MiLB.com staff combed through decades of stats to uncover Minor League hitting and pitching leaders among players active for at least one season in the 21st century. "Modern marvels" presents their stories. We covered the hits leaders, the strikeout leaders, the home run leaders and the saves leaders in previous editions.
As home run totals continue to rise around the league, the stolen base has become an afterthought. After all, why risk getting thrown out trying to run to second or third base when you can wait for the opportunity to jog all the way to home plate?
The last time Major League teams combined to steal 3,500 bases in a season was 1987, when the league totaled 3,648 swipes. The last campaign with at least 3,000 steals was more recent -- 3,229 steals in 2012, a marked increase over the totals from the first half-dozen seasons of the 21st century. Those years featured consistent totals in the low-to-mid 2,000s. After the 2012 spike, stolen bases cratered to 2,693 in 2013 and haven't sniffed 3,000 since.
Eleven players stole 40 or more bases back in 1987, with 19 checking in at 30-plus. Fast forward 32 years to 2019, when three players stole at least 40 bases and eight reached the 30-steal plateau in a season in which teams combined for 2,280 bags. That's a 32 percent decrease over 32 years. The percentage increase in home runs during that time frame? A similar 33.4 percent, from 5,078 long balls in 1987 to 6,776 in 2019.
But enough about how the game has changed. After all, we're here to celebrate the stolen base, not lament its decline. And with that comes former New York Mets outfielder Esix Snead, who holds a modern Minor League record with 507 stolen bases, standing as the only player who's played at least one season this century to top 500 swipes.
What might be most remarkable about Snead's totals is that he accomplished the feat in nine Minor League seasons. No other player in the top 10 made it there in fewer seasons than Snead, and more than half of them needed 12 or more campaigns to amass their numbers.
Snead raced off to a fast start in his first season after being drafted by the Cardinals in the 18th round of the 1998 First-Year Player Draft, stealing 42 bases on 53 attempts in 58 games for the Class A Short Season New Jersey Cardinals. Perhaps even more impressively, of the 76 times he reached first base that season, he attempted a stolen base almost 70 percent of the time and succeeded over 55 percent of the time. Over half the time Snead singled or walked that season, it was as good as a double.
That was a consistent theme for Snead. He was a career .231 hitter who had 750 career hits, but just 152 extra-base hits and a .297 slugging percentage. His best season came in 2000 at Class A Advanced Potomac, where he batted .235/.340/.282 and walked a career-high 72 times. That allowed him to attempt a whopping 144 stolen bases, of which he successfully swiped 109 to break the Carolina League record Lenny Dykstra set in 1983.
Snead reached base 196 times that season with 18 extra-base hits, meaning he attempted a steal over 80 percent of the time he reached first and succeeded in turning a single (or walk) into a double on over 60 percent of his opportunities.
Waived by the Cardinals in 2001, Snead was claimed by the Mets and made his Major League debut the following season, batting .308/.357/.538 in 14 plate appearances. He stole four bases in seven attempts, several of which came as a pinch-runner, and he even homered -- something he did just 13 times in 926 career Minor League games.
That long ball came in the same game that he got his first Major League hit in on Sept. 21, 2002 against the Montreal Expos. That first career hit was a single, but the homer was a three-run walk-off shot at the expense of reliever Dan Smith in the 11th inning. Snead played in just one Major League game after the 2001-02 season, scoring a run as a pinch-runner for the Mets in 2004.
Snead's final pro season came at age 29 in 2006, when he batted .220/.320/.268 in 41 games for Triple-A Ottawa in the Baltimore Orioles organization before he was released in late May. He stole 15 bases in 19 attempts that year despite reaching base 48 times, and that season remains the lone campaign of Snead's career in which he failed to swipe 40 bags.
