No matter how poorly a season goes, there’s always something fun to take away. It could take the form of a memorable play, a guy coming out of nowhere to play his way into the future plans or the arrival of some promising young talent, among other things. The point being, there’s a whole lot that can happen over 162 games of baseball – even when things feel at their worst, there’s always something unique or entertaining to file away in the memory bank.
Even if this slog of a season (the Blue Jays are somehow within striking distance of the postseason despite everything that’s gone wrong, and we are only 45 games deep) were to end tomorrow, we’ve probably seen one of the most unlikely occurrences in franchise history. It’s far from a milestone, but Kendrys Morales’ recent steal of second was stunning enough to get me wondering: Could this be the most unlikely stolen base in Blue Jays history?
“Unlikely” is a bit of a nebulous term that can be defined in a number of ways. There’s a few different angles we’ll take once we get down to the cream of the crop but for starters, I went to find all the players in league history who had played over 1,000 games with fewer than 10 stolen bases. There were 82 such names, with 19 of them having spent time with the Blue Jays.
Among those luminaries, seven are removed from contention as none of their career steals came with Toronto. Cliff Johnson, Mike Matheny, Kevin Millar, John Buck, Miguel Montero, Cecil Fielder, and Greg Myers get off at this stop of the journey. Most of those players only played one year or less with the team, cutting down their chances considerably. One omission in particular was great news for the remaining contenders however (assuming this is recognition that people might actually want), as Fielder is probably the king of the category with only two steals on eight attempts in 1,470 career games. Myers is also up there with three steals in 18 years of MLB play, all of which came in one season with the then-California Angels, though he only appeared in 1,108 games.
That leaves us with the following: Roy Howell, Alan Ashby, Darrin Fletcher, Buck Martinez, Rick Cerone, Pat Borders, Ed Sprague, Rod Barajas, Adam Lind, Bengie Molina, Justin Smoak, and Kendrys Morales. A whole lot of catchers, unsurprisingly.
A brief sweep of their career stats didn’t do much, but it did eliminate Howell from the race. Multi-steal seasons aren’t backbreakers by any means, but four steals in just 96 games in 1977 are probably a bit too much to hang with the rest even if he ended up stealing only five in 516 outings with the Jays. We bid goodbye to Howell and his nine steals in 1,112 career games.
It’s at this point where we can really start to think about what “unlikely” means. Should a stolen base from a high-OBP player be considered more improbable than one from a low-OBP player? Is it more unlikely to see a steal from a player who gets lots of chances but never goes or one from a player who spends less time on the basepaths, period? Taking that to the next level, what about successful steals versus mere attempts? You get thrown out on 100 percent of the shots you don’t take – but does attempting more steals take some luster off the rare feats of the fleet or does a poor success rate actually help a player’s case here? And how should we treat players who only made a brief stop in Toronto whose games played totals and inactivity on the basepaths stacked up in other organizations? Should we lean towards players who spent more time with the Blue Jays or those whose brief stints led to some true “shooting star” moments?
There’s no right answer to those questions. You can mix and match those arguments to something that feels right for you, knowing that the following players are all incredibly slow. I was rooting for Bengie Molina, personally, as he waved to a 12-year-old me from the bullpen before a game once. Each steal on the list below should be treasured as something special, something only people insane enough to sit through mostly-mediocre baseball seasons from start to finish can share. They’re all winners in a way.
Let’s look at everyone’s career totals. I’ve created a loose approximation of the amount of times each player reached base by multiplying their OBP by their plate appearances. Some rounding issues pop up but nothing that should change the shape of our highly scientific study.
Going off this list, we can pretty much erase Ashby, Borders, Lind, Sprague and the silver fox himself, Buck Martinez, on the basis of rate stats. Rick Cerone earns points for sheer ineptitude (shoutout to the coaches who kept sending him) but doesn’t make through the second round of cuts. The standouts look to be Rod Barajas, Darrin Fletcher, and Bengie Molina. Smoak and Morales are undoubtedly hurt but being active players in this regard, as both are likely to see major “improvement” here as they continue to age, play, and not run.
Although Morales does have some surprisingly not-rock-bottom rate stats, he earns points for time off between his steals. Before his first of the year on May 1, his last stolen base came all the way back on October 2, 2009. That’s the largest gap between steals for any of our contenders. While the multiple steals this year hurt his candidacy somewhat, it’s remarkable that he’s stolen two in just over two weeks after taking it easy for eight and a half seasons.
Despite the lengthy layoff between swipes, Morales loses a little shine as both steals came with a runner on third. The same goes for Barajas, whose lone steal as a Blue Jay came with a runner on third in extra innings against the Angels in 2009. Fletcher stole second as the sole runner in 2000 against the Rangers while Molina somehow accomplished the same on a botched hit-and-run against the Angels back in 2009. There was something about Anaheim in 2009, clearly. Funnily enough, Morales was in the lineup to witness Barajas race down to second. He was just Kendry back then but it still counts.
He’s certainly part of the conversation in terms of Blue Jays in Major League history, but what about when we restrict that to Jays-only numbers? We’ll set the cutoff at a minimum of 175 games and three steals or less to keep Morales on the board for comparison’s sake.
Those restrictions produced a 19-player list that includes contemporary names like Dioner Navarro (3 steals, 209 games), Troy Tulowitzki (2 in 238), Smoak (1 in 457), Matt Stairs (3 in 238), and J.P. Arencibia (2 in 380). Cutting the non-contenders out of that bunch yielded the following group, with Morales in there for kicks. There’s some carry over from the last list as well.
Darrin Fletcher again emerges as a top contender, while Ed Sprague and John Olerud are definitely in the running as well. The fact that Olerud posted a .395 OBP over eight seasons with the Blue Jays is absolutely nuts, as is the fact that he only stole three bags despite being on base so often. Sprague shines here after his numbers in our first run through were tanked by his three steals in 1999 as a member of the Pirates. As for our subject, Morales is the only player on this list to have a multi-steal season with Toronto. Given his full body of work, that seems pretty unlikely even if it hurts him from a numbers perspective.
A tip of the hat goes to Carlos Delgado, who swiped nine bases in 1,423 games with the Blue Jays.
As for more modern metrics, Morales’ sits as the 13th slowest player in the Majors via Statcast’s Sprint Speed numbers at a glacial 23.7 feet per second. Surprisingly, both the slowest and second-slowest players (Nelson Cruz and Jesus Sucre) each have steals this season while the ninth-slowest, Yadier Molina, has two. That said, Morales is up from 23.5 feet per second last season. It’s no wonder he’s racking up the steals this time around.
And while he’s not the star of the show, Dioner Navarro was the slowest player in baseball for 2015 and the sixth-slowest in 2016. You can also find Justin Smoak’s name on those lists without scrolling all that far.
So Morales might not have the least-likely steal in Blue Jays history to his name, but he almost certainly has the most improbable pair. Baseball’s history books are filled with frivolities if you take the time to look. There are countless oddities and random happenings that aren’t often appreciated until the passage of time puts them in the proper context. Consider his output in the month of May like a slow, lumbering comet that dawdles across the sky. You never know when you’ll see something like it again and chances are we’ve seen it for the last time in a Blue Jays uniform. Either way, he’s now technically in the company of guys like Ed Sprague and John Olerud in franchise lore. Any time you can try to spin some positives for a DH hitting .163 in mid-late May, you’ve got to give it a shot.
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