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July 30, 2004

Least Competent Criminals

The Least Efficient Base-Stealing Teams Ever

by Jim Baker

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Last week, inspired by the well-timed thievery of the 2004 Mets, we discussed the teams with the best stolen base percentages in recorded history. (By the way, since then, the Mets have stolen eight more times without getting caught and now have the second-best percentage of all-time.) Naturally, this led to a clamoring for a look at the teams with the worst luck at taking what does not rightfully belong to them.

There's a syndicated feature called "News of the Weird" that highlights bungled burglaries in a subsection called "Least Competent Criminals." These are the guys that get stuck in chimneys or lock their keys in the getaway car. Consider the following teams to be the baseball equivalents of that crowd.

The list is dominated by teams from the early '20s. There's a good reason for this: caught stealing records are sparse before that. It is entirely possible, and no doubt likely, that some run-happy team in the Deadball Era met with even more calamitous ends than some of these teams. Perhaps painstaking research will one day reveal as much. For now, this is what we have.

  1. 1923 Boston Braves (41.61%)
    57 SB, 80 CS
    Won-Loss: 54-100, 7th place
    Ring leader: Gus Felix, 8 for 21
    Henchman: Billy Southworth, 14 for 30
    Accomplices: Bob Smith, 4 for 13, Ray Powell, 1 for 7
    Avoided Prosecution: Tony Boeckel, 11 for 19

    This mark was achieved (perhaps the wrong verb in this case) in an environment where the league success rate was just 56 percent. Two other National League teams were less than 50 percent that year. As we shall see further on, that is completely unheard of today. Southworth went on to have a fine managerial career. While playing, however, he was a bit too adventurous on the bases. For the portion of his career that caught stealing were kept, he was 72 for 157, or 46 percent. I thought it would be interesting to see how his teams did in this regard, but, unfortunately, they went back to not counting CS by the time his skippering days got underway. Smith was a 28-year old rookie shortstop who switched to pitching two years later. It kept him in the big leagues until he was 42.

  2. 1921 Chicago Cubs (41.92%)
    70 SB, 97 CS
    Won-Loss: 64-89, 7th place
    Ring leader: Zeb Terry, 1 for 14
    Henchman: Charlie Hollocher, 5 for 21
    Accomplices: Turner Barber, 5 for 14, Ray Grimes, 5 for 13
    Avoided Prosecution: George Maisel, 17 for 24

    You've got to love a team that does something so poorly yet keeps on beating its head against a wall: 167 stolen base attempts in the face of such overwhelming failure is pretty amazing. The next year they tried even more times (97 for 205) and were a little more successful. In 1923, they upped the ante to 324 attempts and were only caught 143 times, but in 1924 they were back down under 50 percent, this time in 296 tries. Zeb Terry followed up this gig with a 2 for 13 showing. He was clearly trying to rekindle the glory of his 12 for 28 showing in 1920. Emboldened by his 24 percent success rate, Hollocher attempted 48 steals the following year. On the positive side, he raised his get-there rate up to 36 percent. This was to be Maisel's most active year in the majors. He barely totaled 100 plate appearances in three other seasons. In 1921, he had 426 plate appearances and one of the emptiest .300 batting averages you're likely to see: .310/.334/.338.

  3. 1920 Philadelphia A's (42.74%)
    50 SB, 67 CS
    Won-Loss: 48-106, last place
    Ring leader: Frank Welch, 2 for 11
    Henchman: Amos Strunk, 0 for 6
    Accomplices: Joe Dugan, 5 for 13
    Avoided Prosecution: Tilly Walker, 8 for 11

    This is a pretty low-key group of failed thieves. There are no big numbers in this bunch. Give this to Connie Mack: his team was death on the bases but he didn't push them to steal. The A's had the least number of stolen base attempts in the league by quite a margin. If you take away Walker and Fred Thomas (8 for 12), the rest of the A's were at 36 percent. Welch was actually 6 for 6 the following year. Three of the top six teams come from 1920. It's interesting to watch the stolen base attempts decrease as the 1920s progress, as managers realize they don't need to manufacture runs as they once did.

