Stealing Their Thunder Rather Than Bases
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.
2004 STOLEN BASE LEADERS
PLAYER TEAM SB 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.
SB LEADERS WITH CS TOTALS
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.
OUTS STOLEN BASE BREAKEVEN 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.
MOST EFFICIENT BASE STEALERS
PLAYER TEAM SB CS SB-(2*CS) 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?
MOST INEFFICIENT BASE STEALERS
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."