Can you steal a base at any time?

Stealing bases is an exciting part of baseball, but there are rules governing when a runner can attempt to steal. Let’s take a quick look at some of the main questions around stealing bases:

Can a runner steal a base whenever they want?

No, there are specific rules about when a runner can attempt to steal a base in baseball. The main factors that determine if a runner can steal are:

  • The current count on the batter
  • How many outs there are
  • The game situation

So a runner can’t just decide to take off and steal whenever they feel like it during a plate appearance. There are strategic considerations to take into account.

When is a runner most likely to steal?

Runners are most likely to steal when:

  • The count is in the batter’s favor, like 2-0 or 3-1
  • There are fewer than 2 outs
  • Their team is trailing and needs to score
  • The pitcher is in the stretch instead of the windup
  • The catcher has a weak arm
  • It’s early in the count before the pitcher gets set

These are good situations for stealing since the risk is lower and the reward is higher. When there are two strikes or two outs, stealing can be very risky.

What is the difference between leading off and stealing?

Leading off and stealing are related but different:

  • Leading off is when a runner takes a walking lead a few steps off the base, preparing to steal. This increases their head start.
  • Stealing is when a runner actually attempts to advance to the next base without the batter putting the ball in play.

So leading off comes before stealing as a way for runners to get a jump. But leading off too far can result in being picked off.

What is a pickoff move?

A pickoff move is when the pitcher quickly spins and throws to a base to try and catch a leading runner off guard before they can steal. It involves:

  • The pitcher quickly glancing at the runner before throwing
  • Spinning their body towards the base
  • Making a snap throw to the fielder covering the base

The point is to catch the runner with too big of a lead and “pick them off” the base for an out. This can prevent stolen bases.

When does a stolen base occur?

A stolen base is officially credited when a runner:

  • Takes off from their base as a pitch is thrown
  • Reaches the next base before being tagged out
  • Is safe under the tag of the fielder
  • Makes it to the base before the ball arrives

As long as those conditions are met while the pitcher is throwing home plate, it counts as a stolen base. The batter does not have to put the ball in play.

What is defensive indifference?

Defensive indifference occurs when:

  • The defense allows a runner to advance to the next base
  • No attempt is made to hold the runner or get them out
  • The runner advances without drawing a throw

In this case the runner is not credited with a stolen base, since the defense did not actively try to stop the advance. It is considered a strategic decision by the defense.

Can a batter steal first base?

No, it is impossible to steal first base in baseball. A batter becomes a runner after safely reaching first base, so they cannot steal it. Other rules:

  • A batter can try to run to first on a dropped third strike if first base is open.
  • Batter interference can be called if a swung on third strike is dropped and the batter runs inside the baseline.
  • There is no stealing allowed from home plate since that is where the play starts.

So while you’ll often see speedy batters try to beat out throws to first, the term “steal” only applies to taking extra bases beyond first base.

What leads to the most stolen bases?

In general, the factors that result in the most stolen bases across MLB include:

  • Having a lot of fast, athletic baserunners
  • An aggressive manager who calls for a lot of steals
  • Hitting in ways that produce baserunners through walks and singles
  • Pitchers who are slower to the plate or have weak pickoff moves
  • Catchers with below average catching and throwing skills

Teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, and Kansas City Royals have led MLB in stolen bases in recent seasons thanks to speedy runners and an aggressive approach.

How has stolen base frequency changed over time?

The frequency of stolen base attempts has varied over modern MLB history:

  • Deadball era (pre-1920s): very common, playing for one run was typical
  • Power era (1920s-60s): less common as home runs increased
  • Revival (1960s-80s): speedy players revived base stealing
  • Steroid era (1990s-2000s): decreased as home runs dominated
  • Post-steroid era (2010s): some increase as power declined slightly

Generally, as offensive levels and home run totals rise, stolen bases decline. But speedy runners can still impact games with aggressive baserunning.

