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Anyone who watched more than a few Diamondbacks games in 2022 knows that speed was one of the team’s defining characteristics. Infield hits, stealing bases, singles stretched into doubles — all were hallmarks of the 2022 Diamondbacks.
Granted, not every player on the team was fast. (Don’t be fooled by Carson Kelly’s first stolen base since he was a 19-year-old playing A-ball.) But the Diamondbacks did have several players — namely, Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas, Jake McCarthy and Buddy Kennedy — who ranked in the 95th percentile or higher in sprint speed. Four others, including Daulton Varsho, Nick Ahmed, Stone Garrett and Cooper Hummel, graded out well above-average.
As a result, the Diamondbacks were tied for sixth in baseball in 2022 with 104 stolen bases. It was their highest total as a team since 2015, and the sixth highest in franchise history. Nonetheless, what the 2022 Diamondbacks did in the base paths may pale in comparison to what they are able to do in 2023. Put simply, with bigger bases and a new limit on pick-off attempts coming to the game next year, the 2023 Diamondbacks might be the most prolific baserunning team the franchise has ever seen.
Before we get go too deep, bear in mind that the Diamondbacks’ baserunning prowess stretches far beyond just stealing bases. In 2022, they lapped the competition in Ultimate Base Running, a stat that measures value from non-base stealing plays like taking extra bases, avoiding outs on the base paths, etc. There is no reason to believe the D-backs won’t continue to be great at those things in 2023.
This article, however, is about base stealing. In that regard, all eyes are on two specific rule changes that could increase the volume of stolen bases across the game in 2023. The first is that bases will be bigger, increasing from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. The second is that pitchers will be limited to two disengagements — pick-offs or step-offs, that is — per plate appearance. (The limit resets if a runner advances.)
Let’s start with bigger bases, the less impactful of the two. While the primary purpose of bigger bases is to reduce injuries on the base paths, bigger bases will also reduce the distance between first and second base (and second and third) by 4 ½-inch inches. Theoretically, that could be enough to make base stealing easier on two fronts.
First, a shorter distance between the two bases means that baserunners won’t have as far to go. Second, bigger bases could reduce slide-by situations, where a would-be base stealer beats the throw but is still called out because he slid past the base. It is possible that one or both of these factors could prove significant in the majors, but there is no firm evidence to support that yet.
The rule change that is really expected to move the needle on base stealing is the limit of two pick-offs per plate appearance. This one is easier to understand.
Say, for example, that Carroll is on first late in a tight game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. McCarthy is at the dish, facing a tough lefty in Alex Vesia.
Carroll takes a big lead. Vesia throws over. Safe. McCarthy takes a couple of pitches. Carroll takes an even bigger lead. Vesia throws over again. Safe again.
Now, Vesia is officially in trouble. At this point, he has no more disengagements remaining. Technically, he can still throw to first, but doing so would result in a balk should he not get an out. That could put the fastest man in baseball 90 feet away from home. Can’t risk that.
McCarthy fouls the next pitch back to the screen. Then, waiting for the right pitch, Carroll takes off unchecked, getting to second without a throw.
Hopefully, you get the idea: Only having two pick-off attempts will significantly hinder the ability of pitchers to control the run game. And the D-backs’ roster is chock-full of players who have both the sprint speed and the baserunning acumen to take advantage.
At this point, whether the new disengagements limit will increase base-stealing is not even a question. The only question is by how much.
To get a rough idea, we can take a look at the results in the minor leagues, where the rule was first tested. According to an article published by Baseball America in early September, minor league teams had gone from an average of 1.1 stolen base attempts per game in 2019 to 1.4 stolen bases attempts per game in 2022 with the new pickoff limitations. That works out to roughly 25 percent more stolen bases.
Hypothetically, let’s say the majors sees that same increase — which, by all accounts, is probably an underestimate. A 25 percent increase would bring the D-backs’ 2022 stolen base total of 104 up to 130. For context, the D-backs’ single-season franchise record for stolen bases as a team is 137, set back in 1999 and matched in 2016. Tying or even exceeding that record in 2023 is certainly on the table.
In order to get a better idea of what to expect, we can take a more granular approach by looking at projections for individual players. We’ll start with this table, which hones in on six players that will likely carry the majority of the base-stealing load in 2023. The table includes how many bases each player stole in 2022, how many steals that is equivalent to over 150 games and their projected stolen base total for 2023 (assuming a 25 percent increase).
|Player||Stolen bases, 2022 (games played)||150-game stolen base pace, 2022||Projected stolen bases, 2023|
|Josh Rojas||23 (125 games)||28||35|
|Jake McCarthy||23 (99 games)||35||44|
|Daulton Varsho||16 (151 games)||16||20|
|Geraldo Perdomo||9 (148 games)||9||11|
|Alek Thomas||4 (113 games)||5||7|
|Corbin Carroll||2 (32 games)||9||12|
A few items stand out. First, McCarthy’s 44 stolen bases would rank fourth in D-backs history, trailing only Tony Womack’s 72 in 1999, Eric Byrnes’ 50 in 2007 and Womack’s 45 in 2000. That’s already very good company, but there is good reason to believe that 44 still might be an underestimate for McCarthy.