  4. 1943 New York Yankees (43.40%)
    46 SB, 60 CS
    Won-Loss: 98-56, World Champions
    Ring leader: Nick Etten, 3 for 10
    Henchman: Johnny Lindell, 2 for 7
    Accomplices: Joe Gordon and Roy Weatherly, both 4 for 11
    Avoided Prosecution: Charlie Keller, 7 for 12

    Keller was even better the year before, going 14 for 16. Gordon also had much better years before this one. During World War II, very few teams were poking 100 home runs in a season:

    1942 NL: Giants, 109; AL: Yankees 109, Red Sox 103
    1943 NL: none; AL: Yankees 100
    1944 NL: Cardinals, 100; AL: none
    1945 NL: Giants 114, Braves 101; AL: none

    Leading up to the war, 100-homer teams were becoming commonplace in the American League, but not so much in the National. Cheap-grade war balls are often blamed for the lack of offense during the war, so it's interesting that more teams didn't go for the speed angle. Not a single National League team stole 100 bases from 1942 to 1945. These are the American League clubs that did:

    1942: White Sox, 114/70
    1943: White Sox, 173/87; Senators, 142/55
    1944: Senators, 127/59
    1945: Senators, 110/65

  5. 1920 New York Yankees (43.84%)
    64 SB, 82 CS
    Won-Loss: 95-59, third place
    Ring leader: Ping Bodie, 6 for 20
    Henchman: Wally Pipp, 4 for 14
    Accomplices: Roger Peckinpaugh, 8 for 20
    Avoided Prosecution: Del Pratt, 12 for 22

    The team leader in stolen base attempts was, of course, Babe Ruth. He broke even in 28 tries. Pipp was 18 for 25 in his rookie year of 1915. After that, CS details got sketchy, but when they started counting again, he had some pretty bad seasons mixed in with a few good ones. There is CS data for 10 of the 17 seasons in which Peckinpaugh played and this was easily the worst of the ten. The list stops at five, but if we went to six, we would find the World Champion 1920 Indians. They were paced by Larry Gardner who posted an astonishing 3 for 23 mark that year.

Incidentally, if you lower the threshold to 50 attempts, you get five different teams pushing their way to the bottom:

Season  Team        SB  Att SB_Pct
----------------------------------
1957    Senators    13  51  25.49%
1953    Browns      17  51  33.33%
1958    Senators    22  63  34.92%
1978    Blue Jays   28  80  35.00%
1945    A's         25  70  35.71%

The '57 Senators are the team with the worst stolen base record ever of any club attempting 50 or more thefts. They were also the third-worst ever the next season. The main perpetrator on these two teams was Eddie Yost, who was a combined 4 for 21. Jim Lemon kicked in with a 3 for 14 effort over the two seasons. They only tried to steal about once every three games and only made it about once every ten, so this was a minor consideration in their two last-place finishes. Still, though, it must have been amazing to watch a team make it so infrequently. The '53 Browns gathered together an amazing collection of career stealing failures. Of the 15 men on the team who had at least 100 plate appearances that year, only Billy Hunter and Vern Stephens finished their careers with a better-than-50-percent success rate. (Bob Elliott was 5 for 9 in the seasons where CS were counted.) Here are the teams' career marks:

Catcher: Clint Courtney: 3 for 16
First Base: Dick Kryhoski: 5 for 18
Second Base: Bobby Young: 18 for 37
Third Base: Jim Dyck: 4 for 10
Shortstop: Billy Hunter: 23 for 35
Leftfield: Dick Kokos: 15 for 36
Centerfield: Johnny Groth: 19 for 61
Rightfield: Vic Wertz: 9 for 28
Bench : Don Lenhardt, Roy Sievers, Les Moss, Stephens, Elliott, Hank Edwards, Neil Berry: 71 for 182

Is this just a function of the times? No. The best team in the league that year, in terms of both quantity and quality, was the Senators (the same team that would become the worst-ever within four years). Among their 100-plus plate appearance men, only one--Pete Runnels--was below 50 percent for his career.

Only one '78 Blue Jay stole more than they got caught and that was Gary Woods who went 1 for 1. The team leader in steals was Rick Bosetti with six, but he was caught ten times. Shortstop Luis Gomez went 2 for 12. Dave McKay was successful in half of his eight attempts, making him the rock of the crime department.

