Analyzing Maury Wills’ impact on baseball through stolen base opportunities

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It’s been awhile since I posted here about landing a big interview, though I scored one recently, getting to spend almost an hour on the phone with 87-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers great Maury Wills. It’s my pleasure to share the write-up, which dropped at Sports Illustrated’s website on Monday.

In the lead-up to the interview, I did a bit of research around Wills’ impact on the game, which has been a source of some debate in the baseball community. The conventional wisdom in baseball has been that Wills brought the steal back into the game in the early 1960s, when he led the league one season after another and broke Ty Cobb’s single-season record in 1962 when he swiped 104 bags.

Some researchers have questioned this, though, bringing up that Hall of Famer and Chicago White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio might deserve the real credit, having begun to swipe more bases in the late 1950s. I’ve seen Willie Mays get some of the credit, too.

Honestly, either crediting Wills entirely or dismissing his impact has seemed an oversimplification to me. So I found another way to look at it.

Searching the ever-reliable, I found that stolen base opportunities are tracked for players from about 1920 on. (For anyone who wants to check it out, it’s in the Advanced Stats section for batting, listed as “Baserunning & Misc. Stats.” Here’s Wills’ section for this.) The importance of analyzing opportunities: I figured if there was a true stolen base revolution, players would be stealing at a higher percentage of their total opportunities.

I wasn’t sure how to get total opportunity numbers for every season, so I found a compromise to create two control groups. I made lists of everyone who stole at least 30 bases from 1947-61 and 1963-77. This way, I figured I’d get the 15 seasons before and the 15 seasons after Wills’ iconic 1962 season, to see how much of a shift occurred.

As a preface to what follows, I’ll note that when Wills stole 104 bases in 1962, he made 117 attempts out of a total of 348 opportunities, giving him an attempt percentage of 33.6 percentage. This might sound inconsequential or wonkish, but it was a markedly higher rate than anyone had done the 15 preceding seasons.

Here are the 20 30-stolen base seasons from 1947 through 1961, organized by attempt percentage:

PlayerYearSBCSAttemptsOpportunitiesAttempt %
Willie Mays195640105017428.7
Luis Aparicio195956136924428.3
Willie Mays195738195720827.4
Luis Aparicio196153136624626.8
Luis Aparicio19605185923824.8
Jackie Robinson194937165324521.6
Maury Wills196050126229720.9
Sam Jethroe19503594421320.7
Bob Dillinger194734134723819.7
Richie Ashburn194832104222318.8
Sam Jethroe19513554022118.1
Bill Bruton195434134726417.8
Minnie Minoso195131104123317.6
Vada Pinson196032124425717.1
Willie Mays19583163722916.2
Jake Wood19613093926314.8
Maury Wills196135155034914.3
Dick Howser19613794633813.6
Pee Wee Reese19523053529012.1
Richie Ashburn19583012424359.7

I’m struck by how rarely players stole in the ’40s and ’50s. Richie Ashburn, for instance, had by far the most opportunities of any player in this group in 1958, but wound up with just 30 steals that year because he attempted steals so infrequently. Even Wills stole at a far lower rate earlier in his career, with his 1960 and ’61 seasons in the middle of the pack here.

Things began to shift in 1962, though. I think one of the big reasons for it is that the Dodgers began to play home games that season in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. Wills might have had to start stealing much more out of necessity, with runs far more difficult to come by. The following year, baseball also widened its strike zone, and runs became more scarce throughout the game. I think the tighter run environment coupled with Wills’ success in 1962 might have spurred players or teams to follow his lead.

Here are the 161 30-stolen-base seasons from 1963 through 1977, organized again by attempt percentage:

