San Francisco Chronicle
Team’s steal attempts could rise in 2023
MESA, Ariz. — Shortstop Nick Allen stole three bases in 100 games with the Oakland Athletics last season. This spring, Allen matched that total in his first dozen Cactus League games.
Allen said he was “given the green light” from the start of camp by manager Mark Kotsay, with one caveat: “Don’t mess it up.”
A prediction entering this spring training was that new major-league rules limiting pitcher pickoffs and increasing base size would lead to teams being more aggressive on the basepaths. So far, the A’s are among teams appearing to follow that script. Entering Thursday, the A’s were tied for the third-most stolen bases (33) and attempts (39) in spring training play. Only the Giants (39) and Reds (36) had more steals.
Like those teams, the A’s ranked in the bottom half of MLB in stolen bases last season with 78 in 101 attempts. Numbers this spring likely reflect teams experimenting under the new rules when results don’t matter. But Kotsay suggested the A’s running more is one trend that could carry into the season.
“I think you’re more open to it,” Kotsay said. “We’ll pick our spots, I think. We’ll start out the season and evaluate which guys we’re going to give the green light to and which guys we’re not.”
Pitchers are newly limited to two mound disengagements per plate appearance, with a third resulting in a balk unless an out is made on the basepaths, while also working under a new pitch clock. Baserunners league-wide appear to be testing that new edge. MLB teams had combined for 684 steals this spring as of Thursday. They totaled 492 steals in all of 2021 spring training, the last non-lockout-shortened camp.
“I think overall guys have been running more,” A’s catcher Shea Langeliers said. “But I think the biggest thing is just the guys who were already really good at stealing bases are going to be even better at stealing bases. Like if a pitcher falls into a pattern with the clock, or if we’re getting the signs in late, the time is running out, it’s just an advantage to those guys.”
Part of the A’s total is personnel-driven. New outfielder Esteury Ruiz, who stole 85 bases in the minors last season, led Oakland with six steals entering Thursday. Outfielder Conner Capel was next with four, and infielders Allen and Tyler Wade each had three. Capel stole 21 bases at Triple-A last year, and said he was emboldened to run more with the new rules already in place at that level.
“They (pitchers) are going to be more cautious about when they pick,” Capel said. “And if you’ve gotten them to pick off twice, 95% of the time they’re not going to pick a third time. You’ve just got to be smart and kind of test it a little bit and figure out what works.”
Wade said he believes bigger bases — 18-by-18 inches, up from 15-by-15 inches before — will also lead to more steals despite being a modest change.
“I think it’s going to be a big deal, just because of how many times you get thrown out by inches,” Wade said. “And also blocking bases … when guys put their foot there, it usually covers the whole bag and now there’s a little bit more, a few inches to grab onto.”
One reason the A’s spring numbers wouldn’t carry over is if more active runners don’t make the team. Capel and Wade are vying for bench roles. Aside from Ruiz and Allen, Tony Kemp is the only projected regular with multiple steals this spring. Allen, who stole 24 bases in A-ball in 2018, said he aims “to get back to that aggressive style of play” and is using spring to gauge how pitchers adapt to the new limits.
“Pitchers have to use the pickoffs, and we’re starting to see how they’re doing it,” Allen said. “It’s up to us as baserunners to feel it out — especially when we’re at second base, seeing how many looks they’re giving to second or if they’re not looking or timing picks.”
Allen said he thinks there may be more attempts to steal third this season. Kotsay countered the idea, pointing out shifts often left that possibility open last year to runners who didn’t take advantage.
“You just have to vary your looks,” Kotsay said of pitchers. “Yes, the timelines constrain that a little bit. But if you come set and go and you’re under 1.35 (seconds to the plate), good luck stealing third base.”
Briefly: Catcher Carlos Pérez, signed to a minor-league deal March 19, traveled to Thursday night’s game against Texas. Pérez, 32, played in 212 MLB games from 2015-18 and in the A’s system in 2021. Asked if Pérez could open this season as Oakland’s backup, Kotsay said “there’s a chance.” … Drew Rucinski (left hamstring tightness) threw on flat ground Thursday and the A’s remain hopeful he can open the season with them. … Jace Peterson, hit on the hand by a pitch Wednesday, has a bruise but Kotsay said: “I don’t see any limitations going forward.”