Will bigger bases be a big deal for the 2023 KC Royals?
Major League Baseball, an institution famous for its historically strict adherence to the game's traditional dimensions, is making a slight change to them this season. First, second and third bases will be bigger (three inches bigger, to be precise), giving KC Royals runners 4.5 fewer inches to travel between those bags.
The easily-discernible size change (Boston manager Alex Cora likens the new bases to pizza boxes) could benefit the game in two ways: more action and increased safety. Runners may try to steal more often, and first basemen will be blessed with more room between their feet and approaching runners' spikes. (Kansas City first base candidates Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto will welcome that latter bit of news).
Expect the so-called pizza boxes' impact on base running to be more visible to fans than their potential to reduce injuries.
Can the new bases lead to more steals by the KC Royals this season?
The early answer to this question is "Who knows?" Triple-A gave the larger bases a full-season try last year and baseball noted a slight increase in successful steal attempts. But a solid cause-and-effect conclusion between large bases and steals is difficult to draw, especially when other factors could have been at play. Were Triple-A runners faster last season? Were managers more inclined to green-light their runners? Were catchers less adept at throwing out stealers?
Just the mere possibility of a new advantage, though, should tempt KC runners to run more and could usher in increased Royal reliance on a key component of the franchise's most successful era. Base stealing was a memorable trademark of the great Kansas City teams of the late 70s and early 80s and helped the Royals win six division titles, two American League pennants, and a World Series championship between 1976 and 1985. Managers Whiter Herzog, Jim Frey and Dick Howser weren't afraid to let the Royals run.
Most prominent among the KC speed demons of those unforgettable years was Willie Wilson, who set the club single-season steals record with 83 in 1979, swiped 79 the next year to help the Royals to their first World Series, and stole a franchise career record 612 bases in his 15 Kansas City seasons.
But players, and the managers who green-light them, change. So it's been with the Royals, whose emphasis on base stealing decreased over the years as teams gradually shifted to more power and less speed.
Last year, however, the Royals' 104 steals tied them for sixth-best in the majors and third-best in the American League. Can larger bases help them improve those numbers and give the fans a taste of the club's base stealing heyday?
They certainly have the tools to do so. For example, count his 30 team-leading stolen bases last year among Bobby Witt Jr.'s good rookie numbers and look for even more steals from him in 2023. Although he played a reduced role in 2022, Nicky Lopez still stole 13 bases, rookie Nate Eaton succeeded an impressive 11 times in 12 steal attempts over only 44 games, and had Kyle Isbel's poor hitting not prevented him from getting on base more often, he would have swiped more than the nine bags he did.
Those four are fast enough to present significant threats every time they reach base: they each have better-than-league-average sprint speeds (sprint speed is Baseball Savant's measure of player speed). Expect Edward Olivares, whose sprint speed is also above average, to make pitchers and catchers nervous if he avoids the quad strains that limited him to 53 games last year: in parts of eight minor league seasons, he's stolen 10 or more bases five times, including 35 in 2019, 21 the year before that, and 20 in 2017.
Armed with those players' speed, and with other players' good speed, reads, leads, and jumps, the Royals just might effectively exploit the shorter distances between bases. And that could mean more runs for a team that didn't score enough last season.