The game’s great pitching coaches are, by now, famous names. Not every team has one, but there are at least half a dozen men who—it is said—can turn a dead-armed 29-year-old into an elite closer or mid-rotation starter with the snap of a finger.
Less so on the offensive end of the game, with one exception: Davey Lopes. After a 16-year major-league career, various coaching stints and a run as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, Lopes captured the national baseball imagination as the first base coach of the Philadelphia Phillies, directing the most efficient basestealing team ever.
Now, after a five-year stint as the Dodgers’ first base coach, Lopes is back east with the Washington Nationals.
With Harper's stolen base, Nats are 23 for 24 in attempts this spring. Davey Lopes is pushing them to be aggressive more than ever.
— James Wagner (@JamesWagnerWP) March 17, 2016
Now that’s a tweet to warm the hearts of the desperate and downtrodden. It conjures up image of Lopes, in his salad days, leaning in to whisper tidbits of wisdom in a baserunner’s ear, sun pounding down on his weatherbeaten face, wind blowing through his neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee. Lopes would stand astride the first base coaching box, a small, old man rooted to the earth like an oak tree, trademark yellow stopwatch dangling from his neck like a talisman.
The image of Lopes bouncing from team to team like an agent of justice, teaching baserunning magic and then moving on, is so cool that on some level I don’t really care if it’s true or not, but since it’s out there, let’s see.
Lopes got his first major-league coaching job with the Texas Rangers in 1988, and since then, there have been 31 teams that stole bases at an 80 percent clip or better. Lopes was an assistant coach on five of those teams, including four of the top five. That’s pretty good—certainly better than most baserunning instructors, but it’s not like Lopes’ team has always been the most efficient basestealing team wherever he’s gone: Lopes’ five 80 percent teams were the 1994 Orioles and the 2007-2010 Phillies. The Phillies also beat the 80 percent mark in 2005, two years before Lopes got there, and in 2011, 2012 and 2014, after he left.
Of course, a team’s steal rate isn’t entirely indicative of top-end success. Teams steal so rarely anymore that if one guy falls asleep and gets picked off a few times, or some lead-footed goober with no self-control goes 5-for-12 one year, that’ll blow the whole team’s percentage.
Let’s look at individual basestealers for a moment. Here’s the list of the 47 players in baseball history (so far as we have caught stealing data) with 100 career stolen base attempts and a success rate of 80 percent or better.
Lopes himself is on the list, at No. 20, as are six players he coached: Dave Roberts, Jason Bay, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth. Utley and Werth, in fact, are No. 1 and No. 2 all-time.
Particularly when you factor in that Roberts was already an elite basetealer by the time he hooked up with Lopes in 2005, it becomes clear that the 2007-2010 Phillies were the best basestealing team of their era, but it’s less clear how much of that was due to Lopes’ involvement.
We might get a clue from perhaps the second-best basestealing team of the era, the 2013-2015 Royals. Jarrod Dyson is the third-best percentage basestealer ever, with Lorenzo Cain at No. 21 and Alcides Escobar at No. 23. The Royals had the eighth-best stolen base success rate since 1988 in 2013, and the 17th-best in 2014.
And yet while Rusty Kuntz has garnered some praise for coaching up Kansas City’s baserunners, we think more of the Royals as just being really fast, and Kuntz hasn’t achieved Lopes’ cultlike following.
It’s possible, therefore, that the 2007-2010 Phillies were just the perfect confluence of artist and medium. That Lopes, himself an incredible basestealer, finally got to add his considerable expertise to a team whose basestealers were themselves outstanding.
Apart from Michael Bourn, who went 18-for-19 as a fifth outfielder in 2007 before being traded for Brad Lidge, and Eric Bruntlett, who went 9-for-11 the next year, Rollins, Utley, Werth and Victorino were the only players to attempt 10 or more stolen bases in a season for the Phillies under Lopes.
That’s part of his success—under Lopes, Rollins and Victorino ran constantly, Utley and Werth ran judiciously and everyone else stayed put unless the opposing battery fell asleep. Efficiency is as much about limiting losses as it is about maximizing gains.
Though when those extremely low-volume basestealers did run, they almost always made it: Carlos Ruiz was 6-for-7 in 2007; Raul Ibanez was 4-for-4 and Ryan Howard 8-for-9 in 2009; and Ben Francisco, Placido Polanco and Wilson Valdez were a combined 20-for-20 in 2010.
Did Lopes make the Phillies’ elite basestealers better? Maybe. Werth and Victorino were both part-time players before Lopes’ arrival, and Victorino made his major-league debut with Lopes’ Padres in 2003. Utley was an 82 percent basestealer in 45 attempts before Lopes got to Philadelphia and a 92 percent basestealer during Lopes' tenure, which is certainly correlation, if not causation.
Rollins is a trickier case, because while he was always a high-volume basestealer—leading the league in steals as a rookie—who improved his efficiency dramatically mid-career. But the timelines don’t add up—Rollins went from being about a 75 percent basestealer to a 90 percent basestealer in 2005, two years before Lopes showed up.
In Los Angeles, Lopes’ charges have either been aging (Carl Crawford, along with late-career versions of Rollins, Utley and Victorino) or slow to begin with. The exceptions include Yasiel Puig, whose feats of indiscipline on the basepaths are by now legendary, and Dee Gordon, who just runs constantly, though as a career 76.7 percent basestealer, Gordon’s able to contribute even while getting caught a fair amount.
Lopes’ only great triumph is Matt Kemp, who was a high-volume, low-percentage basestealer early in his career, including a tragic 19-for-34 showing in 2010. The next year, he was 40-for-51. Before Lopes arrived in Los Angeles, was a 71.7 percent basestealer. Since, he’s at 78 percent, including one year post-Lopes in San Diego.
If Lopes really is a magical baserunning instructor, and not just the guy who was holding the stopwatch when four particularly fast Phillies all hit their stride, he’ll have ample raw material to work with in Washington: Werth, Michael Taylor, Ben Revere (already an 80 percent basestealer), Trea Turner and Bryce Haper—who, for all his athleticism, is only a 69.8 percent basestealer for his career.
Then again, the Nationals stole bases at an 81.5 percent clip in 2014, so if they go nuts this year, we still might not be able to tell how much of that was Lopes’ doing.
 This is my favorite Play Index search of all time. I run it about once every two months.
 Victorino was 4-for-7 in stolen bases in 2006, a season in which he played 153 games, which only raises the question of why on Earth Shane Victorino would play that often if he’s only going to attempt seven stolen bases.