The Art of the Stolen Base: Lost Art, or a Smarter Approach?
Among the so-called “sabermetrics” and “traditionalist” communities that surround baseball, the effect of the stolen base has often been debated. The traditional methods of bunting and stealing bases have come into question over recent years, as the new “Moneyball” approach implores a more station-to-station approach without sacrificing outs on the bases or on bunts. While the numerical charts presented in recent years support the more modern approach, teams such as the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals are proof that the “small ball” approach can also be useful. The question remains, should teams be stealing more bases, or should they play more station-to- station?
A FEW THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- Baserunning is a lot more than just stolen bases, as guys who can go first-to- third or successfully take extra bases can create a lot of value outside of stealing bases
- Some pickoffs are considered “caught stealing,” as long as the runner makes a motion or feint toward the next base during the course of the out
- A small amount of stolen bases are the result of being on the back end of double steals, but passed balls and wild pitches are only stolen bases if the runner was on the move before the wild pitch or passed ball occurred
TRADING THE GOOD WITH THE BAD
Sabermetricians have long tried to put a number on the point at which a baserunner is hurting his team by getting caught stealing too much. Win and run expectancy models can be used to provide a framework for that number, as we try to estimate the value of the stolen base. For example, using TangoTiger’s win and run expectancy models, we can see that the value of a player going from first to second base with no outs increases the chance of a team scoring by 19%, but going from a runner on first with no outs to nobody on base with one out decreases the chance of a team scoring by 26%.
One of the most popular times to steal is with a runner on first base with two outs. Using a speedy player and getting him into scoring position almost guarantees a run scoring on a hit. Once again using the tables referenced above, when a player goes from first base with two outs to second with two outs, the team’s chance of scoring goes from 12.7% to 21.6%, an increase just short of 9%. On the flip side, however, going from a runner on first to ending the inning brings the chances of scoring from 12.7% to, as I’m sure you guessed, 0%.
KNOWING WHEN TO STOP STEALING
No statistic has a debated point of diminishing returns quite like the stolen base statistic. Many experts and writers have tried to put a number on the point of which a player is hurting his team by getting caught stealing. John Thorn’s Total Baseball estimated that a runner must be successful in stealing more than 67% of the time in order to benefit his team. In the sabermetrics-laden book “Baseball Between the Numbers,” writer James Crick pointed out that the “break-even” line varies by season, based upon the run-scoring environment. The book was written in 2000, so to compare a the numbers, we must use a similar season. The 1985 and 1991 seasons are a good reference point, as the average runs/game were similar to the current 2016 rate of 4.34 runs/game.
- 1985: 4.33 runs/game; 66% break-even rate
- 1991: 4.31 runs/game; 72% break-even rate
As you can see above, the acceptable rate for stealing bases is somewhere between 66% and 72%. Below are some notable stolen base percentages among some of the most prolific base stealers. The rankings below are for players with 300+ SB since 1950 (Rickey Henderson is covered later in the article).
- Carlos Beltran: 86.4% (best percentage in this group)
- Tim Raines: 84.7% (second-best in this group)
- Vince Coleman: 80.9% (15th-best in this group)
- Kenny Lofton: 79.5% (22nd-best in this group)
- Lou Brock: 75.3% (50th-best in this group)
- Maury Wills: 73.8% (62nd-best in this group)
- Rod Carew: 65.4% (worst among the 81 players in the group)
ROYAL PAIN ON THE BASES
Upon making the World Series two years in a row, the Royals broke many tenants of “Moneyball” sabermetrics. They steal bases, they bunt, and they play “small ball.” Their starting pitching is average, but they are able find other ways to win, using traditional baseball tactics and a dominant bullpen. What makes the Royals successful? A lot of it has to do with their baserunning.
In 2015, the Royals stole the fifth-most bases, with Houston being the only American League team ahead of them. Kansas City was able to steal 104 bases while only being caught 34 times, which amounts to a 75% success rate, fourth-best in the MLB. The Royals were also very successful on the bases outside of stealing bases. They took extra bases on 44% of their opportunities, also fourth-best in the MLB.
RICKEY HENDERSON: THE CY YOUNG OF BASERUNNING
When it comes to unbreakable records in baseball, Rickey Henderson’s baserunning exploits may have put a couple of records out of reach during his career. Henderson stole 1,406 bases during the course of his career, almost 500 more than the total for the man in second place, Lou Brock (938). Henderson was also caught stealing 335 times, most in MLB history. For comparison’s sake, Alex Rodriguez, Andre Dawson, and Tony Gwynn had less than 335 steals in their Hall of Fame-caliber careers.
While his career totals are awfully impressive, some of Henderson’s individual seasons are equally impressive. Henderson stole over 100 bases 3 times, tied with Vince Coleman for most in MLB history. Among those seasons was 1982, when Henderson stole a mind-numbing 130 bases, but was also caught stealing 42 times. While many would consider this his best baserunning season, it ranks as his fifth-best according to Baseball Reference’s “Baserunning Runs” metric. This is likely ranked a little lower because of all of the times caught stealing, as 42 outs is the equivalent to an entire game of outs and five innings after that. According to this metric, Henderson’s best baserunning season was 1985, in which Henderson stole 80 bases while only being caught 10 times (88.9%).
CIRCLING THE BASES
In the early stages of the 2016 season, it appears that the stolen base may be revitalized. Has it revitalized to the extent of the 1980s? No, but the Boston Red Sox are showing that the stolen base can be a serious weapon when used correctly. The Red Sox are leading the MLB by scoring 5.97 runs/game, while also leading the majors with a 91% stolen base percentage (30 for 33). On the flipside, the Los Angeles Angels are scoring 3.85 runs/game (seventh-worst in the MLB), with some part of their struggles coming from a 50% stolen base success rate.
Stolen bases and baserunning are a small part of the grand scheme that is a baseball game, but they can certainly impact a win or loss. Stolen bases are the most efficient way to advance a base, but being caught stealing is the most inefficient way to give away an out. At a certain point, a baserunner has to live with one tenet: if you’re going to go, MAKE IT.