A brief history of running first to third

One of the more overlooked thrills of watching a live baseball game occurs the precise moment when you recognize a baserunner has decided to challenge a fielder by taking the extra base. There is so much suspense and drama packed into that tiny instant when the casual trot of the runner rounding first suddenly transforms into furious sprint, and the crowd’s anticipation of the fielder’s throw suddenly becomes deafening.

A few months ago, however, I discovered that the frequency of this wonderful spectacle has sadly been in steady decline over the years. By measuring the receding number of plays at the plate since 1950, it seems there is evidence that baserunners as a whole are evolving rather quickly into cautious pragmatists utterly adverse to any form of excitement, rather than the wild and reckless glory-hogs we found so entertaining.

This morning I wanted to examine baserunner moxie when the stakes aren’t quite so high as being thrown out at the plate. In other words, have baserunner habits changed when it comes to simply advancing from first base to third on a single?

Sure, it’s not as romantic or emotionally-thrilling as rounding third in a fury and plowing through the catcher, but swiping third base from a slow-footed or unsuspecting outfielder can have equally important implications later in the inning.

If we isolate all those situations in 2012 where there was a lone baserunner on first base while a single was recorded, we can get get a quick glimpse of baserunners’ behavior patterns by looking at the resulting base state immediately after the play. (This excludes bunts and plays in which an error occurred.)

Start Base State End Base State Outcome%
“1–” Bases Empty 0.04%
“1–” “1–” 0.93%
“1–” “-2-” 0.27%
“1–” “12-” 70.37%
“1–” “–3” 0.56%
“1–” “1-3” 27.10%
“1–” “-23” 0.72%

Just over 70 percent of the time this past season, the runner on first decided to leave well enough alone and hold tight at second base. Meanwhile, roughly 28 percent of the time did the baserunner seize the opportunity to advance to third on the play (including the rare occasions where the hitter then followed him to second base). Interestingly, an out of any kind was recorded in less than two percent of these situations.

For the most part, this jells with my impressions of present day baserunning habits. A 70/30 split on holding vs. advancing makes complete sense, though I will admit to being slightly surprised by the low out total under this scenario. Perhaps the image of a baserunner being thrown out trying to hijack third base from the defense has a way of standing out in our memories, making it seem as though the event occurs more often.

So while these data may certainly agree with our impressions of the most recent baseball season, what about historically, then? Have baserunners always been this cautious?

If we similarly add up all the occasions where the resulting base state was either “1-3″ or “-23″ and define this as successful “first-to third” percent for all seasons back until 1950, then Retrosheet clearly says the answer is “no.” (I am also ignoring the rare “–3″ outcome states where the lead baserunner was likely to have advanced during a rundown of the trailing runner.)

image

Baserunning in the 1960s was far more aggressive than it had ever been in the Retrosheet era, with Golden Agers grabbing the extra base a remarkable 35 percent of the time. These habits then rapidly curtailed in the ’70s, before experiencing severe decline as baseball entered the 1990s.

There is certainly a noticeable relationship between more brazen attitudes on the basepaths and run environment, as we’d probably expect. If the sluggers batting behind you are more likely to drive you in from second base, it makes sense not to risk getting thrown out at third needlessly. For this reason, we see that this form of aggressive baserunnning peaks appropriately in the run-deprived “year of the pitcher” 1968 season and subsequently falls into a deep slumber during the homer-happy era at the turn of the the century. In fact, overall from 1950-2011 there was a correlation of r = .43 between seasonal first-to-third percent and runs per game.

So it makes sense that with the recent onset of what is quickly proving to be a new brand of “pitcher’s era,” baserunners are once again opting to take more chances. This is evidenced by the sudden jump in first-to-third rates beginning with the 2010 season.

But while contemporary baserunners might have more motivation to take the extra base than their recent predecessors, this does not mean that they will be more prone to making more outs in first-to-third situations. In fact, we might even expect them to make even fewer outs on the basepaths in the near future. This is because while the rate of successful first-to-third advancements seems to coincide with offensive fortitude through the years, the rate of making outs in these situations has declined steadily since 1950, regardless of run-environment:

image

This leads us to believe that baseball is becoming more responsible on the basepaths as it matures. Perhaps the inspiration behind this trend is philosophical; perhaps managers and organizations have learned to appreciate the value of an out, or in this case: the non-out. As front offices learn to appreciate the benefits of on-base percentage and low caught-stealing percentages, so too have they learned not to surrender outs on the basepaths.

But we have to consider that along with changes in the way the game is viewed tactically, there may be other factors in play. For instance:
{exp:list_maker}Ballparks are getting smaller, allowing outfielders to close in on the gaps.
Speed has been devalued in favor of power, leading to slower baserunners.
Outfielders are becoming more effective, perhaps with stronger arms. {/exp:list_maker}
Some of these reasons certainly might play a more significant role than others in evolving baserunning habits, and it’s a good bet I may have even missed a few potential explanations. I would love to hear your thoughts on all this.

