Legally Stolen Bases
Not all of the events recorded in the Stolen Base Attempts Column are actual Stolen Base Attempts. Some of them, particularly from the years before 1970, are busted HitandRun tries, and some of them are plays when the runner is picked off first and breaks for second.
Also, it is rather an oddity that we take for granted, that a base taken legally within the rules of the game, a base to which the baserunner is entitled, is called a "stolen" base. It is rather as if "Sacks" in football were called "Assaults".
Runners Caught Stealing were not part of the official stat package until 1920. Some information about failed stolen base attempts prior to 1920 has been recovered, but it is sporadic, and not useful because it is sporadic. Up until 1920 stolen bases were systematically recorded, but not runners caught stealing.
Since 1920, 67.4% of events recorded as stolen base attempts have been successful steals. The success rate for actual stolen base attempts would be somewhat higher, but my point is, the breakeven point for a stolen base attempt is probably higher than 67.4%. The sum total of all events recorded as stolen base attempts adds up to negative runs. Some teams have helped themselves score more runs by stealing bases; some teams have cost themselves runs by attempting to steal bases. On balance, it hasn’t helped teams score runs, at the major league level. Amateur baseball is different, of course.
The run values I am using here are +.153 runs for a successful stolen base, and .428 runs for a caught stealing, Here part of a runvalue chart, copied from the Hardball Times:
Runners

0 Outs

1 Out

2 Out

None

.489

.263

.101

1

.858

.512

.212

2

1.073

.655

.319

If all stolen base attempts were attempts to steal second base with no other runner on base, the value of a stolen base would be .215 runs with no one out (1.073 minus .858), .143 runs with one out, and .098 runs with two out. The cost of a caught stealing would be .595 runs with no one out (.858 minus .263), .411 runs with one out, and .221 runs with two out.
If we assume, then, that 40% of stolen base attempts occur with no one out, 30% with one out, and 30% with two out, then the value of a stolen base would be .153 runs, and the cost of a caught stealing would be .428 runs. The breakeven percentage would be 74%. But since we are studying these things from a defensive standpoint, the caught stealing is a positive (for the catcher), +.428 rather than .428, and the stolen base allowed is a negative for the catcher, .153 rather than +.153.
Back to the point that not all of these things that are recorded in the Stolen Base Attempts column are actual stolen base attempts. There’s nothing I can do about that; I’m just working with the data that I’ve got. The question we are ultimately pursuing, in this area, is "How many runs did the catcher prevent by throwing out runners?" Throwing out runners implicitly discourages additional base stealing, so those runs prevented have to be counted as well.
Up until 1920, since we don’t have consistent or usable caught stealing data, the assumption is simply that the fewer stolen bases you have allowed, the more you have prevented. Since 1920—and actually, before 1920 as well—we start with a "Stolen Base Value" against each team, which is .153 * SB  .428 * CS. Before 1920 the Caught Stealing are always presumed zero, so the calculation is always negative from the catcher’s perspective. Since 1920, it is sometimes negative, but more often positive.
The 1900 Philadelphia Phillies allowed 272 stolen bases; what my source for this was, I do not know, but I must have had one, since I certainly didn’t make it up. The stolen base value of this, then, is 41.6 runs, from the catcher’s standpoint.
The 2019 Philadelphia Phillies allowed 66 stolen bases, and caught 50 runners stealing. The Stolen Base Value of this, then, is +11.3 runs, from the catcher’s standpoint.
This number, the Stolen Base Value, is the starting point of our process here. We divide the Stolen Base Value by the teams Estimated Runners on First Base, getting the SBV/ROF. (The explanation of Estimated Runners on First Base was given in an earlier article.) Since this number is infinitesimal, starting with a couple of zeroes, I then convert it to Stolen Base Value per 1,000 runners on first (SBV/1000ROF). The conversion to 1000 Runners on First is purely cosmetic; when I do the later calculations, it will revert to per runner on first.
Anyway, we then form decade norms for SBV/1000ROF. We then compare the team to the decade norm, and divide the difference by the standard deviation for the decade.
In 1920 the Boston Braves, or whatever we want to call them at that moment in time—the National League Boston team—allowed 111 stolen bases, but caught 143 runners stealing. This is quite a remarkable ratio; it is, in fact, the most remarkable set of team totals of all time. The team had a gain of almost one baserunner per game—the 143 runners taken off the bases—against a cost of less than 20 runs all season. The net gain for the team was about 44 runs.
My ordinary process in stating that fact would be to lead you through a process of developing understanding, in which we said that the best team ever in terms of raw data was X, but if we look at it in this other way then the best team would be Y, but then if we considered this as well, the best team would be Z. But the 1920 Braves number is so remarkable that they are the X, Y and Z of the subject, and they force us to deal with them first.
It is not actually as much that the Braves are remarkable, as it is that the moment is remarkable. Up until 1920 there were few home runs in baseball, and teams relied heavily on stealing bases to try to move runners. Beginning in 1920 home runs accelerated rapidly.
But also, the National League (and the American League) prior to 1920 did not officially record runners caught stealing. The National League counted them then, for a few years (19201926) and then decided it was more trouble than it was worth; they resumed counting them in the 1950s. The American League kept the counts going.
In any case, both of these things strongly discouraged careless base stealing, so caught stealing totals dropped sharply after 1920. They had CRAZY numbers of runners caught stealing, just absolutely insane. Not all them were true caught stealing; they also used the Hit and Run very extensively in that era, and that also sometimes led to runners recorded as caught stealing. Both of these factors drove caught stealing totals sharply downward after 1920. Once home runs became more common, there was much less use of stolen base attempts, hit and run attempts, and sacrifice bunt attempts to try to move runners into scoring position.
But also, as you probably know, when you observe a thing, you very often change it because you have observed it. Teams prior to 1920 did not KNOW how many baserunners they were losing to failed stolen base attempts. Once they had a statistic which showed often that happened, they began to understand that it was not really paying off. The number of stolen base attempts dropped off a cliff.
The 1920 Boston team, then, sits at a propitious moment in history—at the very end of the period of excessive and careless base stealing, and at the very beginning of the period when caught stealing are documented. If there were stolen base counts prior to 1920, very probably there would be some team with data even more remarkable than Boston’s. If stolen bases had not declined post1920, there would be other teams with similar data. But as it is, the 1920 Braves’ data is the most remarkable of all time.
Well. . .there are other counts. There are unofficial but now known counts for some teams prior to 1920, and some of those are also extremely unusual, comparable to Boston’s. But we can’t use them, because they’re sporadic. Cleveland against Boston; if you count Caught Stealing for Cleveland but don’t count them for Boston, you’ve got nothing.
The Braves’ number one catcher in 1920 was a rookie named Mickey O’Neil. I’m guessing he was Irish. He wasn’t much of a hitter, but he was always a good defensive catcher. O’Neil—NOT played by Brad Pitt—threw out 84 of 153 potential base stealers. As I said before, Boston’s SB/CS has a net value of 44.2 runs to the Braves—the highest of all time.
YEAR

