Like a steam locomotive, rolling down the track,
he’s gone, gone, nothing’s going to bring him back.

As of this writing, the Detroit Tigers are the best base-stealing team in the American League and second overall, just behind Billy Hamilton’s Cincinnati Reds. Even two years ago, this reality would have been unimaginable. In 2013, the Tigers stole the fewest bases of any team, and their 63.64 stolen-base percentage was the third-worst in baseball. In 2014, Brad Ausmus took the reins from Jim Leyland, and Detroit rocketed up to seventh overall in total stolen bases, and their SB% improved to essentially Major-League average. Whether they can maintain their current clip– eleven bases stolen and just two runners caught stealing in nine games– remains to be seen. The question this post seeks to answer is whether any team has changed its baserunning profile more radically than Detroit did between 2013 and 2014. While previous work here has recognized that baserunning is about more than steals and speed, the focus of this post is on stolen bases and the percentage change in teams’ consecutive season total stolen bases since 2005.

Somewhat interestingly, all of the most radical year-to-year changes (those over 100%) occurred in the direction of more stolen bases, and, somewhat unsurprisingly, most of those most radically changing teams underwent changes at the coaching position between the two seasons.

As it turns out, since 2005, no team has changed its base-stealing profile more than the 2013-2014 Detroit Tigers, whose improvement from thirty-five bases stolen to 106 represents a 202.86% increase. Next in line are the 2005-2006 Washington Nationals (173.33% increase); the 2008-2009 San Diego Padres (127.78% increase); the 2010-2011 Toronto Blue Jays (125.86% increase); the 2005-2006 Los Angeles Dodgers (120.69% increase); and the 2006-2007 San Francisco Giants (105.17% increase).

Thanks to the huge leap from 2013 to 2014, the Tigers also are responsible for the most year-to-year fluctuations (in either direction) since 2005 (431 percentage points), followed by the Padres (386); Arizona Diamondbacks (352); Giants (345); Texas Rangers (342); Nationals (331); Oakland Athletics (330); Dodgers (321); and Boston Red Sox (308).

Changes in team management, player personnel, and strategy, as well as the variable skill level of opposing defenses and luck all contribute to seasonal variances in the number of bases a team steals, and substantial year-to-year variances are not uncommon. Still, in the last ten years, the Tigers’ base-stealing shift between 2013 and 2014 clearly stands out as the most radical, and while that shift probably says more about the differences between Leyland and Ausmus than it does about Ausmus himself, it also is a testament to the speed with which the team, under Ausmus (and with the relevant additions of Rajai Davis, Ian Kinsler, and Jose Iglesias), was able to beneficially modify its offensive identity.

(Data from Baseball-Reference. Calculations and errors mine.)

More of AD’s work may be found at ALDLAND.

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