Game One of the ALCS between the Red Sox and Astros featured several notable plays at second base. In the first inning, Jose Altuve was erased when Mookie Betts made a ridiculous toss from shallow right field. While originally called safe, a replay challenge by the Red Sox determined that Xander Bogaerts maintained contact with the bag and Altuve was ruled out.
A similar scenario unfolded in the third inning, when Alex Bregman worked a leadoff walk against Chris Sale. With one out, Bregman made a break for second base, but he couldn’t outrun Sandy Leon’s throw. The Astros third baseman asked for a challenge, and he received one. The replay, however, upheld the call on the field.
Not long after these plays, 2018 Yankees outfielder Andrew McCutchen took to Twitter to weigh in on the state of replay review.
You’re literally putting impossible standards on a runner trying to steal a base. If momentum takes your hand past the base but you are safe prior to the tag, you should only be called out if you slide completely past the base and the tag is applied.— andrew mccutchen (@TheCUTCH22) October 14, 2018
Major League Baseball instituted replay review prior to the 2014 season. One of the unintended consequences of replay expansion was the intense scrutiny of maintaining contact with the bag during stolen base attempts. The slightest amount of daylight now results in an out. Many fans, observers, and players alike have criticized this as going against the spirit of replay review. Instead of challenging obvious blown calls, teams have become laser-focused on instances of contact at second or third base.
Since the advent of instant replay, stolen base numbers have fluctuated. Despite a brief spike in 2014, they have generally tended downwards. Consider the breakdown in the five seasons with replay available, and the five immediately preceding it:
MLB stolen base totals with replay
2018 - 2474
2017 - 2527
2016 - 2537
2015 - 2505
2014 - 2764
MLB stolen base totals without replay
2013 - 2693
2012 - 3229
2011 - 3279
2010 - 2959
2009 - 2970
Jordan Shusterman recently posited that stolen base totals have declined league-wide because teams have placed a premium on power hitting. “With teams knowing that runs come more easily from one swing of the bat than a few swipes on the basepaths,” he argues, “it has become more difficult for players like Hamilton to carve out a spot on the roster.” Shusterman did, however, find that teams are more efficient at base stealing now, with MLB currently boasting higher success rate than that of the Golden Age of Stolen Bases.
Roster construction makes for one answer, but perhaps McCutchen is on to something. Maybe stolen bases have dipped because a once-successful attempt is now overturned by the slightest break in contact discovered through instant replay. More research will need to go into this, but it’s certainly a conversation with having.
How do you feel about replay review and stolen bases? Do you think it’s good to have these caught stealing challenges, or should it focus on the more egregious blown calls? Let us know if you agree with McCutchen or feel he’s off the mark in the comment section below.