Which Side of the Morgan Line Is Your Team On?

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

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Prior to 2004, only eight baseball teams on record (caught stealing stats are incomplete for some seasons) stole bases at a success rate of at least 80%.That year, the New York Mets posted the fourth-best percentage ever at 82.3%.Last season,two more teams bettered 80%, and this year, the Mets and three other teams are above this threshold. We can call this level of success the Morgan Line, after Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, who was legendary for his ability to avoid being gunned down at second.

In the power-intensive environment that is baseball of the 21st century, the stolen base is not an integral part of most offenses. However, when a team can count on being successful four out of five times, it remains an effective tool.

Why are more and more teams getting over the Morgan Line? For one thing, stolen base success in general has improved with time. In 1915, the major league success rate was 54.5%, and since then, the rate has steadily risen, with small peaks and valleys, to 70.7% as of 2004.The highest-ever success rate came in 1996, when base thieves grabbed 71.7% of their intended bases.


Two-out-of-three has long been generally considered the break-even point at which steals become an effective tool. Spikes over 70% have occurred before, but if the 2006 rate of 70.7% holds, it will mark the third season in a row below the 30% failure rate.

Another factor in creating a successful stealing team is that everyone is, in general, becoming more judicious in their attempts at larceny. During the 1915 season, major league squads attempted 1.78 steals per game, but that number quickly fell below one and, excepting a brief surge in the 1980s, (thanks Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman), the rate has remained below one attempt per game.

While we are not likely to see a return to the stolen base drought of the 1940s and 1950s, we are definitely moving away from the high theft rates that predominated from the late ‘70s to the late ‘90s. The last time attempt rates per team per game were as low as they have been from 2003 to 2006 was the early 1970s. This, combined with the general increase in success rate, means that certain teams with the right combination of players and philosophy are going to continue to push the envelope on club success rates. These were the top five teams in baseball as of games of July 4:


76 SB, 13 CS (85.4%)
Workhorse: Corey Patterson (31 for 36)

The Orioles also have Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora, Luis Matos, and David Newhan going a combined 18 for 18. Patterson has slipped of late. He was caught twice on June 9 and is just five for his last nine — otherwise, the Orioles would be in an even better position to nab the team record.

67 SB, 14 CS (82.7%)
Workhorse: Brandon Phillips (16 for 16)


The team leader is actually Felipe Lopez, but he’s dragging the average down at the moment with his 22 for 28 showing. The surprise so far has been Austin Kearns, who hasn’t been caught in six attempts. He didn’t try any steals last year and was just 13 for 19 in his career prior to 2006.

61 SB, 13 CS (82.4%)
Workhorse: Dave Roberts (19 for 23)

You know you’ve got it down when the lowest stolen base percentage on your team is 75%. That belongs to Brian Giles, who is six for eight so far.Vinny Castilla, who is a career 43% base stealer, has helped out the cause by not attempting any steals this year.

88 SB, 20 CS (81.5%)
Workhorse: Jose Reyes (37 for 46)

Which is the bigger surprise here: Paul Lo Duca perfect in three attempts after going 14 for 33 in his career or Julio Franco, perfect in four attempts at the age of 47? It’s probably Lo Duca, since Franco is 17 for 21 since turning 40. Cliff Floyd and Endy Chavez are a combined 11 for 11 as well. Beltran’s 80% mark is actually below his famous career average of 87.8%.

67 SB, 18 CS (78.8%)
Workhorse: Derek Jeter (16 for 18)

Jeter appears to be recreating his outstanding stealing record of 2002 when he went 32 for 35. Damon’s showing is well below last year’s 18 for 19 rate and nowhere near his 2002-03 record of 61 for 73. Bernie Williams, two for nine in the past two seasons, is largely staying put.

Given the circumstances, the team record for stolen base success is extremely soft. It’s even more vulnerable if we were to discount the two strike-year teams from the top of the list. Don’t be surprised if the record falls this season. At the very least, more and more clubs will cross the Morgan Line.

Mr. Baker is a writer for Baseball Prospectus.For more state-of-the-art analysis, visit www.baseballprospectus.com.

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