When Maury Wills starred for the Dodgers half a century ago, Dodger Stadium came alive every time he reached base with “Go, go, go!”
Wills stole a then-record 104 bases in 1962 and led the National League in stolen bases for six consecutive years.
In 1965, Wills stole 94 bases. In 2015, the Dodgers as a team might not steal half that many.
In perhaps the most dramatic statistical transformation under new management, the Dodgers have fallen from first in the NL in stolen bases in 2014 to last this year.
The Dodgers are on pace to steal 39 bases, which would mark their lowest total since 1941 — six years before they called up Jackie Robinson, 17 years before they moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.
The stolen base is not required for success. The Dodgers ranked second in the league in runs last year; they rank second this year. The team that ranked last in the NL in stolen bases last year, the San Francisco Giants, won the World Series.
To Davey Lopes, who coaches the Dodgers in baserunning, the decline is no great mystery. Dee Gordon, who led the league with 64 stolen bases last season, was traded to the Miami Marlins. Carl Crawford, who stole 23 bases, is on the disabled list.
“We’re not going to come close to those numbers,” Lopes said. “You do what you’re capable of doing. You have to stay within yourself. We can’t force the issue.
“We do have team speed. We’re just not going to be prototypical. Last year, when we needed a stolen base, boom, here it is. We’ve just got to be a little more realistic. You still can be a good baserunning team. I believe we have been.”
Lopes spoke of how the Dodgers are taking the extra base. They rank fourth in the league in going from first base to third on a single, according to baseball-reference.com, and they rank at the league average in taking any extra base.
To Manager Don Mattingly, another statistic evokes concern: No team has been thrown out trying to steal more often. The Dodgers have stolen nine bases and been caught 13 times.
“The way we’re swinging the bats, I feel we’re running into way too many outs,” said Mattingly, whose team leads the NL with 54 home runs.
That is the issue in a nutshell, at least according to Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations.
“If you have a number of stolen base threats on your team, that affords you the opportunity to be more aggressive,” Friedman said. “If you don’t, then it’s important to know what your limitations are.
“For us, we don’t have as many pure base-stealing threats, but we have a lot of depth up and down the lineup, so it’s even more important for us not to run into outs. We have eight guys that can really handle the bat, so the risk-reward isn’t there.”
Friedman insisted his decision to trade Gordon did not mean the Dodgers no longer value the stolen base. After all, Friedman acquired shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who stole 28 bases for the Philadelphia Phillies last season.
“It’s just part of the arsenal,” Friedman said. “There are all kind of factors in offensive value. There are a lot of factors that contribute to scoring runs. Stolen bases is certainly one of them.”
Friedman said there are few elite base stealers, that is, players that reliably reach base and then steal bases at a favorable rate.
“You don’t want to run just to be running,” Mattingly said. “If I had Dee Gordon, I’d still want him to be 80%.”
Gordon was successful in 77% of his stolen-base attempts for the Dodgers last season. He has been successful 63% of the time for the Marlins.
The Dodgers have been successful in 41% of their attempts this season. Rookie Joc Pederson, who started the season batting eighth but is now in the leadoff spot, has stolen two bases and been caught four times.
Pederson stole 30 bases last year at triple-A Albuquerque, becoming the first Pacific Coast League player in 80 years to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season. He declined to discuss how many bases he might steal in the majors or whether he might run more often as he gets used to the pitchers and makes adjustments.
“I think it’s going to be a part of Joc’s game,” Mattingly said. “I don’t think he’s a 40- or 50-steal guy. I think he can be a 20- to 25-steal guy.”
If Pederson and his teammates can be more successful when they do run, that would add a dimension to an already dynamic offense.
“If they’re successful 70-something-percent, 80-something-percent,” Lopes said, “that’s a hell of a weapon to have.”