City

Team

Lg

SBA

OCS

SBV

1920

Boston

Braves

NL

111

143

44.2

1920

Philadelphia

A's

AL

103

133

41.2

1921

Boston

Braves

NL

90

119

37.2

1920

Chicago

Cubs

NL

115

117

32.5

1922

Chicago

Cubs

NL

79

104

32.4

When you normalize that to SBV/1000ROF (Stolen Base Value per 1000 Runners on First), that team is still first:
YEAR

City

Team

Lg

SBA

OCS

SBV

SBV/1000ROF

1920

Boston

Braves

NL

111

143

44.2

35.5

1920

Philadelphia

A's

AL

103

133

41.2

29.4

1921

Boston

Braves

NL

90

119

37.2

28.2

1920

Cincinnati

Reds

NL

108

111

31.0

26.7

1920

Chicago

Cubs

NL

115

117

32.5

26.5

And when you compare that to the decade norm and calculate how far it is above the decade norm, it is still in first:
YEAR

City

Team

Lg

SBA

OCS

SBV

Score

1920

Boston

Braves

NL

111

143

44.2

139

1963

Chicago

Cubs

NL

48

65

20.5

133

1937

Boston

Braves

NL

30

67

24.1

133

1943

Detroit

Tigers

AL

84

80

21.4

132

1993

Chicago

White Sox

AL

82

82

22.6

130

The data for the 1920 Boston Braves was 3.9 Standard Deviations better than the period norm. That’s actually not the END of the process of analyzing this data; that’s just the end of how far we are going in this round. We’ve got a lot more to do later on. The only one of the other four teams that is likely to mean anything to most of you is the 1993 White Sox. The White Sox catcher was a big albino named Ron Karkovice; I don’t know if he was truly albino, but he didn’t have much color. He did have a fantastic arm.
The really interesting catcher here is Dick Bertell. I remember Dick Bertell because, you know, I remember everybody; it’s my job. I had his rookie card and, being a pack rat, I am sure that I still have it. He hit .273 as a rookie in 1961, then hit .302 in 1962. Those were the years of the Cubs’ "college of coaches" experiment, so Bertell was in and out of the lineup, as some other players were.
I don’t remember that he was a top flight defensive catcher; maybe he was, but I don’t remember that anybody noticed. If he was, that would certainly help explain how Dick Ellsworth went 2210 with 2.11 ERA in 1963, kind of out of context with his career. But whatever the reason, Bertell was the Cubs’ regular catcher in 1963, and the team did have stunning data in the stolen base/caught stealing categories.
The Cubs either did not realize Bertell’s defensive value—just as they did not realize the value of their own leading base stealer, Lou Brock—or else they knew something that I don’t know. Bartell again had outstanding stolen base/caught stealing data in 1964, but didn’t hit much, and lost his job.
The 1937 Braves’ catcher was Al Lopez, the Hall of Fame manager, who was regarded as a premier defensive catcher. The 1943 Tigers’ catcher was Paul Richards, another famous manager; Richards was mentioned in the MVP voting in both 1944 and 1945, although he was a halftime player who didn’t hit. Thanks for reading.