Stolen Bases By Decade in MLB

Decade Average SB Per Game
1920s 0.42
1930s 0.43
1940s 0.39
1950s 0.34
1960s 0.48
1970s 0.67
1980s 0.72
1990s 0.71
2000s 0.58
2010s 0.51

This table of stolen base rates by decade shows some of the historical shifts, with the 1960s-80s being an era of aggressive base stealing.

Who are some of MLB’s greatest base stealers?

Some of the prolific base stealers in MLB history include:

  • Rickey Henderson – 1,406 career stolen bases, single season record 130
  • Lou Brock – 938 career stolen bases, led NL 8 times
  • Billy Hamilton – 937 career stolen bases in 19th century
  • Tim Raines – 808 career stolen bases, 90.7% success rate
  • Vince Coleman – 752 career stolen bases, stole 100+ in 3 seasons
  • Ichiro Suzuki – 509 career stolen bases, AL stolen base leader in 2001
  • Ty Cobb – 892 career stolen bases, led AL 11 times

These players had the speed and baserunning acumen to steal bases at high volumes and help their teams manufacture runs. Rickey Henderson far and away holds the all-time records.

What are some memorable stolen base moments?

Some of the most famous stolen base moments in MLB history include:

  • Jackie Robinson stealing home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series
  • Edwards stealing second as Curt Schilling eyed the runner during the Bloody Sock Game in the 2004 ALCS
  • Dave Roberts’ crucial stolen base in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS that sparked the Red Sox comeback
  • Ty Cobb stealing home against the NY Yankees, selling the fake to Lefty Gomez first
  • Rickey Henderson breaking Lou Brock’s single season record with his 118th steal in 1982
  • Roberto Alomar stealing home on Eckersley in the 1992 ALCS
  • Jacob Ellsbury swiping home against Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada in 2009

These steals happened at critical moments and illustrate how this exciting play can impact a game’s outcome.

What impact does stealing bases have on wins?

Study analysis has shown a correlation between stolen base totals and wins. For example:

  • Teams that steal 100+ bases tend to win about 12 more games per season.
  • Each stolen base contributes 0.3 wins on average.
  • More stolen bases correlates to more runs scored.
  • Power and speed together predict high win totals.

Clearly successful stolen base threats put pressure on the defense and produce more runs. That leads to more wins. But failed steal attempts can also hurt a team’s chances in close games.

Stolen Bases vs Win Totals by Team (2021)

Team Stolen Bases Win-Loss Record
Rangers 128 60-102
Mariners 126 90-72
Royals 123 74-88
Rays 120 100-62
White Sox 115 93-69

This table shows teams ranking highest in steals in 2021. The Rays and White Sox won over 90 games each with 120+ steals.

What are some famous quotes about stealing bases?

Some notable quotes about stealing in baseball include:

  • “You can’t steal first base.” – Derek Jeter
  • “Learning how to steal bases is not difficult. You just grit your teeth, close your eyes, and jump.” – Rickey Henderson
  • “Hitting and stealing go together. If you hit you must steal.” – Eddie Collins
  • “Base stealing is a dying art. The old angels may weep, but their tears won’t stop the changing style of baseball.” – Roger Angell
  • “Stealing is the only crime in which the guilty take refuge in audacity.” – Bill Veeck
  • “I want to steal 50 today, and 50 tomorrow, and then 50 the next day. When does it end? It ends when I stop playing.” – Lou Brock

These quotes highlight player attitudes about the bold act of stealing a base and how it has evolved in the sport over time. It remains a strategic weapon for manufacturing runs when used well.


Stealing bases is an exciting and strategic element of baseball governed by specific rules. While any base can technically be stolen, the most common stolen base is of second. Factors like the game situation, score, runners skillset, and defense’s weaknesses determine stolen base opportunities. Historical trends have shifted with league offensive levels, but fast baserunners can still help win games through timely steals. It’s a high risk, high reward play that puts pressure on the opposing battery.

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