If your modern sensibilities are offended by all these old-time names, let's switch the discussion to the worst thieving teams since 1980. Currently, the Arizona Diamondbacks have the worst boosting rate in the majors: 55 percent. That probably seems rather high compared to the numbers we've been discussing above and it's no wonder--it's been a decade since any team finished under 50 percent. In fact, only four clubs have managed to finish under 50 percent since 1980 and that's with lowering the threshold to 50 attempts. The '84 Brewers (52 for 109), '80 Blue Jays (67 for 139), '92 Red Sox (53 for 105) and '94 Mets (25 for 51) remain the only teams not to at least break even. Raising the bar to 100 attempts, these are the worst teams of the most-recent era or current era. (Your terminology may vary, depending upon how you calibrate time.)

  1. 1984 Milwaukee Brewers (47.71%)
    52 SB, 57 CS
    Won-Loss: 67-94, last in American League East
    Ring leader: Rick Manning, 5 for 12
    Henchman: Ben Oglivie, 0 for 6
    Accomplices: The Bench, 2 for 21
    Avoided Prosecution: Cecil Cooper, 8 for 10, Robin Yount, 14 for 18

    Manning came over from Cleveland the year before and went 11 for 13. In 1981, he was a Carlos Beltranesque 25 for 28. Dion James was the team leader in attempts with 20 and broke even. In his career, Yount reached double figures in steals 16 times while only getting to double figures in getting caught once. What really killed this team was the injury to Paul Molitor. He would have single-handedly raised their team percentage by about ten points with a typical season of that period of his career.

  2. 1980 Toronto Blue Jays (48.20%)
    67 SB, 72 CS
    Won-Loss: 67-95, last in the American League East
    Ring leader: Alfredo Griffin, 18 for 41
    Henchman: Damaso Garcia, 13 for 26
    Accomplices: Rick Bosetti and Lloyd Moseby, both 4 for 10
    Avoided Prosecution: Bob Bailor, 12 for 20

    It's so perfect that the Jays were a 50-50 team without Griffin, a player who ran entirely too much in his career but who did get better later on. Griffin got his only black ink this year in another speed-related category. He led the league in triples with 15. Moseby was a rookie who got a lot better in a hurry, going on to steal 280 bases at a 75 percent clip. Danny Ainge helped the cause by being perfect in three attempts.

  3. 1990 Boston Red Sox (50.48%)
    53 SB, 52 CS
    Won-Loss: 88-74, American League East Champions
    Ring leader: Tom Brunansky, 5 for 15
    Henchman: Ellis Burks, 9 for 20
    Accomplices: Dwight Evans, 3 for 7
    Avoided Prosecution: Marty Barrett and Kevin Romine, both 4 for 4

    Burks was a nice thief the first three years of his career, going 73 for 93. 1990 marked the end of that era for him, though. He's only stolen 106 bases since then, with 32 of them coming in 1996. The Sox could have easily slipped under 50 percent had Wade Boggs taken a couple of cracks at it. Fortunately, since he was a career 24 for 59, this was the one season in his life that he didn't try a single steal.

  4. 1982 California Angels (50.93%)
    55 SB, 53 CS
    Won-Loss: 93-69, AL West Champions
    Ring leader: Rod Carew, 10 for 27
    Henchman: Fred Lynn, 7 for 15
    Accomplices: Tim Foli, 2 for 6
    Avoided Prosecution: Don Baylor, 10 for 14

    This was by far and away Carew's worst season in this department. Fortunately for the Angels, he put on the brakes after that, too, attempting only 30 more steals in the final three years of his career. Lynn had been 12 for 12 with the Red Sox only two years before. Reggie Jackson chipped in with a 4 for 9 showing. The rest of the team was OK. In the playoffs against Milwaukee, Carew stole a base but was caught once--as was Doug DeCinces.

  5. 1980 Detroit Tigers (52.45%)
    75 SB, 68 CS
    Won-Loss:
    Ring leader: Alan Trammell, 12 for 24
    Henchman: Tom Brookens, 13 for 24
    Accomplices: Kirk Gibson, 4 for 11
    Avoided Prosecution: Rick Peters, 13 for 20

    Like a lot of good players, Trammell improved dramatically in this department as his career progressed. He never finished below break-even, meaning this was his worst season as a base stealer. Gibson would go on to become a wonderful base stealing threat. In fact, if you remove this year and the 3 for 6 from 1979--his first two seasons in the majors, his career record is a Joe Morgan-like 80.3 percent. Conversely, Peters was 7 for 24 in what was left of his career.

(Thanks to Michael Wolverton for his research and input.)

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