The Chicago Cubs are becoming an elite base stealing team
It's been a while since the Chicago Cubs were a true baserunning threat. Last year, the team finished fourth with 111 stolen bases to their name but still showed lapses in judgment that left doubts about their abilities on the basepaths. It did, however, seem like a taste of things to come. With the bases expanded, updated rules on pickoffs and disengagements in general, and an overall improved roster, the Cubs have taken off in the stolen base department.
In just 16 games, the team is at 22 stolen bases, just two off of their ENTIRE 2020 total of 24 and third in the league. They've even tied the 1947 Cubs team's total for an entire 155-game season. That's a miserable base-stealing team, but to accomplish that in such a short time is no small feat. Calculating the Cubs' stolen base rate out across a full 162 games, they'd end up with around 223 total steals if they kept pace. That would land them firmly among a range of Cubs teams nearly entirely from the 1800s. It also blows out the nearest live ball era team, the 1985 Cubs featuring prolific base stealers like Ryne Sandberg, Davey Lopes, and Bob Dernier, who swiped 182 bags.
Leading the charge is Nico Hoerner who has morphed into the ideal leadoff hitter for the Cubs. He's racked up 9 stolen bases to this point, putting him on an absurd pace of 91 stolen bases for the year and leading the league. For reference, Bill Lange set the franchise record when he stole 86 bases in 1896. I doubt Hoerner will reach that mark, but to even be on that pace speaks to the aggressiveness and ability he's shown in the early going. He's definitely likely to beat out the best mark of fan-favorite base swiper Javier Baez, however, who topped out at 21 bases in 2018.
The rest of the team is doing their part to contribute as well. Two of the team's biggest additions - Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger - have three stolen bases each along with Ian Happ. There's also Nick Madrigal who, despite a recent baserunning gaffe, has contributed as well with a pair of steals. It's possible this team could get even better on the bases as the season goes on with the speedy Christopher Morel likely to come back at some point.
Cubs are combining speed and intelligence to swipe bags
It's not just the fast players who are thriving in this environment. The Cubs employ smart baserunners who know the optimal time to strike. A key example is catcher Yan Gomes. Despite being in the bottom quarter of MLB players in sprint speed, he managed to steal a base this year, preserving his perfect record for his career.
That's the main difference between 2022 and 2023. Last year, the Cubs would run often in an effort to generate offense that they lacked at the plate and get too aggressive in the process. Here, however, the players are running because they see opportunities. After last year, which saw the Cubs finish 17th by Fangraphs' baserunning metric with a -1.7 mark, there's been a serious improvement as the team now sits at 12th with a 1.0. It may be early, but there's already a greater discipline on the bases than we've seen from the Cubs in years and it's helping to make up for a lack of power.
As the season progresses, we'll get a better sense of where the Cubs are as a baserunning team, but the results so far are nothing short of stellar. MLB may have welcomed a new era of base stealing and it's good to see the Northsiders at the forefront of that movement. They're primed to be one of the best Cubs teams at taking extra bases in a long time and they have what may be their best bag swiper since Sandberg in Hoerner paving the way.