Baseball BeatMarch 14, 2005
Stealing Their Thunder Rather Than Bases
By Rich Lederer

The number of stolen bases has been flat to trending downward for the past 30 years. Why? Well, in a nutshell, stolen bases are simply not as valuable in today's high-scoring environment as they were in the Dead Ball era or during the pitching-dominated 1960s and early 1970s or, for that matter, during a more neutral environment like the 1980s.

Traditionalists may long for the next Ty Cobb, Maury Wills, Lou Brock, or Rickey Henderson, but the emphasis has moved away from base stealing to such a degree it is unlikely that baseball will produce another 100-stolen base season anytime soon. In fact, Vince Coleman may turn out to be the last player who built most of his value around his speed and baserunning ability.

Yes, Marquis Grissom stole nearly 80 bases twice during the early-'90s, but he has transformed his game to the extent that the soon-to-be 38-year-old outfielder has hit at least 10 home runs for 13 consecutive seasons (including 20+ in three of the past four). Kenny Lofton has combined a nearly .300 lifetime batting average with sufficient walk totals to elevate his on-base percentage .031 above the norm -- making him much more valuable than just someone known for stealing bases.

One might be able to make an argument on behalf of Otis Nixon, Brian Hunter, or even Tony Womack, but they each had just one season stealing 70 or more bases. I'm telling you, they just don't make thieves the way they used to -- or maybe they do but, instead of playing for the Dodgers or the Cardinals, these bandits chose to sign up with Enron and Worldcom and the like.

Only one player has stolen 70 bases during the first five years of the current century. His name? Scott Podsednik. The year? 2004. Let's take a look at the top 20 stolen base leaders for last season.


Scott Podsednik	   Mil	     70
Carl Crawford	   TB	     59
Juan Pierre	   Fla	     45
Carlos Beltran	   KC/Hou	     42
Bobby Abreu	   Phi	     40
Dave Roberts	   Bos/LA	     38
Ryan Freel	   Cin	     37
Ichiro Suzuki	   Sea	     36
Chone Figgins	   Ana	     34
Endy Chavez	   Mon	     32
Corey Patterson	   ChC	     32
Jimmy Rollins	   Phi	     30
Rafael Furcal	   Atl	     29
Brian Roberts	   Bal	     29
Alex Rodriguez	   NYY	     28
Tony Womack	   StL	     26
Cesar Izturis	   LA	     25
Derek Jeter	   NYY	     23
Matt Lawton	   Cle	     23
Mike Cameron	   NYM	     22

Only two players even stole 50 bases and only five nabbed 40 or more. How valuable were these stolen bases? Here are the stolen base leaders in the context of caught stealing.


PLAYER		   TEAM	    SB	   CS
Scott Podsednik	   Mil	    70	   13
Carl Crawford	   TB	    59	   15
Juan Pierre	   Fla	    45	   24
Carlos Beltran	   KC/Hou	    42	    3
Bobby Abreu	   Phi	    40	    5
Dave Roberts	   Bos/LA	    38	    3
Ryan Freel	   Cin	    37	   10
Ichiro Suzuki	   Sea	    36	   11
Chone Figgins	   Ana	    34	   13
Endy Chavez	   Mon	    32	    7
Corey Patterson	   ChC	    32	    9
Jimmy Rollins	   Phi	    30	    9
Rafael Furcal	   Atl	    29	    6
Brian Roberts	   Bal	    29	   12
Alex Rodriguez	   NYY	    28	    4
Tony Womack	   StL	    26	    5
Cesar Izturis	   LA	    25	    9
Derek Jeter	   NYY	    23	    4
Matt Lawton	   Cle	    23	    9
Mike Cameron	   NYM	    22	    6

Juan Pierre stands out in the above table for the number of times caught attempting to steal a base. Pierre was thrown out so often, he would be well advised to just stay put. I know that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but there is no disputing the facts here.

