The Kansas City Royals don't have a steal sign. The light is perpetually green, and it is up to the player on the paths to make a decision for himself.

Such a decision is easier for some than others, provided Jarrod Dyson doesn't have a sudden bout of identity confusion and mistakenly believe he's Kendrys Morales or vice versa. As for everybody else, it is expected that the game situation and the pitcher's time to home plate be taken into account.

This approach has worked for the Royals. There have been times in the last two Octobers when they've run roughshod over the opposition, and they have by far the most regular season stolen bases of any ballclub over the last four years.

But get this: The Royals' number of stolen-base attempts declined 37 percent last season.

So, did the green light turn yellow?

"It's our reputation as an aggressive basestealing team," manager Ned Yost said. "When we play teams, they're more cognizant of the fact that we're aggressive, and if you give us an opportunity, we're gone. So teams have really shored up their times to the plate and they're varying their looks."

And so industry adaptation might have robbed us of one of the few remaining refuges of bountiful (relatively speaking) basestealing. The simple fact of the matter is that teams just don't run much anymore, and the attention to detail applied by Royals' opponents is but one window into the why.

With a number attached to every endeavor on the ballfield, teams have this stuff down to a science -- the importance of delivering a pitch to the plate in less than 1.4 seconds, the necessity of succeeding at least three-quarters of the time if an attempted steal is even to be deemed worthwhile and, above all else, the value of an out in a game in which you only get 27 of them.

"The game has changed," Pirates star Andrew McCutchen said. "Nobody's going to steal 100 bases anymore. You have to be a certain type of fast to do it on a regular basis."

But are teams even attempting stolen bases enough in today's game? Should a lower scoring environment and a defensive environment heavily reliant on shifts promote more aggression in the pursuit of run-production opportunities? Or more caution?

What we know for certain is that teams are, by and large, running less and less all the time. In 2015, there were 2,505 stolen bases, the lowest total since 1974 (2,488), when six fewer teams roamed the earth. The per-game average of 0.52 steals per team last year was the lowest since '73.

As seen in this chart of the number of attempts per game over the last 30 seasons, despite the occasional and sudden surge, the general trend line has shifted decidedly downward:


If you pine for the days when Rickey Henderson or Vince Coleman were running wild, this decline is disappointing.

Coleman's Cardinals stole 314 bases en route to the 1985 pennant. In this century, we've only had one club (the 2007 Mets) steal as many as 200 (they hit that total square on the nose), and the single-season high in the last three years is the Royals' 153 mark in '13. As much as the Runnin' Royals have earned a reputation in the modern day, their four-year average of 178.5 attempts is almost identical to their total of 176 attempts in '85, when they were a middle-of-the-pack club in that category.

Biased parties that they are, the game's speedsters will tell you they'd love to see more green lights.

"You have to have that threat," said Rajai Davis, who has the third-most stolen bases in the Majors going back to 2007. "You get rid of that threat, then pitchers don't leave as many pitches over the plate. They have to either be quick to the plate and focus on the hitter or focus on the baserunner and leave that ball over the plate."

But pitchers are doing just fine, thanks. As is well-documented, offense has been harder to come by. What can't be lost in this conversation is that the three lowest league-wide on-base percentages in the DH era have each occurred in the last three seasons.

You can't steal a base if you're not on base.

But given the proliferation of low-scoring games, why don't teams take more chances when they do have a guy on base?

Basically, they don't feel it's worth the risk.

"It's the analytics," said D-backs manager Chip Hale. "I know when I was in Oakland, the comment was that if we can't [convert at a rate of] 70 percent or better, than we don't want to run. So that's the thinking, and that plays league-wide now."

Actually, the league-wide success rate was 70.2 percent last year. But a few clubs surveyed put their preferred minimum at 80. Run-expectancy charts, dictate that 75 percent is the cutoff point between "worth it" and not.

So the math insists that outs are far more precious than bases. And we all know how math can trickle down from the front office to the dugout these days.

"With the Dodgers, we were getting thrown out a lot early last year," said Don Mattingly, now with the Marlins. "And Andrew [Friedman] and those guys [in the front office] would say, 'Hey, we're getting thrown out.'"

The Dodgers made 15 stolen-base attempts in April and 12 in May, converting at a rate of just 44.4 percent in that span. Little wonder they made just seven attempts in June. But as their personnel evolved later in the year, they did begin to take more chances again.

And that's the obvious point that must be made here: Personnel affects the attempts more than philosophy. The Friedman front office that arrived before '15 is far more analytical than its predecessor, but it was Dee Gordon's departure (after a year in which he made 83 attempts) that was the fundamental factor in team-wide attempts dropping by 95 from '14 to '15.

So maybe baseball just doesn't have the basestealers it once did. Gordon, coming off a batting title and stolen base title, is the rare dual threat to both get on base and swipe one. The aforementioned Dyson is entering his age-31 season and only now getting his first opportunity to nail down an everyday job (he's currently out with an oblique injury). Billy Hamilton was a Minor League marvel with a record 155 steals in 2012, but his .287 OBP in the big leagues has hammered home the age-old inconvenience that you can't steal first.

Speed has become a novelty.

"A lot of guys aren't good basestealers anymore," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "There are less true cavalier kind of base stealers out there."

And guys with the athletic ability to be cavalier are being watched closely. Yan Gomes, the Indians' catcher, recalled a stretch in the Minors when his then-teammate Anthony Gose was something like 10-for-10 on delayed steals. In the big leagues, teams caught up with that tendency, and Gose's stolen-base success rate last season was a disappointing 67.6.

There is no data to suggest that pitchers are quicker to the plate now than they were three decades ago. But the video and information revolution has certainly contributed to hyper-awareness of tendencies and aided the defense against the daring ones.

"I remember, playing in the mid-80s, you didn't get the signs from the bench to throw over and stuff," Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons said. "And I don't remember the guys working on slide steps and being quick to the plate as often. Now that's a requirement."

Said McCutchen, whose stolen-base totals have fallen from 27 to 18 to 11 over the last three years: "It makes it tougher to go. A lot tougher."

Maybe if the offensive issues continue unabated, teams will take a more concerted effort toward developing basestealers and building their clubs around speed.

But for now, even for an aggressive team like the defending champion Royals, the light is shifting from green to red.


Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.