rangers to force the issue on the base paths. Some of that was probably a concession to some rather forgettable lineups during his tenure. Texas had to try and generate offense somehow, so why not play to what was arguably Woodward’s strongest suit as a manager? 

Enter Bruce Bochy, who not only has a better lineup than Woodward ever did but also a middling appetite for aggression on the bases. Bochy’s teams in San Diego and San Francisco were a mixed bag with stealing. In 1999, his Padres led baseball with 174 steals. In 2010, his Giants—yes, that team—were dead last with 55. After the three World Series wins, most of Bochy’s San Francisco clubs were middle of the pack at best, averaging just over 74 per season from 2015 to 2019. 

Ultimately, expect Texas to get its fair share of stolen bases in 2023. The Rangers have the personnel, along with a manager who at least has some track record of turning his players loose in an era when players ran more—the sort of era baseball might be returning now. 

The bigger question is how will they neutralize opposing baserunners.

In terms of personnel, Jonah Heim has developed into an elite pitch-framer. He also has a good arm and the resume to prove it, throwing out 28 percent of would-be base-stealers for his career. Mitch Garver, on the other hand, was limited to 14 games behind the plate last season because of a torn flexor tendon that required surgery and ended his 2022 in July. He’s a hit-over-glove player who posted the 66th-best pop time in 2021, his last full season.

But the catchers are only part of the equation. When I recently asked Bochy how he felt about Heim and Garver handling the ground game with new larger bags and the pitcher being allowed only two disengagements, his answer began with another position altogether. 

“It’s going to come down to our pitchers, as always,” Bochy replied. “Trust me, we’ve talked a lot about that this spring. To mitigate some of that stuff, it’s simple—just be quicker to home plate, slide-step, and we like our catchers’ chances of throwing them out.”

Heim echoed those thoughts when I asked him about the use of slide steps. 

“They are going to be big, especially with speed guys,” he said. “But the biggest thing is our pitchers make quality pitches. If nobody gets on, we won’t have to worry about it.” 

In getting my money’s worth with MLB.TV over the past week, I haven’t noticed many pitchers breaking out a slide step to curb the opposition’s ground game. Not yet anyway. I am curious about pitch-outs possibly making a comeback after being nearly extinct over the past decade as stolen base numbers have dipped. Heim isn’t too concerned about that. As is the case when the Rangers are at the plate, Bochy and his staff will determine how Texas’ strategy evolves over the season.

“That comes down to coaching decisions,” Heim said. “I’m just out there hitting buttons, putting down fingers, and doing what I’m told. We’ll see what happens and see what the guys in charge want to do, and we will go from there.”

The Phillies and Orioles didn’t really test Heim or Garver. The Phils stole just two bags. Baltimore had a whopping 10 steals entering its three games in Arlington but came away with just one in the series. Heim gunned down his counterpart, Rutschman, on a deGrom strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play in the 6th inning on Wednesday. It was an important moment in the game, helping keep the score tied 2-2 ahead of Texas pushing ahead for good in the bottom of the frame thanks to Josh Jung’s opposite-field two-run homer. 

But these are early days. Teams will continue to push their luck on the base paths and see how batteries adjust. Long-term, expect a strong arm to become a priority at the catching position. For the time being, at 4-2 to begin the year, the Rangers should be totally fine being fashionably late to the stolen base party. 


Sean Bass

Sean Bass

View Profile
Sean Bass covers the Rangers for StrongSide. He's lived his entire life in North Texas and has worked for Sports…

Related Articles


We’re Officially Not Getting a Full Season of Texas Rangers Baseball

The first two series of the year have been canceled, and more is probably coming.

The Rangers Have To Be Better About LGBTQ+ Issues

The only team in the MLB without a Pride game or plans to have one failed their fans again.

Good, Bad, or Mediocre: Who Are the Real Texas Rangers?

The first three months of the season have given us three very different looks at Texas. How good are the Rangers, really?