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Miami Marlins' Emilio Bonifacio Could Lead NL in Stolen Bases With Less Than 400 PA

August 19, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Miami Marlins center fielder Emilio Bonifacio (1) in the dugout during the third inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.  Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE
August 19, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Miami Marlins center fielder Emilio Bonifacio (1) in the dugout during the third inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

Before May 18, Emilio Bonifacio had stolen 20 bases in a row and held the league lead in swiped bags by a healthy margin. Then, he missed 47 days on the disabled list due to a thumb injury that ironically occurred on his first caught stealing of the season; Cleveland Indians catcher Carlos Santana served to ground Bonifacio's running game in a game sense as well contribute to it in a season sense.

Bonifacio eventually returned in July, but it did not take him long to miss more games due to that same thumb when he hurt it on the penultimate play of a win over the Washington Nationals. Bonifacio missed another two weeks and just returned yesterday to a one-for-five appearance.

Typically, when you miss this kind of playing time, you often end up well out of the race for any leaderboard finishes by the end of the season. Bonifacio has only racked up 269 PA and 62 games played, so it makes sense for him to be way out of the running for any leaderboard. But for some reason this season, the running game has been grounded in the National League and the possibility still exists that Bonifacio may end the season as the league leader in stolen bases despite missing all of that playing time.

The Current Scenario

Bonifacio has only picked up ten more steals in his short time off the disabled list since May 18. It seems absurd that he has missed as much playing time as he has, but he has only played in 23 games and racked up 99 PA since returning from the long DL stint. Yet somehow, Bonifacio is only two steals behind the National League leader, Michael Bourn. Bourn has had a stellar season by all accounts, as he is hitting .292/.353/.429 on the season, but for whatever reason, he has not been as aggressive on the bases. Bourn has only attempted 40 steals on the year, just seven more than Bonifacio has in a little more than half of Bourn's PA.

It is unlikely, at least without a speedy surge, for either man to catch American League leader Mike Trout, who has 38 steals as of the start of Sunday's games. Bourn and Bonifacio also have challengers coming from behind in the form of Juan Pierre, Jose Reyes, and perhaps to a lesser extent Drew Stubbs, who are all within four steals of the lead.

Historical Precedence

Players like Bonifacio, who have injury-riddled seasons, do not generally lead the league in any counting stats, let alone steals. Right now, ZiPS projects Bonifacio to finish the season with 392 PA, and it seems reasonable that he may not quite reach 400 PA on the year, but he is still dangerously close to the league lead.

Has anyone ever come close to leading the league in steals with that number of PA? Since 1992, the players with the lowest number of PA to still lead the National League in stolen bases were Willy Taveras in 2008 (68 steals in 538 PA) and Quilvio Veras in 1995 (56 steals in 538 PA). Both players put up 538 PA, but Taveras won his race handily, beating Jose Reyes by 12 steals, while Quilvio Veras beat out Barry Larkin by only five. Both players led all major leaguers in steals as well.

So if Bonifacio were to do this, it would be unprecedented, at least in the modern era.

Aggressive Tendencies

One reason why the Marlins utility man could still pull this off is that, this season, he has had free reign to run wild on teams on the bases. As of the end of Saturday night's games, Bonifacio had only 99 stolen base opportunities, as defined by times on base with a base empty in front of him. Bonifacio has wasted no time on the basepaths, as he has attempted a steal in 33.3 percent of those opportunties.

How aggressive is that tendency? Looking at the top 20 basestealers of 2012, their overall rate of attempts this season is 22.7 percent, meaning Bonifacio is significantly above average in that regard. Among these top base stealers, only three players, the Toronto Blue Jays' Rajai Davis (59.0 percent), Chicago Cubs' Tony Campana (40.8 percent), and Los Angeles Dodgers' Dee Gordon (37.0 percent) have a higher rate of steal attempts this season . Only five players, including the above three and Houston Astros outfielder Jordan Schafer, are attempting at more than a 30 percent rate.

When you compare that to Bonifacio's competitors, you see that there is a chance that he can win the steals title by sheer aggressiveness. Bourn has tried to steal on just 17.2 percent of his opportunities this year. Reyes has gone in only 18.3 percent of those situations. Juan Pierre? Only 23.1 percent. Among the guys who actually get on base, they are more patient on the bases, and that is where Bonifacio can beat them.

The Projections

What do the projections say? Let us use ZiPS as an example:

Player. ZiPS End-of-Season PA SB CS
Michael Bourn 741 45 11
Emilio Bonifacio 392 39 9
Juan Pierre 477 38 8
Jose Reyes 688 37 9
Drew Stubbs 580 37 8

The rate at which Bonifacio has stolen bags this season has been incredible (though not as insane as Rajai Davis's rate), and this end-of-season projection reflects that. ZiPS expects Bonifacio to end the year with 39 steals in 392 PA, a little more than half of Bourn's expected PA total by year's end. At that rate, Bonifacio would be expected to steal 60 bases in a 600 PA season.

The last time a Marlins stole 60 bases in any season was Juan Pierre in 2003, and if Bonifacio can pull off a full season, he can do it as well, even if he does not receive the PA that Pierre got in the World Series season and beyond. Bonifacio's blend of newfound ability to get on base along with his aggressiveness and the team's willingness to steal could make for some fun in 2013 and could even bring an unlikely steals championship in 2012.