PlayerYearSBCSAttemptsOpportunitiesAttempt %
Frank Taveras197770188814262
Larry Lintz19763111427060
Maury Wills1965943112523852.5
Lou Brock19741183315129950.5
Cesar Cedeno197356157115047.3
Omar Moreno197753166915444.8
Lou Brock196674189220744.4
Lou Brock196563279020543.9
Cesar Cedeno197457177417243
Freddie Patek197651156616141
Lou Brock197656197518640.3
Dave Nelson197251176816940.2
Cesar Cedeno197550176716740.1
Tommy Harper196973189123039.6
Bill North1976752910426439.4
Mickey Rivers197570148422537.3
Cesar Cedeno197761147520137.3
Joe Morgan197367158222236.9
Claudell Washington197637205715536.8
Bobby Bonds197630154512336.6
Bobby Bonds197741185916236.4
Luis Aparicio196457177420436.3
Cesar Cedeno197658157320236.1
Rodney Scott197733185114235.9
Davey Lopes197663107320535.6
Bert Campaneris196551197019835.4
Freddie Patek197753136618835.1
Larry Lintz19745075716335
Bill North197454268023034.8
Davey Lopes197459187722134.8
Amos Otis19715286017334.7
Bert Campaneris196862228424334.6
Lou Brock197735245917334.1
Don Buford196651227321534
Bobby Tolan197057207722933.6
Frank Taveras197658116920933
Lou Brock197556167221932.9
Lou Brock197370209027432.8
Bert Campaneris197252146620332.5
Don Baylor197652126419732.5
Enos Cabell197742226419832.3
Jose Cardenal196537155216331.9
Dave Collins197632195116031.9
Cesar Cedeno197255217624031.7
Davey Lopes197577128928131.7
Bert Campaneris196652106219931.2
Lou Brock197263188126031.2
Bert Campaneris196755167122831.1
Phil Garner197635134815531
Gene Richards197756126822130.8
Adolfo Phillips196632154715330.7
Joe Morgan19766096922630.5
Rod Carew197649227123430.3
Tommie Agee196644186220630.1
Joe Morgan197258177525030
Pat Kelly196940135317829.8
Bert Campaneris197654126622429.5
Bert Campaneris19696287023929.3
Joe Morgan197458127024029.2
Lou Brock196752187024328.8
Freddie Patek197149146321928.8
Lou Brock196862127425828.7
Bill North197353207325428.7
Jose Cruz197744236723728.3
Al Bumbry197642105218528.1
Don Baylor197532174917627.8
Ron LeFlore197658207828127.8
John Lowenstein197436175319227.6
Dave Nelson197343165921527.4
Jose Cardenal196840185821427.1
Jerry Remy197534215520327.1
Tommy Harper197354146825426.8
Joe Morgan197567107728726.8
Joe Morgan197749105922226.6
Maury Wills196852217327626.4
Maury Wills196453177026626.3
Joe Foy196937155219826.3
Don Baylor19733294115626.3
Freddie Patek197336145019126.2
Lou Brock196443186123625.8
Maury Wills196638246224425.4
Bobby Bonds197343176023925.1
Davey Lopes197747125923525.1
Jerry Remy197741175823225
Bert Campaneris197042105221124.6
Amos Otis197539115020324.6
Lou Brock197164198334024.4
Willie Randolph197637124920124.4
Willie Davis196442135522624.3
Pat Kelly197034165020724.2
Lenny Randle197630154518624.2
Lou Brock196953146727824.1
Maury Wills196940216125424
Pat Kelly19723294117223.8
Bert Campaneris197434154920623.8
Lou Brock197051156627823.7
Jerry Remy197635165121623.6
Enzo Hernandez197437104720223.3
Maury Wills196340195925423.2
Bake McBride19773674318623.1
Lenny Randle197733215423423.1
Sonny Jackson196649146327423
Joe Morgan196949146327423
Bobby Bonds197530174720722.7
Joe Morgan197042135524422.5
Claudell Washington197540155524522.4
Davey Lopes197336165223322.3
Willie Davis197038145223622
Bobby Tolan197242155725922
Freddie Patek19753273917921.8
Don Buford196734215525321.7
Cesar Tovar196945125726321.7
Bobby Bonds19724465023021.7
Mickey Rivers19764375023221.6
Mickey Rivers197430134320121.4
Freddie Patek19723374018821.3
Wilbur Howard197532114320321.2
Bobby Bonds197441115224621.1
Dave Concepcion19753363918521.1
Freddie Patek197433154822921
Willie Davis196836104622220.7
Ron LeFlore197739195828320.5
Luis Aparicio19634064622520.4
Bobby Bonds197048105828420.4
Jim Wynn19654344723320.2
Tommy Harper197038165426720.2
Dave Concepcion19744164723619.9
Bert Campaneris197334104422219.8
Bert Campaneris19713474120919.6
Larry Bowa197439115025619.5
Enos Cabell19763584322219.4
Mitchell Page19774254724319.3
Bill Buckner197431134422919.2
Dan Driessen197731134423019.1
Bobby Bonds19694544925819
Rod Carew197341165730118.9
Tommie Agee197031154624718.6
Jose Cardenal19693664222818.4
Joe Morgan19714084826418.2
Cesar Tovar196835134826817.9
Larry Hisle197631184927417.9
Phil Garner19773294123317.6
Bake McBride197430114123617.4
Jose Cardenal197534124627316.8
Ralph Garr197335114627616.7
Pepe Mangual197533114426816.4
Larry Bowa19763083823616.1
Rod Carew197438165433816
Rod Carew19753594427915.8
Sandy Alomar197139104931715.5
Roy White197631134429015.2
Horace Clarke196933134630615
Larry Bowa19773233524314.4
Sandy Alomar197035124732914.3
Ken Griffey197634114531414.3
Bill North197530124229614.2
Hank Aaron19633153625614.1
Cesar Tovar197030154531914.1
Ralph Garr197130144431214.1
Tommy Harper19653564130413.5
Amos Otis19703323529112

There are other factors to consider of course, such as teams beginning to build cavernous ballparks with artificial playing surfaces in the mid-1960s and ’70s that supported a quick style of baseball.

Bottom line, though, it’s clear that a significant shift in baseball occurred following the 1962 season. To not credit Wills at least somewhat with this shift seems absurd.