Carlos Beltran a most effective thief

Carlos Beltran of the Yankees follows through on Carlos Beltran of the Yankees follows through on his first inning two-run home run against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, April 12, 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jim McIsaac

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The magazine headline didn't leave any room for interpretation:

"Carlos Beltran Is the Best Base Stealer in Baseball History"

What in the name of Rickey Henderson was ESPN The Magazine talking about in its March 3 issue? Well, author Paul Swydan wrote "in terms of efficiency, there's never been anyone better. Consider: Of the 160 players in MLB history to swipe at least 300 bases, Beltran is the only one to have a career conversion rate above 85 percent."

Going into this season, Beltran had been successful on 86.5 percent of his stolen-base attempts (308-for-356). Those numbers haven't changed; the 36-year-old has not attempted a steal in his first two weeks as a Yankee.

Beltran's career high was the 42 bags he swiped in 45 attempts in 2004. Last season, with age and knee injuries having taken their toll, he tried only three times and was caught once. In 2012, he stole 13 bases and was caught six times.

So the stolen base probably is not going to be a huge part of Beltran's arsenal in his Yankees career. But when he goes, he expects to make it on smarts as much as speed.

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"I always do my math," Beltran said. "On pitchers' timing, on who's behind the plate. I try to steal bases when my chances are greater."

Beltran doesn't consider himself a stathead, but he always has instinctively understood one of the tenets of baseball analytics: That stolen bases are helpful only if the base-stealer has a high percentage of making it safely. A success rate of 70 to 75 percent generally is considered necessary for the stolen-base attempts to be worth the trouble.

(Case in point from Saturday's 7-4 Yankees win over the Red Sox: Boston's Mike Carp was thrown out inexplicably trying to steal second to end the seventh inning with the Red Sox down two runs and another runner on third base.)

"Early in my career, I stole 30-some, 40-some bases and I felt that I could have stolen more," Beltran said. "But the chances of me getting thrown out were also going to be more. So I felt that by stealing bases, I didn't want to run into an out. I didn't want to kill a rally or something like that. It depends on who is hitting behind me. If he was swinging the bat well, then I needed to be more careful. So I always do my math."

Fangraphs.com has a stat called wSB that estimates the number of runs a player contributes to his team by stealing bases. Beltran's career wSB is 37.4.

Henderson, the all-time leader with 1,406 steals (80.1 percent success rate), had a wSB of 142.7. Lou Brock, whose record Henderson broke, stole 938 bases (75.3 percent success rate). His wSB was 75.0.

This year's Yankees team is blessed with several excellent base-stealers, including Jacoby Ellsbury (84 percent career), Ichiro Suzuki (81.7), Brett Gardner (81.1), Brian Roberts (80.2) and Derek Jeter (78.5).

On the other end of the spectrum are players who should have just stayed put. In baseball history, among players with at least 80 stolen-base attempts, the worst is former Braves, Reds and Astros infielder Denis Menke, who stole 34 bases and was thrown out 54 times, a 38.6 percent success rate! His wSB was negative 11.1.

Also among the worst percentage base-stealers in baseball history were Thurman Munson (48.9 percent), Bobby Bonilla (44.1) and a trio of Hall of Famers: Ernie Banks (48.5), Gary Carter (48.1) and Nellie Fox (47.9).

Beltran's excellence in stealing bases could help him make the Hall someday as voters start to delve into more esoteric stats. His credentials to date include eight All-Star Game nods, three Gold Gloves, a Rookie of the Year award, 360 home runs and a whopping 1.128 career postseason OPS.

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But is he really the best base-stealer in baseball history?

"I don't consider myself like that," Beltran said, laughing.

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