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BenFred: Slow-to-launch Cardinals are playing catch-up during baseball’s season of the steal

It’s the year of the steal, haven’t you heard?

The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are proclaiming it. Deep-dive baseball statistical websites are analyzing the stolen-base surge in the most detailed of terms. MLB Network rolled out the freshest numbers Friday morning, and the data is fascinating.

MLB’s successful stolen-base percentage of 81.3% so far this season is on track to become an all-time high. The risk-reward of trying to steal has never been more in the runner’s favor than it is right now. The bigger bases and strict pick-off limits, both brand new to the game this year, have led to an uptick in attempts and a big surge in successful ones, with no slowdown in sight.

Yet the talk of baseball elsewhere — well, the topic discussed most after the pitch clock, which has thankfully cut off an average of 26 minutes worth of dead time per game — has received little buzz here.

The Cardinals aren’t stealing much. The non-runnin’ Redbirds have been pretty much grounded. For opposing pitchers and catchers, Busch Stadium’s basepaths have become a rather safe space.

Until that changes, a potential edge for this Cardinals team is mostly sitting on a dugout shelf, waiting for games to trend in the right direction, the one where an advantage can become more useful.

The Cardinals have good to great speed throughout their lineup. Even 6-foot-6, 250-pound rookie sensation Jordan Walker has surprising sprint skills. Some of the team’s not-so-fast runners have great instincts on the bases. The Cardinals left spring training with plenty of plans to use their combination of base-running prowess and the introduction of the new rules to make opponents all kinds of uncomfortable.

What they have not had, though, are many good chances to unleash smart aggression.

“Usually having a lead helps,” manager Oliver Marmol deadpanned this week. “The value of an out is high. It’s been more opportunity based than anything. Yes, it’s part of our game. But if you look at our last 10 (or so) games, having a lead in meaningful spots where you wanted to risk it, it hasn’t been there. It’s more opportunity based on game situation right now.”

The most comfortable time to steal is when you are tied or leading because it’s easier to gamble a potentially lost out on the potential benefit of helping break a tie or extend a lead. It gets a lot tougher to steal when you are down, especially by more than one run, because outs are precious, and so are baserunners. 

“It’s a really big part of our game,” Marmol said. “It’s one of those things that has been frustrating because this group spends a lot of time on tells and breaking down pitchers. Those things are available to us. And we do find it fun. But you usually want to be tied or ahead before you start taking risks on the bases.”

The Cardinals have been outscored 10-9 in the first inning so far this season. They have been outscored 11-1 in the second. Like losing the first games of series (0-5) and reliever Jordan Hicks having gobs of issues retiring the first batter of every appearance, they have been slow to launch in all kinds of categories. It reflects in the very early standings. It reflects in the lack of steals.

The Cardinals have six steals. They’re in baseball’s bottom-eight. Tommy Edman, who had a team-high 32 last season, has just one. Same for five of his teammates. Thirty-three players across the majors already have three or more steals. The Cardinals are waiting on their first player to get two. Sixteen clubs have a double-digit steal total. Five have 15 or more.

Before the Cardinals can truly turn up the aggressiveness, they have to quit falling in holes. There’s another aspect that helps. Getting on base. Specifically, getting fast runners on base. The Cardinals’ two biggest base stealers from last season still on the team — Edman and O’Neill (14) — are carrying early on-base percentages of .320 and .286, respectively.

“I hope so,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said when asked if the Cardinals are eventually going to get on the rush. “We’ve found ourselves behind a lot. It’s tough to really try to get too aggressive at that point.”

The Cardinals need to pitch better, clearly. They need to do a better job of turning guys who get on base into runs that cross home plate. If you’re looking for another sign that would suggest they are trending in the right direction, keep an eye on the stolen-base column.

An uptick would mean a good thing for this team, even during this time of stolen-base inflation.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

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