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Milwaukee Brewers one of three Major League Baseball teams on pace to steal most bases since 1990s

Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, right, slides into second base with a stolen base ahead of the throw to the Toronto Blue Jays’ Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the first inning on June 12 in Milwaukee. (AP photo)

MILWAUKEE — Cincinnati’s Elly De La Cruz understands how much of a distraction he causes to opposing pitchers whenever he gets on base.

“It seems like they get a little bit nervous right there when I go out there,” De La Cruz, who has a major league-leading 37 steals, said through a translator.

With De La Cruz leading the way, the Reds are stealing bases at a rate unseen over the last three decades. And the Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals are right on their heels.

No team this century has stolen more than 200 bases in a single season (the 2007 New York Mets had exactly 200). The Reds, Brewers and Nationals are all on pace to blow past that mark as they capitalize on rule changes put in place last year to help spur the running game.

Cincinnati has 107 steals through its first 74 games and is on pace for 234. That would represent the highest total for any team since the 1992 Brewers had 256, according to Sportradar.

The NL Central-leading Brewers have 104 steals through 75 games and the Nationals 101 through 74. That puts the Brewers on pace for 224 and the Nationals on track for 221. No team has finished a season with over 201 steals since the 1993 Montreal Expos had 228.

“As the saying goes, speed never slumps,” Brewers outfielder Blake Perkins said. “It’s always something we’ve got in our back pocket.”

Major League Baseball increased the size of the bases from 15 to 18 square inches last year and ruled pitchers could only disengage from the rubber to call timeout or attempt a pickoff throw twice per plate appearance.

Those rule changes led to 3,503 stolen bases last year — the highest total since 1987 and a 41% increase over 2022 — plus an MLB-record success rate of over 80%. The success rate has dropped to 78.4% this year, but MLB teams had combined for 1,653 steals through Thursday — 70 more than there were at this date last year.

“They got what they wanted,” Brewers first-base coach Quintin Berry said. “They wanted (stealing bases) to be a lot easier. They wanted more action on the basepaths. And with the rules and the bags and everything else, it’s more in line for base stealers. I wonder if they’re going to ever do anything to try to counter that, because it’s getting so high now, but I know fans are loving it, so probably not.”

While the Reds are building off what they did last year, when they had an MLB-leading 190 steals, the Brewers and Nationals got much more aggressive this season. The Brewers ranked 11th in the majors with 129 steals and the Nationals were 12th with 127 in 2023.

No other teams had more than 77 steals heading into Friday’s games.

“Giving up one of your 27 outs on the bases is a no-no, you know, in the era where one pitch can change a game with a three-run homer,” Brewers manager Pat Murphy said. “There’s a lot of risk in it. You’ve got to be willing to do it. Maybe teams like ours are willing to risk. You’ve got to have the personnel to emphasize it and get good at it.”

Nationals manager Dave Martinez said last week he believes the Nationals can keep up this stolen-base pace but noted that they need to do a better job of picking their spots.

“I don’t want to take away our aggressiveness because it’s our identity,” Martinez said. “It’s who we are. We have to do that. We don’t have those guys in the lineup hitting 30, 40 home runs. We have to push the envelope somehow and move the baseball. With that being said, we’ve had a lot of conversations the last few days about when to run, when not to run.”

Reds first base coach Collin Cowgill says stealing bases now isn’t as easy as it was last year because teams are trying harder to contain the running game. Cowgill said Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitchers went to a slide-step whenever the Reds put a runner on base against them.

“That just didn’t happen last year,” Cowgill said. “I think people are definitely doing a better job defending it. Catchers are more aware of it. Their stances are a little taller. They’re ready to throw more. The leg isn’t kicked out as much. I think people have done a much better job this year of controlling it and paying attention to it more so than last year, which makes sense.”

But it hasn’t made much of a difference.

According to Sportradar, all of MLB started tracking the number of times a runner was caught stealing in 1951. Since then, no team has stolen at least 200 bases with a success rate of over 81.3%. This year’s Brewers have been successful on nearly 86% of their attempts.

The Reds have converted 81% of their stolen base tries. The Nationals have been caught stealing an MLB-high 34 times and have been successful on three-quarters of their attempts.

Milwaukee players credit Berry’s scouting reports for helping them make sure they go at the right time.

“We have a lot of guys who are fast and athletic and can run,” said Brewers second baseman Brice Turang, whose 26 steals rank second in the majors. “It’s part of the game. You’ve got to take advantage of it and help your team win.”

That’s the case with all three teams atop the stolen-base charts. For instance, Washington’s Jesse Winker entered this season with three steals in 610 career games. He’s swiped 11 bags already this year.

The Brewers have four players with double-digit steals: Turang, Christian Yelich (15), Willy Adames (10) and Perkins (10).

Cincinnati has De La Cruz on pace for 81 steals, which would represent the highest total for any MLB player since 1988.

These three teams don’t have anyone with more than 12 homers, so they’re finding other ways to generate offense. The Brewers’ 5-4 victory over the Reds on Sunday was a classic example.

In the third inning, De La Cruz drew a two-out walk, stole a base and scored all the way from second on an errant pickoff attempt. Four innings later, Turang reached on an infield hit, stole second, advanced to third on a poor throw and scored on Yelich’s bunt single.

“Just different philosophies for different teams,” Cowgill said. “We’re more get on base and cause some chaos. So are the Brewers. So are the Nationals. I just think (it’s about) the way your team is built. If we had a 50-home run guy in the middle of the order, we might be less likely to steal bases when that guy’s at the plate.”

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