Remember, McCarthy had three separate stints in the majors in 2022, separated out by a pair of mid-season trips back to Triple-A Reno. McCarthy’s first big-league stint of the year came from Opening Day to April 24, lasting only about two weeks. His second came from mid-April to mid-May. His third and final call-up of the year came on July 11.
In McCarthy’s first two big-league stints of the year, he played a combined total of 31 games and attempted only one stolen base. McCarthy’s conservative approach out of the gate is understandable — no sense taking risks on the bases when struggling to get on base in the first place.
That means that 22 of his 23 stolen bases came in his final big league stint of the year, which lasted 68 games. If we narrow in on that span only — when McCarthy seemed to be settling in and was running more aggressively — he swiped bags at a rate of 49 per 150 games. Increase that by 25 percent to account for the rule changes in 2023, and we arrive at 61 stolen bases. You heard it here first: Jake McCarthy could feasibly become the second Diamondback ever to steal 60 bases in a season.
Looking back at the table, another player that stands out is Carroll — the literal fastest baserunner in baseball — who is projected for only 12 steals. Mathematically, this makes sense, given that Carroll stole only two bases in an albeit limited sample of 32 games in 2022.
As with McCarthy, Carroll’s lack of attempts early on probably says more about a desire to play it safe out of the gate than it does his actual base-stealing habits moving forward. Frankly, 32 games is too small a timeframe to set any kind of stolen base trend, anyway.
To try to get a more accurate estimate for Carroll, we can look at his minor league numbers from 2022. In 93 games split primarily between Double-A Amarillo and Triple-A Reno, Carroll went 31-for-36 in stolen base attempts, a pace of 50 steals per 150 games.
Granted, even at the upper levels at the minors, catcher arms are not as accurate or as strong as they are in the majors. Setting the bar at 50 steals for Carroll is too high. However, given the rule changes coming to MLB and the fact that Carroll’s sprint speed leaves little doubt for his success on the base paths, setting the bar at, say, 25 steals is a reasonable projection.
Finally, let’s take one last look at Thomas, whose 95th percentile sprint speed makes it hard to believe he attempted only seven stolen bases in 113 games. In contrast to McCarthy and Carroll, the fact that Thomas ran so rarely was probably by design.
In 303 career games in the minors, Thomas went 45-for-72 in stolen base attempts, a success rate of just 62.5 percent. The rule of thumb is that base stealers must succeed at least 75 percent of the time for their base stealing to register as a net positive. Since becoming a professional, Thomas has yet to manage a 75 percent success rate at any level.
That doesn’t mean he never could, though, and MLB’s rule changes in 2023 might give him and the D-backs’ coaching staff the willingness to try. In fact, a Baseball Prospectus article pegged Thomas as one of 19 players with the most stolen base upside under the new rules. On paper, Thomas is fast enough to steal bases frequently and successfully.
The same could be said for a number of other speedsters around the game who just don’t seem to have the chops for swiping bases. It is not out of the question that Thomas could play 150 games in 2022 and still only attempt around 10 steals. On the flip-side, it is reasonable to suggest that the rule changes could unlock a 10-15 stolen base season. For our purposes, we’ll err on the conservative side and project him for 10.
With these changes to McCarthy, Carroll and Thomas, here is an updated look at our 2023 stolen base projections:
|Player||Projected stolen bases, 2023 (150 games)|
Should this come to fruition, the Diamondbacks would receive 162 stolen bases from these six players alone. Factor in another 20 or so stolen bases that can reasonably be expected from the rest of the roster, and 185 stolen bases for the year is within reach. Should the Diamondbacks reach 185, they would become the first team to do so since 2009 and just the seventh team to do so since 1995.
Granted, 185 stolen bases is a bullish projection. We’re not only assuming relatively healthy years for all six players on the list, but we’re assuming young players like Carroll, Perdomo and Thomas actually play well enough to warrant 150-game seasons. We’re also assuming — checks notes — 61 stolen bases for McCarthy. That projection hinges not only on his ability to maintain a stolen base success rate that few players can, but to continue to get on base as much as he did in the final 2 1/2 months of the year. None of these are givens.
What is given is the fact that the run game is poised for a momentous revitalization across baseball next year, and the Diamondbacks could be right at the center of it. Watching this team fly around the bases can only get more exciting in 2023.
Top photo: Erik Williams/USA TODAY Sports