Thursday, May 5, 2011

To Steal or Not

At this time of year teams are beginning to show their true colours. The end of May will really tell the tale. Some teams go for the bomb and others will rely on the fact that good pitching beats good hitting. Let’s leave the bat and the ball out of this for a moment. What about small ball, the type of ball where runs are manufactured by creating chaos for the defensive side? Stolen bases, hit and run and double steals can put runners in scoring position and keep you out of the double play. I know that the home run is all you see on TV replays on the sports news. Now I like the long bomb too. Too bad you can’t see stolen bases on the on radio, Rick. (As you know I watch TV with the radio on. During the summer I’m on the radio and if lucky, on the dock.) The steal can be a game changer and so much fun to watch.

Are the Jays stealing too much or not enough? They lead the league right now with 30-plus steals. It would seem that to steal is good for any team. Have they gone crazy by stealing twice as much as at this time last year? What are the consequences?

Over the years some pretty big names have been great base stealers. Ricky Henderson has, of course, the most with 1406, followed by a distant Lou Brock at 938. Ty Cobb had 897 and Joe Morgan 689. Stealing a base has been around since Ned Cuthbert stole the first one in 1865 for the Philadelphia Keystones. In a very neat play, Jackie Robinson stole home in the first game of the 1955 World Series. Going back 111 years the most steals in a season is 130 in 1982 by Ricky Henderson again and the fewest by Bob Dillinger, 20 in 1949. Henderson led the league several years in a row and so did Louis Aparicio for the St Louis Cardinals.

The real test of the successful bagman is how many times he does not get caught. Of all the attempts, what percentage is good enough to be successful and actually not hurt your team? Baseball uses percentages for everything. So the relationship of stolen bases to times caught stealing is a good statistic. According to statistics guru, Bill James, creator of sabermetrics (SABER), 67-70% is required for one to be a good thief. Here are some stats for Henderson- 80%, Brock- 75%, Aparicio- 78%, Robbie Alomar- 80%. For current players the best of the lot is Carlos Beltran- 88%, Jacob Ellsbury- 84% and Carl Crawford 82% (he has not stolen a base this year). One must not forget A-Rod at 80%. Beltran is tied for the single season record of 96.9%. Incredible!

As I have said, the current Jays, under John Farrell, have stolen a lot. So how is their success rate? For their careers: Rajai Davis- 79%, Aaron Hill- 70%, Nix- 78%, Corey Patterson- 79%, and Bautista- 71%. This year Davis is 6/2, Hill is 6/0, Nix 3/0, and Bautista 4/0. Patterson is at 3/3 or 0% for the year. Aaron Hill, has not run at this pace before in his career. He has a pulled hamstring and is on the 15 day DL because of it. Escobar at 51% should probably not be allowed to steal. He has one successful steal this year out of a career 33.

So should the Jays steal with their record? Absolutely, according to sabermetrics. When the timing is right they have more than a good chance to be successful, advance a runner into scoring position and stay out of the double play. With this young team there have been running mistakes. For example at the Yankees game the Late Innings boys attended. Arencibia ran full into Encarnacion at third. He did not see the hold up call from Butterfield and notice that the base was occupied. This ended a potential rally and the Jay’s lost to the Yankees.

Are the risks of injury worth it? Players get hurt all the time. You do not want that but it happens. Remember Hills concussion? Injuries are a fact of life in sports. So, yes, I think that this style of old time ball combined with the new athleticism of the team and daring managerial style of Farrell is just what the fans ordered. The Jay’s will be more able to confound the opposition at any time with more choices and not rely on just the long bomb.


Will Braund said...

Excellent musings on the To Steal or Not to Steal debate, John. No surprise that 20 led the league in 1949 - that was definitely a station-to-station, wait for the long ball era. I agree that a stolen base, or especially a triple, is a lot more interesting to watch than a home run.
Most fans know that a very hung over Grover Cleveland Alexander struck out Tony Lazzeri in the 1926 World Series but may not know that the Series ended when Babe Ruth, who had a fairly poor stealing record (51%) was thrown out trying to steal second - with Lou Gehrig at the plate.

Rick Blechta said...

John, you make a strong case. The real issue with base stealing is the skill level of the thief. Some players are fast but get caught too often.

Davis is an example of this on the Jays. He's super quick, but doesn't get a terrific lead or a good read on the pitcher. Bautista, on the other hand, knows how to pick his spots. Hill seems to have that same skill and Henderson was the master of this arcane craft.

I agree that base stealing is fun to listen to on the radio. ;)

Larry Toman said...

The thieves among us have certainly injected a welcome addition to the menu. I like your use of the word "daring" with regard to Farrells' managing style. The whole concept of steal happy thieves adds aggression, purpose and the motto "we are going to take more and give you less". Every time you can negate the possible double play, you have just added an advantage.Keeping the defense uneasy and uncertain becomes a great distraction. It's such a good feeling to see the opposing pitcher rattled, because that is likely to result in him throwing a beachball, and we all know where that leads.

As your stats pointed out, I'd err on the side of caution with green-lighting Escobar all the time,and the same with Hill because of past injuries. As the ads so accurately point out, our Jays have heart and hustle, and our enemies are well aware of this new look. It's fun to have so many scared rabbits on our side. Thanks for the read. Cheers.

John Z said...

I enjoyed this article...i really like it when a team which has some players with speed, puts the pressure on the defense by stealing, using the hit-and-run,delayed steal and the squeeze play rather than waiting for the bloop and a blast to win the game...passive baseball is nowhere near as exciting as an agressive make it happen style of play. The key is having the players that can carry it off...I have been a Yankees fan since the late 50s but i loved how Willie Mays or Jackie Robinson could change a game with their agressive play and speed...just a note - i believe Luis Aparicio was never on St Louis - he was one of my favorites (being a smaller guy too)he stole over 50 bases 3 years in a row for the ChiSox '59-61 and then 57 for the Orioles...Little Luie could motor - but as you said part of it is reading the pitcher - which seems to be a lost art.