Here are some recent players who got within shouting distance of Snead's stolen-base total over the course of their respective careers:
Trenidad Hubbard (488 steals from 1986-2005): Hubbard's tale is one of longevity, which isn't usually the case for most speedsters -- he's the only player on this list to have played past age 36, and he turned 41 in May of his final season in 2005. He stole 40 bases in a season just once in his Minor League career, with Class A Advanced Osceola in 1988, but he swiped 30 bases seven times across the Triple-A and Double-A levels. At age 34, he joined the Dodgers and had an impressive two-year stretch in the Majors from 1998-1999, batting .304 with eight home runs and 13 steals over 335 plate appearances.
Rich Thompson (486 steals from 2000-13): Thompson racked up seven 40-steal seasons in his 14 Minor League campaigns, topping out at 58 for Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis in 2005. A .280 hitter in the Minors, Thompson went 2-for-23 at the plate in The Show between Kansas City and Tampa Bay, but he stole seven bases in nine attempts, with most coming as a pinch-runner.
Esteban German (459 steals from 1998-2011): German quickly made his mark in the Minors with consecutive 40-steal campaigns to start his career, and he racked up 83 swipes on 94 attempts at Class A Advanced Visalia and Double-A Midland in his third season. He had four other years with at least 40 steals in his Minor League career, but his speed surprisingly didn't translate at the Major League level. He amassed 459 steals in 562 attempts over 5,593 Minor League plate appearances, but only 34 swipes in 49 attempts over 1,170 big league plate appearances between Oakland, Texas and Kansas City.
Tim Raines (454 steals from 1998-2009): The first of two players on this list with fathers who played in the Majors, Raines is another player with an 80-steal season on his resume. He swiped 81 bags for Class A Advanced Frederick in 2000. He added three more years with at least 49 steals during his first six campaigns in the Minors, but he never topped 30 bags in a season in any of his final six years in pro ball.
Darren Ford (450 steals from 2005-16): Ford's full-season debut was a smash hit as he nabbed 69 bases for Class A West Virginia in 2006 after swiping 18 bags for Rookie-level Helena in 2005. He stole 67 in 2007 for West Virginia and Class A Advanced Brevard County and took 48 bases in 2008 at Brevard County before he was traded to San Francisco and he notched 14 more thefts for Class A Advanced San Jose to record his third straight 60-steal season.
Freddy Guzman (443 steals from 2001-09): Guzman has the distinction of being the only player on this list to steal 90 bases in a season as he amassed exactly that number in 2003 for Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore (49), Double-A Mobile (38) and Triple-A Portland (three). Only two players have matched that feat since -- Billy Hamilton did it twice (103 in 2011, 104 in 2012) and Rico Noel racked up 90 in 2012. Guzman posted a whopping five seasons with 50 or more steals stateside, tying Snead -- who had five seasons of 60-plus steals -- for tops among players on this list.
Wayne Lydon (427 steals from 1999-2008): One of two players on this list to have never played a Major League game, Lydon is also one of two who racked up three consecutive seasons with 60 stolen bases. He notched 87 for Class A Capital City in 2002, 75 for Class A Advanced St. Lucie in 2003 and 65 for Double-A Binghamton in 2004. Lydon never stole fewer than 26 bases in a season after his professional debut for the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Mets in 1999, when he didn't record any.
Alex Requena (418 steals from 1999-2007): Requena is the other player on this list who didn't make The Show, but he's also one of just two with four 50-steal campaigns over the course of his career. The best of those came in 2000, when he stole 87 bases for Class A Columbus, and he also racked up 72 swipes in 2002 for Class A Advanced Kinston.
Eric Young Jr. (414 steals from 2004-19): Young Jr. stole 87 bases for Class A Asheville in 2006 and might be the name most recognize from this compilation, but not because of what he did for the Tourists. Young Jr. led the National League with 46 stolen bases in 2013 and stole more bases (162) in his big league career than the rest of this list combined (103). Of those, 76 came over a 248-game span in 2013-14, when he played regularly for the Rockies and the Mets. Colorado designated him for assignment during his 2013 campaign and traded him for Collin McHugh in June, and he went on to rack up 38 swipes for New York the rest of the way.
Chris Tripodi is a coordinator for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @christripodi.