James Click of Baseball Prospectus has demonstrated that the breakeven point for stealing second base is approximately 73%, and it ranges from 70% to 93% (depending upon the number of outs) for stealing third base.

0       Second       73.2%
1       Second       73.1%
2       Second       73.2%
0       Third        74.8%
1       Third        69.5%
2       Third        92.7%

In other words, if a player isn't successful about three-quarters of the time, then he is doing more harm than good by attempting to steal bases. I realize there are some other factors at play here, such as the score, who's pitching, and who's at bat. But, generally speaking, a baserunner needs to be called safe nearly three times as often as out when taking that extra 90 feet.

To determine the most efficient base stealers, I devised a simple formula in which I took stolen bases minus two times caught stealing. The reason behind this logic is twofold:

1. A baserunner who is caught stealing not only produces an out, but he also removes himself from the basepaths. It truly is a double whammy.

2. The breakeven point is 67% or slightly below the needed success rate to justify the event in the first place. I could have used three times rather than two to come up with a 75% breakeven point. I decided to err on the side of conservatism, plus I think it is slightly easier to compute the net number in your head using two times rather than three. I'm a big fan of KISS -- and I don't mean Gene Simmons. Keep it simple, stupid.


Scott Podsednik	 Mil	  70	 13	 44
Carlos Beltran	 KC/Hou	  42	  3	 36
Dave Roberts	 Bos/LA	  38	  3	 32
Bobby Abreu	 Phi	  40	  5	 30
Carl Crawford	 TB	  59	 15	 29
Alex Rodriguez	 NYY	  28	  4	 20
Endy Chavez	 Mon	  32	  7	 18
Ryan Freel	 Cin	  37	 10	 17
Rafael Furcal	 Atl	  29	  6	 17
Lew Ford	          Min	  20	  2	 16
Tony Womack	 StL	  26	  5	 16
Derek Jeter	 NYY	  23	  4	 15
Eric Byrnes	 Oak	  17	  1	 15
Jose Reyes	 NYM	  19	  2	 15
Ichiro Suzuki	 Sea	  36	 11	 14
Corey Patterson	 ChC	  32	  9	 14
Darin Erstad	 Ana	  16	  1	 14
Luis Castillo      Fla	  21	  4	 13
Luis Rivas	 Min	  15	  1	 13
Jimmy Rollins	 Phi	  30	  9	 12
Jeff Davanon	 Ana	  18	  3	 12

Podsednik is not only the most prolific base stealer, but he also happens to be the most efficient. Carlos Beltran would be number one if I chose to subtract three times the number of CS rather than two times. Lew Ford, Eric Byrnes, Jose Reyes, Darin Erstad, Luis Castillo, Luis Rivas, and Jeff Davanon all show up for their efficiency even though none of them finished in the top 20 in stolen bases.

If the players in the table above are the most efficient base stealers, who are the least efficient?


PLAYER		   TEAM	  SB	 CS    SB-(2*CS)
David DeJesus	   KC	   8	 11	 -14
Juan Uribe	   CWS	   9	 11	 -13
Casey Blake	   Cle	   5	  8	 -11
Bernie Williams	   NYY	   1	  5	  -9
Luis A Gonzalez	   Col	   1	  5	  -9
Jason Bay	            Pit	   4	  6	  -8
Gary Sheffield	   NYY	   5	  6	  -7
Milton Bradley	   LA	  15	 11	  -7
Jeromy Burnitz	   Col	   5	  6	  -7
Jacque Jones	   Min	  13	 10	  -7
Michael Barrett	   ChC	   1	  4	  -7
Quinton McCracken    Sea/Ari  3	  5	  -7
Alex Sanchez	   Det	  19	 13	  -7
Manny Ramirez	   Bos	   2	  4	  -6
Andruw Jones	   Atl	   6	  6	  -6
Dustan Mohr	   SF	   0	  3	  -6
Todd Walker	   ChC	   0	  3	  -6
Paul LoDuca	   LA/Fla   4	  5	  -6
Coco Crisp	   Cle	  20	 13	  -6
Bobby Hill	   Pit	   0	  3	  -6
Henry Blanco	   Min	   0	  3	  -6
Ross Gload	   CWS	   0	  3	  -6
Raul Mondesi	   Ana/Pit  0	  3	  -6

Every player above is literally costing his team outs and potentially runs and even wins. Milton Bradley, Jacque Jones, Alex Sanchez, and Coco Crisp might win their fantasy baseball owners a few extra points, but they are a net negative for their real owners -- at least as far as stealing bases goes.

I suggest these players lose their CS (and SB) as well as their fancy names. Look, if you can't be in or around Mister Roberts' neighborhood (as in Padre outfielder Dave), then you may as well forget about trying to stealing bases altogether.

Interestingly, speaking of fancy names, Juan Pierre was the most inefficient base stealer in the majors last year using the more aggressive three times CS in the inputs. Rather than being the best base stealer in baseball as chosen by scouts in Sean McAdam's Hot Stove Heaters article for ESPN in January, Pierre is arguably the worst.

I got a big kick out of the following comment from a so-called "talent evaluator":

"He steals when it means something. He's not padding his total. Everyone knows he's going and he still makes it most of the time. That, to me, is the mark of a really great basestealer."

Does that also mean Pierre is thrown out when it doesn't mean anything? Well, for fun, I decided to check to see what Florida's record was in games Pierre stole a base and in games he was caught stealing. It turns out the Marlins were 22-15 in games in which Pierre recorded a SB and 11-12 when he had a CS. This finding may not be statistically significant although it could shed some light on the value of stolen bases and caught stealings in the context of a team's wins and losses.

The bottom line is that "making it most of the time" is not good enough. And it's certainly not "the mark of a really great base stealer."


I'm a little confused about if/when caught stealing stats include pickoffs, but let me tell you that Bradley got picked off a number of times last season. Don't want to see him on base against Andy Pettitte, ever.

If the baserunner is out at second, it counts as caught stealing; if he's out at first, it's a pickoff. Anything else (as in tagged out on the basepaths) I'm not sure; liely scorer's discretion. Or perhaps it matters in which direction he's running?

I like the first chart - the utility of the second one seems to me to be somewhat smaller without being able to determine how many of those were hit and runs gone awry. I would think that the Henry Blanco's of the world tend to be taking off on the manager's intructions, rather than their own idea.

Some managers hold the philosphy that an aggressive base running team puts pressure on the defense and particularly the pitcher. Lou Pinella being the classic example.

Though I have seen similar stolen base essays before I am not sure that anyone has ever quantified what base running pressure does for an offense. The defense is playing closer to the bag to get the tag opening up holes in the infield. The pitcher's concentration is split between the plate and the runner. One other aspect that should be examined is the offensively deficient lineup. Ricciardi's preference is a walk a bloop and a blast. Now the light hitting BlueJays have a different philoshpy. Heck Vernon Wells goal this year is 30/30

Nearly all the Hot Stove Heater articles were pointless - and wrong in the basestealing AND bunting departments on Pierre. With the exception of those that were written by Alan Schwartz, who actually came up with criteria for his "little things" and ran statistical analyses to determine the leader in each category.

I trust his numbers far more than the simple interviewing of a few scouts and coaches found in the other articles.

CS do not officially inlcude pickoffs, which is a minor travesty of course. The numbers above, with all due respect to Rich, would mean a lot more with the PO numbers are included. Otherwise, it's like giving someone's BA without inlcuding bunt singles (or bloop singles, or some other infrequent but important event).

Actually, it's a lot like not including HBP's in a batter's or pitcher's line (a major travesty) or WP's for a pitcher (another minor travesty).

There are players who take such an aggressive lead that while they may have good SB/CS numbers, are prone to being picked off a couple to 3 time per season, or it is simply part of the cost of doing business (through litle fault of their own other than the fact that they are attempting a lot of steals).

And since the negative value of an out on base is so high (2-3 times that of the SB), it is that much more important to include PO's.

Again, with all due respect to Rich, I suggest that someone redo the above charts including PO's. I imagine that many of the final tallies will change significantly.

Last year, there were 153 PO's where the runner was actually out (there are some other official PO's where the runner ends up being safe on an error). Of course there are PO errors to offset some of the pickoffs, which are also not counted in the SB and CS totals. BTW, SB and CS totals can be a little misleading anyway. Some CS do not result in outs either (not that many), and of course there are SB errors (about 1 in 30 I think) that elevate the "normal" value of the SB.

Anyway, among the least efficient thieves, Bradley and Sanchez had 1 CS each (partial list).

Among the most efficient, Podsednick had 2 CS, Crawford 3, Furcal, Rollins, and Patterson 2 (also partial list).


Though I have seen similar stolen base essays before I am not sure that anyone has ever quantified what base running pressure does for an offense.

Tango and I have a nice treatise about the effect of "basestealers" on the defense, the pitcher, and the batter, in our chapter on baserunning. You might be surprised at the data and the results. I am not saying that conventional wisdom is wrong or right, but as is often the case, conventional wisdom has no idea what is right or wrong (in this case). It is a complicated and complex dynamic (the effect of a basestealing threat or not on the defense, pitcher, and batter).

And of course, in general, the SB/CS break even point is lower in a lower run environment (e.g., a weak offense), and it is slightly more favored in a lineup of singles hitters (like the sac bunt), however, the idea that if a team does not have a lot of power, that the running game (and other small ball tactics) must be used more frequently is at best overstated and at worst, quite silly...

Having watched lot of Yankee games, my impression is that most of Bernie Williams and Gary Sheffields "caught stealing" were actually cases where they were running on a 3 and 2 count. I suppose that applies to others on the list as well, to some degree. Thrown out on a 3-2 count should be compared with DP's avoided when the batter hit a grounder as well as the extra base sometimes taken by the runner when the batter got a hit. I don't know whether the statistics allow one to distinguish between thrown out on real steal attempts vs. thrown out when running on a 3-2 count.

Take a look at the list of base thieves and you see another part of the problem: virtually all the players who can run these days either (1) don't draw walks or (2) hit for power and bat in the middle of the order. If you don't have fast guys who can get on first base a lot, you won't have a lot of steals (Kenny Lofton or maybe Shannon Stewart was the last primo base thief who was a patient hitter, although Castillo and Pierre fit the mold when they're batting .330)

I agree about the caught stealing vs busted hit and run. Those are manager plays, and really shouldn't be counted for or against the player.

Here is a list of active players with seasons of >= 80 BB and >= 40 SB. Can you say slim pickings?

WALKS                         YEAR     BB       SB     
1    Barry Bonds              1996      151       40   
2    Bobby Abreu              2004      127       40   
3    Barry Bonds              1991      107       43   
4    Barry Bonds              1990       93       52   
5    Carlos Beltran           2004       92       42   
6    Jose Offerman            1998       89       45   
T7   Kenny Lofton             1998       87       54   
T7   Roberto Alomar           1992       87       49   
T9   Vladimir Guerrero        2002       84       40   
T9   Craig Biggio             1997       84       47   
11   Kenny Lofton             1993       81       70   
12   Roberto Alomar           1993       80       55

Like Crank says, you've got power hitters such as Bonds, Abreu, Beltran, and Guerrero. Among leadoff hitters, Lofton is on the list twice, as is Roberto Alomar. Biggio made it as well. Most surprised to see Offerman on the list. I would not have had him pegged for qualifying on either of those two stats.

It's probably too much work, but I think something like 3-year splits might be valuable here. I for one would be interested to see how variable it is from year to year how often people were caught stealing and such. Is Reyes especially appears he could be among the best in the category or not, if he played the full season, so it would be nice to look at a larger sample size. Also, I find myself wondering how Ichiro has done in previous years as it's hard for me to imagine him being thrown out that often given his speed, body control, etc.