As general manager Jerry Dipoto was upgrading the Mariners’ outfield defense over the winter, he also gave the team some tools for what has become a baseball antique: the stolen base.
The Mariners last year had 56 steals, the second lowest full-season total since the 1977 inception of the franchise. Their record low — 49 — was set in 2013.
If that looks like a trend, it’s because it’s a trend reflecting the new baseball math that regards stolen-base attempts and sacrifice bunts as high-stakes, low-reward propositions. The 2016 Baltimore Orioles, for instance, stole 19 bases, approximate to a month’s worth of work for career record-holder Rickey Henderson.
It made sense for the Orioles to exercise caution. They led the majors with 253 home runs. The chance of surrendering an out, to advance one base, wasn’t worth the risk.
But stolen bases should have more appeal to the Mariners, who play in a park traditionally tough on long-ball hitters. And though they hit plenty of home runs last season — 223, their highest total since the team’s 1999 relocation to Safeco Field — Dipoto understands how power tends to be undependable.
Many damp Seattle nights are awaiting the Mariners this spring. An all-or-nothing-at-all, wait-for-the-long-ball offense is an offense bound to go stagnant.
Rookie Mariners manager Scott Servais was amenable to alternative scoring methods last season, but you need speedsters to manufacture runs, and Servais’ lineup wasn’t stocked with an abundance of speed.
Through May 31, the Mariners were 16 for 31 in stolen-base attempts. Not good. Not even close to good. On June 1, during a radio interview, Servais acknowledged that an aggressive approach to base running wasn’t in his team’s best interest.
“We’ve tried to give it a shot, but at some point, when the game tells you one thing, you have to pay attention to it and look at it,” Servais said. “You can’t just keep pushing it and shoving it down their throat.”
Servais had reason to be frustrated. His two fastest runners, center fielder Leonys Martin and shortstop Ketel Marte, were on the disabled list. Upon their return, the Mariners ended up with a stolen-base success rate of 66.6 percent, which analytics experts define as the cutoff line between “respectable” and “don’t even bother.”
Dipoto happens to be an analytics expert, and the recent trades he arranged suggests a belief the Mariners can exceed 66.6 percent.
Shortstop Jean Segura stole 33 bases last season for the Diamondbacks. Left fielder Jarrod Dyson, in a part-time role, stole 30 for the Royals. They’ll bring speed to a lineup that already includes Martin, who led the Mariners with 24 steals.
“The combination of Jarrod Dyson, Leonys Martin and Jean Segura ... it’s a very athletic group,” Dipoto said last month. “On average, those guys bring in about 100 steals.”
As a fan, I’ve got what amounts to a love-hate perspective on base stealing. I loved watching Henderson and fellow Hall of Famer Tim Raines turn a simple achievement — reaching first — into complete chaos.
Pitchers and catchers are rattled by the guessing game, while batters are liberated. They’re seeing a fastball. We’ve got action.
But I hate it when the pitcher makes a succession of half-baked throws to keep the runner tethered. Thinking here of former Mariners reliever Yoervis Medina, who delivered pitches at a reasonable pace until those inevitable occasions he found somebody straying off first.
A game that had been sailing along was slowed to a rush-hour crawl: deep breath, lob to first, another deep breath, another lob to first, and now it was time to step off the rubber and rearrange the mindset furniture.
Cheering is not allowed in baseball press boxes, nor is heckling. But whenever Medina was on the mound with a runner on first, I found myself using a loud voice imploring him to throw a pitch.
There might have been a strong word or two emphasizing my desire to see Medina throw a pitch, and I’m not proud of the way I often brought God into the rant.
All in all, my love of the stolen base supersedes my hatred of pitchers who take the mound in the seventh inning of a two-hour game and walk off the mound 45 minutes later.
A precisely executed steal can change the course of a game, a season and even a history: No play proved more pivotal for the curse-busting 2004 Boston Red Sox than Dave Roberts stealing second base in Game 4 of their league-championship series against the New York Yankees.
Between Dyson, Martin and Segura, the 2017 Mariners figure to revive a beautiful art baseball can’t afford to lose.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath