Image Courtesy of The Star

The Need for Speed: Stolen Bases


It doesn’t matter how many bases you steal, only how good you are at it- to paraphrase James Click in Baseball Between the Numbers. Lofty stolen base totals shine on a players statistics chart, but are given far to much emphasis over the stat which should be considered paramount: stolen base percentage (SB%).

To illustrate this point, Click compared Ricky Henderson’s 1982 season with Pete Incaviglia’s 1986 rookie season. Using the run-expectancy table for 1982, Henderson’s 130 steals added 22.2 runs, while the 42 times he was caught stealing cost 20.6 runs. Despite a mind blowing 130 stolen bags, Henderson only added 1.6 runs to the A’s offense. Incaviglia on the other hand stole 3 bases, and was caught twice in 86’. He cost his team about half a run, and only about 2 runs less than Ricky Henderson’s 1982 base stealing performance.

By examining the gains and costs of stolen bases and failed stolen base attempts, Click and others have shown that the approximate “break-even” SB% is about 75. That number varies from year to year, based on the amount of runs scored, and a number of related factors. The break-even SB% is also dependent upon the game situation. The best time to steal (the point with the lowest SB% break-even rate), is in the late innings in which the game is either tied, or the batting team is ahead.

It is very early in the 2011 season- and John Farrell’s tenure as manager- but it is already apparent that the stolen base will be a more prominent part of the Jays offense. It can be an effective strategy, particularly late in close games, but it is only valuable when the players are efficient with their attempts. With that in mind, try not to focus so much on how many bags Rajai Davis swipes in 2011, but instead, at the rate at which he is successful.

Here are some numbers for the Jays potential base stealers:

Rajai Davis:

Career: SB 144/ CS 38/ SB% 79

2010: SB 50/ CS 11/ SB% 82

Rajai Davis is a good base stealer, who will have the green light in many different situations. He stole 50 bases in 2010 with the Oakland A’s, and could break the Blue Jays single season stolen base record in 2011. (Dave Collins set the Jays club record with 60 in 1984)

Corey Patterson:

Career: SB 205/ CS 55/ SB% 78.8

2010: SB 21/ CS 4/ SB% 84

Corey Patterson is another efficient base stealer. Unfortunately, He lacks the ability to get on base consistently and therefore does not get a ton of chances to use his speed.

Scott Podsednik:

Career SB 301/ CS 102/ SB% 74.6

2010: SB 35/ CS 15/ SB% 70

Scott Podsednik used to be a good base stealer. In 2004 Podsednik led the NL with 70 steals (CS 13). He is however, much older and banged up here in 2011. He should only attempt to steal in late games that are tied, or where the Jays are leading.

Mike McCoy:

Career: SB 7/ CS 1/ CS% 87.5

2010: SB 5/ CS 1/ CS% 83

Obviously McCoy’s Major League stolen base statistics tell us very little. Clearly he has some speed, and it will be interesting to see what he can do this year under John Farrell.

Here are some other less prominent base stealers:

Jose Bautista:

Career: SB 23/ CS 11/ SB% 67.6

2010: SB 9/ CS 2/ SB% 81.8

Aaron Hill:

Career: SB 24/ CS 12/ SB% 66.6

2010: SB 2/ CS 2/ SB% 50

Yunel Escobar:

Career: SB 19/ CS 14/ SB% 57.5

2010: SB 6/ CS 2/ SB% 75

Travis Snider:

Career: SB 7/ CS 4/ SB% 63.3

2010: SB 6/ CS 3/ SB% 66.6

Jayson Nix:

Career: SB 12/ CS 4/ SB% 75

2010: SB 1/ CS 2/ SB% 33.3

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Tags: Aaron Hill Corey Patterson Jayson Nix Jose Bautista Mike McCoy Rajai Davis Scott Podsednik Travis Snider

  • monkeyman

    An interesting take on the SB argument is whether speed putting pressure on pitchers has an adverse affect on their pitching ability. Farrell clearly believes this as a former MLB pitcher. Depending upon the magnitude of the effect, this factor would make statistical analysis of SB’s WAR impact etc. virtually moot. I’d love to see a study of pitchers’ stats in innings when they are run on often as well as the next couple of innings.

  • Fungo Freddy

    Henderson was clearly obsessed with total stolen bases and paid less attention to his percentage. It seems Farrell is pro speed, but I think he’ll be judicious in how he uses it.

    Good analysis.

    • Scott Barber

      Yea the “disruption” aspect of stolen bases is more difficult to quantify. Check out the chapter “running wild” in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin. They crunch the numbers and don’t believe it to be all that significant. The book mentioned in this post (Baseball Between the Numbers) on the other hand, did find some evidence to suggest that the disruption caused by SB’s has a positive effect for the offense. That book was published more recently, and seems intuitively to make more sense.

  • Mat Germain

    Nice article Scott!

    It’ll be ven more interesting to watch he Jays players steal when guys like Eric Thames, Brett Lawrie, and Anthony Gose make it to The Show. When added to Davis, that should give the Jays 4 very credible and high % base stealers.

    2011 will be fun in terms of watching how the philosphy pans out under Farrell, but to me, 2012 is when it will REALLY take off like a rocket. How can you concentrate on pitching to Bautista when Lawrie, Davis, Escobar, and possibly Gose are running around the bases and taking massive leads?

    • Scott Barber

      Absolutely, it is truly a great time to be a Jays fan. 2012 and beyond continues to look very promising. I can’t wait to see how Lawrie, Gose, Thames and others perform in the minors (and for Lawrie and Thames, possibly the majors) this season.

  • Steve

    I like this article. I’ve often said that stolen bases are overrated. Not that there is anything wrong with them. Moving from first base into scoring position opens up a lot of advantages in an inning. But guarding your “outs” is far more precious than moving up one base. There are other ways to use your speed effectively (infield singles, moving from 1st to 3rd, breaking up double plays, picking your moments to take an extra base, etc). Teams that take a conservative approach to base stealing, have a higher SB% because they choose their moments wisely and make more effective use of their speed. Unfortunately stats that can be counted get more recognition than what they deserve. I’d rather have a guy with 60 SB potential that is 19 for 20 in SBs than if the same player went 60 for 80 for the reasons already explained in the article. As for the disruption effect. IMO, that is overstated as well. There is some truth to it, but not as much as weak play-by-play commentators often make it out to be. And besides, if it is a disruption, just having a guy with speed at 1st is enough, regardless of his SB numbers.

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