Run, Forrest, Run! The SB is back – for the moment…
The stolen base is once again en vogue in Major League Baseball, at least it has been for about a month, and it’s about stinkin’ time…
I’ve never fully understood why the stolen base became uncool. It’s the highest percentage offensive play in the book and it’s just plain old fun to watch a true stolen base artist at work. Why in the world did baseball people put something that is 70% effective away for 15-20 years?
I know a lot of Sabermetics folks will tell you the stolen base is overrated but I’m here to call b.s. on that because you simply cannot measure everything that goes into a baseball game with mathematical equations. I love Sabermetics, don’t get me wrong, I’m just saying that in this specific case people who think steals are relatively meaningless are swinging and missing. More on the “immeasurables” a little later on…first up I’ll touch on the measurables.
From 1999-2008 Major League players were succesful 70% of the time they attempted to steal a base. That number is 72% from 2004-2008. Keep in mind that’s AVERAGE – you’re not going to be making your “average” guys run all that much. Carl Crawford, for example, has an 83% success rate during his career. I’d take an 83% chance of getting into scoring position, wouldn’t you?
To figure out whether or not it’s better to steal or stay at first base, consider the following:
The probability of a base runner scoring from 1st base with nobody out is 39%. With 1 out it drops to 26% and with 2 outs it’s down to 14%.
Move that runner to second base and your advantage is significant. The probability of a base runner scoring from 2nd base with nobody out is 57%. With 1 out it’s 42% and with 2 outs it’s 24%.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s a pretty big difference. You’ve got a 46% better chance of scoring from 2nd base with nobody out than you do from 1st, a 62% better chance at scoring from 2nd base with 1 out and a 42% better chance at scoring from 2nd with 2 outs.
We’re talking about common sense here, fellas. If you’re at the Blackjack table in Vegas and you don’t double-down with an 11 facing the dealer’s bust hand then you’re going to lose money more often than you win it.
You want runners in scoring position, period, and if you have a 70-80% chance of that base stealer being successful that seems like a pretty good option to me.
Keep in mind that I’m not suggesting every player should always be running. I’m just saying it would be wise for teams with excellent base runners to put them to better use, that’s all.
Aside from increasing your chances of scoring runs by getting base runners into scoring position, being aggressive has other impacts on the game that cannot be measure statistically. I call it the “Rickey Henderson Factor.”
Rickey was such a distraction to pitchers, catchers and opposing managers when he was on base that he literally took them right out of their game plan.
Having the constant threat of a base being stolen takes a pitcher’s attention partially away from executing his pitches properly (missing on location), it changes the type of pitch he’s willing to throw in a given situation (more fastballs), it cause him to speed up his delivery (can cause control problems) and it can lead to defensive shifts in the middle infield that are beneficial to hitters (opening up bigger holes).
That’s all just because of the THREAT of a base being stolen. It’s called putting pressure on the pitcher and the defense. The more compliated you make it for them, the more likely they are to make a mistake. If you’re a team that is aggressive on the base paths you benefit when you steal successfully and you benefit even when you don’t run at all because the other team is wary of your aggressive style.
The Angels and Rays have shown this style can work for teams in the modern era, especially when you combine it with solid defense and good pitching. In fact, it’s not a coincidence that “speed is back,” it’s simply teams copying what has been successful for the Angels and Rays.
Teams aren’t playing more small ball because of the end of the “Steroid Era,” they’re just doing what NFL teams do all the time – mimicking a strategy that works. Plus, it’s good for the bottom line.
Let’s be honest – speed is cheaper than power, at least as a general rule. Teams that have to watch what they spend would do well to focus on the high-percentage steals game rather than the high-cost, high-risk long ball game.
In 2008 there was a double hit every 18.5 at-bats (5% of all at-bats). A triple was hit once every 188 at-bats (0.05% of all at-bats) and a home run was hit every 34 at-bats (3% of all at-bats).
Why in the world would teams worry about “running themselves out of innings” when the odds are stacked against them to such a great degree when it comes to getting extra base hits or having multiple hitters reach base before three outs are recorded?
I’m not a “small ball” guy – I love me some home runs – but I think making better use of speed, particularly at the BOTTOM of the order, would make all the sense the world. I know you don’t want to open up 1st base when your 3-4-5 hitters are coming up but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to be putting guys in scoring position when the 1-2-3 hitters are coming to the plate, would it?
Here’s to hoping the April increase in stolen base attempts continues on into the future….
Kevin Wheeler is the host of Sports Open Line (M-F 7-9 PM ET) on News Radio 1120, KMOX in St. Louis (www.kmox.com) and he is a baseball instructor with All-Star Performance (www.all-starperformance.net) and the St. Louis Gamers (www.stlgamers.net). You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org