For a speedy center fielder, Cameron Maybin must have been swinging for the fences in 2011. Besides stealing 40 bases last year, more than he’d swiped in his four previous seasons combined, the Padres outfielder struck out 125 times, also a career-high. It wasn’t the greatest of feats for Maybin, a long-heralded prospect and a centerpiece of the Tigers-Marlins Miguel Cabrera trade in December 2007 who’s been known more since then as something of a baseball vagabond.
Thing is, Maybin’s far from alone in the amount that he struck out and stole bases last year.
Ninety players in baseball history have recorded at least 40 steals and 100 strikeouts in a season, all but two having done so since 1960. Numbers have spiked in recent years, with 30 men accomplishing the feat since 2000 including five each of the past two seasons, a record.
A full list of the men with at least 40 steals and 100 strikeouts in 2010 and 2011 is as follows, courtesy of the Play Index from Baseball-Reference.com:
What’s behind the surge?
I put the word out on Twitter on Tuesday and got a variety of responses. My friend @dianagram reminded me that, in general, strikeouts are up in baseball; teams whiffed 1,150 times apiece on average in 2011, in contrast to the MLB average of 801 strikeouts in 1960. Heck, it was 496 per team in 1930. There’s talk of the strikeout being less destructive, which sounds backwards to me. I miss the days of Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial striking out roughly five percent of their at-bats. Tony Gwynn did this in recent years, but he was a throwback.
Other followers in my Twitter feed pointed to an increased use of specialized relievers with high strikeout totals, less emphasis on contact hitting, and more emphasis on power. Josh Wilker, author of Cardboard Gods, replied to me, “Fewer slap-hitting lead-off types nowadays? GMs avoid the ol’ Omar Moreno style of contact ‘hitting,’ maybe.” There were other ideas as well, with my friend @figurefilbert suggesting that expansion has diluted talent levels, and @MikeGianella countering that the US population has nearly doubled since 1960. It’s part of a broader question about if baseball’s gotten better or worse over the years, a question I couldn’t answer in one post.
Whatever the case, the trend of high strikeout and stolen base totals doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. This comes even with Bill James and other baseball researchers showing in recent years that the caught stealing rate can be no more than 15 percent before base stealing efforts become counterproductive. Old habits die hard, I guess. That being, I would doubt that teams are all that concerned. After all, the Padres just signed the soon-to-be 25-year-old Maybin to a five-year, $25 million extension two weeks ago.