References & Resources
Thanks to the fabulous Retrosheet files for their never-ending source of intrigue.

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Comments

  1. Ed said...

    I wonder if the better field conditions of ballparks today is a factor in reducing the number of attempts going from first to third, and in reducing the number of outs recorded.

    Runners might take fewer chances if they think bounces will be truer. There might be fewer outs because better field conditions make it easier for runners and coaches to estimate the outcome of a play.

  2. Dave said...

    My observation as a high school umpire and former coach is that this is a dying art and a skill that is not taught.  Most high school players do not know the correct way to go from first to third, which begins with awareness of the situation when they are on first base.  This lack of training continues on through the upper levels.

  3. Carl said...

    Merely suspicions:

    1) The steroid error resulted in a decline in attempts to advance since homers were more likely to be hit by the nxt batter.

    2) The increase in PED testing has resulted in more attempts to advance since HR power is in decline.

    3) The advent of the DH has resulted in better OFers as the slugging, bad fielding OFer can now be hid @ DH.  Note the sharp decline in the early 70s as the DH was introduced.

  4. Ridge said...

    Ed’s point about field conditions is bogus.  Major league ballparks have always been well groomed and any bad hops would have been completely random.

    Dave’s point about coaching the skills of base running holds more water for me.  Each team should have a Paul Molitor-like guy on staff as a base-running guru.

  5. Dave said...

    Carl raises an interesting point on the DH’s.  My only question on that would be that the DH would have been in Left Field, where the weakest fielder usually resides.

  6. scott said...

    A successful hit-and-run allows the runner to advance first to third on a single, as he is already approaching second when the batter hits the ball.  I wonder how much that play factors, though I’m sure it really isn’t that much.  Too bad there’s no way to tell.

    I disagree completely with Ridge calling a theory about field conditions ‘bogus’ and that ballparks were ‘always well-groomed.’  Baseball history is ripe with groundskeepers fixing fields to take advantage of the home team’s strengths.  And as a 40-year fan living in Cleveland, nobody could tell me that old Cleveland Stadium was well groomed; there’s even an old joke about the field being dirt that was spray-painted green.

  7. James Gentile said...

    Thanks for the responses!

    If it is indeed a lack of proper base running education that we’re seeing, I’m curious if is it caused by laziness and ignorance or is it just not considered important enough of a skill to teach anymore?

    I can run the NL/AL splits this weekend, but I don’t expect too much of a difference based off results from earlier inquiries:
    http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/1463169/Screen_shot_2012-09-29_at_10.15.00_PM.png

    I would also guess that the practice of the hit-and-run is down since 1950 as well, but that would not explain the decline of runners moving from 2nd-to-home on a single.

    In any case, I’m sure this is a result of several different factors, rather than a singular explanation, but unearthing all of these factors is the real challenge.

  8. Jim said...

    I agree with Dave and would add that the outfielders are not in the proper position when catching the ball, especially on fly balls.  Add to that the fact they don’t practice throws to the bases, so those are usually erratic and missing the cut-off man.  I see in a normal game (normal to me is where each team has at least 10 base runners) probably 5 or so times where the runner could have taken another base just because of the outfielder’s shortcomings, if they knew how to run (Dave’s comment).

    Now if they ever start running, then someone will make the outfielders field their position properly and make proper throws and then the cycle will begin again.  But until then, base running will be more exciting.

  9. GreggB said...

    Great article.  I’d like to know how well the first-to-third decision has been optimized.  Given the small percentage of runners thrown out, would the chance of scoring increase or decrease if runners were more aggressive.

  10. David E said...

    Sometimes I find it hard to agree with comments that say today’s players have poor fundamentals.  Have you ever looked at some of the old films from the 50’s or so?  It seems to me that batters were more lunging at the ball then.  Players are getting advanced coaching at much younger ages than in years past, so it’s hard to believe they aren’t fundamentally better.  I guess people tend to only look at the good things about yesterday, and bad things about today.

    Anyways, can we look at this in relation to the steal environment of the time?  It seems if the faster players are stealing more, then they’re not on 1st when the single is hit, they’re on 2nd.  So that leaves the slower players on 1st, who aren’t as likely to go to 3rd.

  11. gdc said...

    For all the talk about how Mantle was timed going to first in the 50’s I expect they didn’t take time to know all their runner’s speed and trusted their eyes which can be misleading, especially with small quick guys that get up to full speed in a couple of steps but whose full speed isn’t as much as the rangy guy that appears to be loafing but just has effortless speed once he is moving.  Remember the scouting piece about Billy Beane and the black prospects in Moneyball where they made them run again after Beane surprised them by winning the sprint?  I would think base coaches now would have that info on all their players.

  12. Paul G. said...

    “Ed’s point about field conditions is bogus.  Major league ballparks have always been well groomed and any bad hops would have been completely random.”

