That is until the player that steals bases signs the big contract! That’s when the base stealing drops off dramatically. This is a trend that I have noticed over the last several years in Major League Baseball. It appears to me that once a player signs his first large deal for tens of millions of dollars you can bet the farm that the stolen base part of that player’s game is only going in one direction, down. Generally speaking the player received that contract, in part at least, because of his ability to steal bases as demonstrated in previous seasons. It is part of the player’s offensive game and surely used by agents as a positive stat during negotiations for that big contract. My research shows that most of the time the player’s stolen base production drops off before the ink is even dry on that deal. Some of them stop running for no known reason such as the case of Mike Trout. Then there are other players that appear to be concerned about injury risks so they reduce the attempted steals. Then there are players such as Bryce Harper who should be stealing 25+ bases a year given his age and speed but simply choose not to run. Harper is still a couple years away from his first big contract. Perhaps he will start running in 2016 as he starts his contract / arbitration drive. Harper is arbitration eligible in 2017. Usually there is a 3 to 5 year window of when players will rack up some pretty good stolen base numbers. After that it is likely the steals will start to go down.
Stolen bases are the one category that a player chooses to either be all in or all out or somewhere in between. Players don’t stop trying to get hits, they don’t stop trying to hit homeruns and they surely don’t stop trying to drive in runs. However, they do eventually stop trying to steal bases at the rate they did before. Maybe the players are afraid to get hurt after signing the big contract and can you blame them? Bryce Harper has already missed significant playing time in his career from injuries sustained while running the bases. Is it possible that the team has asked the player not to steal bases for fear of injury to their big investment? That possibility does exist. I looked at some players that were signed to large contracts and what the trend was with their stolen base production before and after the new contract started. The results of my findings might surprise you.
The most recent example of a player with dramatic stolen base drop off after signing the big contract is Mike Trout. In the two seasons prior to 2014 he averaged 41 stolen bases. Trout signed a 6 year / $144 million dollar deal prior to the start of the 2014 season. In 2014 he stole 16 bases and in 2015 he was down to 11. Trout has not even turned 25 years old yet. He is a little young to be wasting of one of his strongest talents. Trout has played every day throughout his career and has proven to be very durable. Some other examples of base stealers that stop running from recent years that comes to mind:
Melvin Upton – Padres
In the 5 years prior to signing a 5 year / $73 million deal before 2013 Upton averaged 39 stolen bases a season. In the three seasons after signing the deal Upton now is averaging 13 stolen bases a season.
Matt Kemp – Padres
In the 4 years prior to signing his big contract Kemp averaged 32 stolen bases per year. Before the start of the 2012 season Kemp signed an 8 year / $160 million dollar contract. He stole 9 bases in 2012, 9 in 2013, 8 in 2014 and 12 in 2015. You can safely say that he will never reach 20 SB’s again let alone 30 SB’s a season.
Andrew McCutchen – Pirates
In the 4 years prior and including his MVP season of 2013 McCutchen was averaging 25 steals a season. He signed his first big contract prior to the 2012 season. But in the last two seasons McCutchen is now averaging 14 steals a season. McCutchen is 28 years old.
Starlin Castro – Cubs
In 2011 and 2012 Castro averaged 23 stolen bases as an emerging star in the league. Toward the end of the 2012 season he signed a 7 year / $60 million dollar deal. The following year in 2013 he stole 9 bases. He stole 4 bases in 2014 and 5 in 2015. I think Castro is done running at age 25.
Carl Crawford – Dodgers
In the 8 seasons prior to signing his 7 year / $142 million dollar contract with the Red Sox before the 2011 season Crawford averaged 50 steals per year. He dropped off to 18 in the first year of the deal and has averaged 14 in the 5 seasons since the deal started. He is the poster child for a team never again paying a player for stolen bases. Injuries played a big part in this drop off but the facts remain what they are. He signed the deal and stopped stealing bases.
Jacoby Ellsbury – Yankees
In the season prior to his signing of a 7 year and $153 million deal in 2014 Ellsbury stole 52 bases. He dropped off to 39 in 2014 and then 21 this past season. He might not be done stealing bases yet but it looks like he may be getting close to it.
Michael Bourn – Braves
In the 4 years prior to signing his 4 year / $48 million dollar deal Bourn averaged 54 steals per year. In the first year ( 2013 ) of his first big contract he stole 23 bases. In 2014 he stole 17 and then only 10 bases in 2015. One of the biggest reasons the Indians signed Bourn was his speed. He has already been traded away to the Braves as the Indians certainly did not get the sort of production in steals that they signed up for.
Carlos Beltran – Yankees
This is example goes back a little ways but another example nonetheless. In the 2 years prior to his big free agent signing with the Mets he averaged 41 stolen bases a season. Prior to the 2005 season he signed his 7 year / $119 million dollar deal. His steals dropped off to only 17 that first season of the new contract. He has only reached 20 steals twice since then and has now aged out of the running game. He ran very hard for the money and when he got the money he stopped running.
In all of these cases the drop off in steals in the first year after the big contract is signed is 50% or more. There are many other examples as well. Whether the reasons are injuries, bad offensive season, different lineup etc. the facts still remains that stolen bases should not be counted on by a team when evaluating a player’s contract. The players and agents have no problem running off with the money. It’s the stolen bases they seemed to stop running for.