In 1910 after his baseball season was completed with the Detroit Tigers, Ty Cobb traveled to Cuba with his teammates for a series of games against an all-star squad consisting of players from the negro leagues. It was a chance for Cobb to measure himself against players he would never face in the majors.
While on the island just 90 miles south of Key West, the 23-year old Cobb, already a four-time batting champ, did his best to please the Cuban fans. But his base running was dismal to say the least. In fact, Cobb was downright terrible as a base stealer during the exhibition series, which took place in November. A few reporters who followed the Tigers on the trip took great delight in writing that Cobb was thrown out five times by black catcher Bruce Petway in 12 games. Cobb was thrown out three times in one game. But his poor success rate on the base paths shouldn’t have been surprising because Cobb was caught stealing a lot, probably more than any other player in baseball history.
Ty Cobb was not a great base stealer. There I said it.
But there’s an explanation for that completely accurate statement.
No one was very good at stealing bases in Cobb’s day. The success rate of steal attempts in 1912 (the first year for which we have complete data) was 57 percent. Or just barely better than half the time. Eight years later in 1920, it was 52 percent. Would-be base stealers in that era were almost as likely to be tagged out as they were to snare a free bag. Cobb was more successful than most in some of his seasons, topping 60 percent a few times, but even that level of success makes it too risky to try to steal at all. Experts who now this stuff say that a base stealer must be successful on 67-70 percent of his tries in order for his efforts to help his team. It’s simply too risky to try to steal a bag unless you can be safe seven out of ten times. In Cobb’s day that almost never happened.
In 1920, Cobb was thrown out 10 times in 25 tries. Twice, in 1912 and 1915, Cobb led the league in being thrown out attempting to steal. His success rate in those two seasons was 68 percent.
To be fair to The Georgia Peach, stealing bases was often necessary in his era, at least before the early 1920s. Run scoring was at an all-time low in the Deadball Era, with many games finishing with scores of 1-0 or 2-1 or 3-2. In 1913 the Tigers scored less than four runs per game, and that season almost 15 percent of all games in the American League ended in a shutout. Scratching across runs was tough. Cobb and his brethren felt compelled to push the issue, and swiping an extra bag 90 feet away seemed like a great strategy.
Still, Cobb and the rest of the league before 1930 were poor base stealers by traditional standards. For the last nine years of his career, Cobb was thrown out 99 times against only 124 successful attempts. A look at base stealing marks from that era reveals that nearly everyone was mediocre at swiping bases. Lou Gehrig has the worst base stolen base percentage of any player who attempted at least 100 steals: he was 102 for 202. That’s just 50.5 percent. Babe Ruth, known for his hubris on the base paths, wasn’t much better, failing 117 times in 240 tries (for years we have data).
Cobb was thrown out attempting to steal 212 times (in the 13 seasons for which we have data). If we had stats for the other 11 seasons of his career (years when he was young and daring), that figure would probably climb well above 400. That would easily be the big league record, eclipsing the 335 by Rickey Henderson (who was successful stealing bases at a rate of 81 percent).
We don’t have the breakdown of Cobb’s steal attempts by base (stealing second, stealing third, stealing home). But given the increased difficulty of stealing third and home, we can assume that Ty’s rate for swiping those bases was well below 50 percent. He stole home a record 54 times in his Hall of Fame career, and in two seasons where we have detailed data (1911-12), he stole third base 36 times out of 144 total steals. It would be surprising if he was successful stealing third at a rate more than 55 percent or so for his career, if that high.
Base runners have gotten better at stealing bags in every generation. Which makes sense, as the athletes get bigger, quicker, and smarter. When we think of it that way, Cobb was a great base stealer for his era. But in general terms, as far as his rate of success and helping his team, Cobb was tossed out way too much. Just like everyone back in the dusty deadball days of baseball.