    Really?

    The “Murphy Drag” rule to drag the infield every 5 innings was not enacted until after the Mets lost a 24-inning, 1-0 game in the Astrodome in 1968.  The winning run came in on an “error” by Al Weis which Mets GM Johnny Murphy blamed on the poor infield conditions.

    Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium did not have a dedicated groundskeeping crew until 1989.  Before then it was maintained by a municipal street crew (which I presume was more or less a Parks & Rec gang).

    I’m not saying that this necessarily means better conditions are a major or even significant factor in the reduction of first to third advancements.  But the less likely the outfielder will field the ball cleanly the more comfortable the runner and third-base coach would feel taking their chances.

  13. Michael Bacon said...

    I will probably be lamblasted for being “politically incorrect” for writing this, but here goes…
    I cannot help but wonder if the fact that there are far fewer players of African descent playing today than there were in the 60’s & 70’s. I believe Bill James wrote about how African Americans were not only faster, but kept their speed far longer than Caucasian players. I recall Dale Murphy, for example, just ‘lost it’ as he entered his 30’s.
    Now I am not saying this is the ONLY reason, because it is obvious that taking that extra base has much more meaning when there are fewer runs being scored, but it could be a contributing factor. The same could be said for a player being reluctant to risk injury because of the possibility of vast sums of money being paid to players who can take the field. I do not read about any of these things anywhere when it is obvious to one who has been a fan for over 40 years that the game has changed in many ways, especially because of the wads of cahs thrown at the players. And parents wonder why Johnny cannot read…Give some of that cash to TEACHERS, for crying out loud. You get what you pay for…

  14. James Gentile said...

    Ross, thanks for the link. That was excellent. There is a significant spike in 1st-to-3rd percent beginning in 2010, as runs per game dropped considerably. Maybe we can check the progress in another 5 years and see that runners have continued to get more aggressive?

  15. Marc Schneider said...

    (1) Field conditions-fields have not always been well-groomed.  The Yankees lost the 1960 WS due to a bad hop in the 7th game of the 1960 WS that almost decapitated Tony Kubek; if you look at films of the game, you would be astonished at how pitted the infield is compared to today.

    (2) I don’t see any indication that players are less willing to risk injury.  That’s a canard from people that don’t like the fact that players now get paid what they are worth rather than what the owners want to pay. Are you honestly suggesting that a player is thinking-“well, I could try to take third, but I might get hurt and lose money?”  I don’t believe that’s the case.

  16. Michael Bacon said...

    Marc Schneider wrote,”…people that don’t like the fact that players now get paid what they are worth.”
    This is ridiculous. Even the players know they are paid far out of porportion to what would be considered what they are worth. See the recent comments made by Mark Texeira for example. The reason players have been paid so much more money than they are worth is because the owners no longer spend money to build stadiums. Instead, the taxpayers, meaning We The People, have been bilked out of our mony by crooked politicos, in conjunction with nefarious owners, like George W. Bushwhacker. Part of that money has gone into the bnk accounts of the overpaid players!

  17. Marc Schneider said...

    The market sets the value for a commodity.  There is no inherent value; it’s supply and demand. The supply of major league caliber players, especially the top players, is much lower than the demand.  For years, the owners kept salaries artificially low through the reserve clause.  How much do you think Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or Hank Aaron would have made if they had been able to market their services to the highest bidder.  If you want to say they are overpaid, I say, compared to what?  I suspect that the reason we think players are overpaid now is because players in the past were underpaid. 

    Now, I agree that the ability of owners to bilk taxpayers into building new stadiums gives them more ability to pay the higher salaries. And I certainly think taxpayers should not do that.    But the owners aren’t paying the players out of the goodness of their hearts.  If they could, why wouldn’t they simply keep the money they get from the new stadiums and pocket it themselves? It’s obviously because they are in competition for the services of these players.  Granted, if the new stadiums did not exist-or, more precisely, if the owners had to build them- perhaps the value of the players to the teams would be less. But their value would still be determined by the market.  The players aren’t overpaid any more than a movie star is overpaid.  And the fact that the owners may have more money to spend because of taxpayer-supported stadiums has nothing to do with whether the players deserve what they get.  We have decided that, in our society, the market will allocate resources.  That allocation does not necessarily correspond to social utility; obviously ballplayers do not contribute as much to society as teachers or firefighters.

  18. Michael Bacon said...

    I do not believe that, “We have decided that, in our society, the market will allocate resources.” Given the choice I believe the majority of We The People would choose to pay teachers or firefighters much more, and any kind of ball player much less.
    It is nice to watch a movie ‘star’ or baseball player, or any kind of entertainer, for that matter, but I,and like I said, most people, given the choice, would rather see that money go to those who help society,and help to advance society, than to any kind of entertainer. We have misplaced the priorities in our society, and I give full credit to Tex for speaking out.

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