The Value of the Stolen Base: A Comparison of MLB and NCAA Division I Baseball
Over the years there has been a great deal of debate amongst baseball insiders and fans over the value of the stolen base. Some, such as longtime Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, have argued that the stolen base is rarely worth the risk. Others, however, view the stolen base as a valuable means of applying pressure to the opposing team's defense. The question is: Which side is right?
Most past research on the stolen base seems to side with Weaver. Using data from Major League Baseball, researchers have found that stealing at less than a 75% success rate is detrimental to success. Joe Sheehan explains in Baseball Prospectus Basics: Stolen Bases and How to Use Them that when considering stolen bases, one must consider both the cost and the benefit. Therefore, the break-even point for successful base-stealing is so high because outs are more valuable than bases in nearly every instance. For example, the Run Expectancy Matrix created by Baseball Prospectus reveals that a runner on first base with no one out is worth approximately 0.864 runs. A successful steal of second base would raise that figure to 1.173. However, a failed stolen base attempt drops that number to 0.270. In this example, the loss is nearly two times the gain.
In the same article, Sheehan also suggests that the secondary effects of base-stealing, such as putting pressure on the opposing pitcher and defense, do not exist. In fact, he goes as far as to suggest that a runner at first base is more disruptive to the defense than a runner at second base, simply because the first baseman must hold the runner on and the middle infielders are forced to cheat toward second base to have a chance at a double play.
While these findings have been consistently replicated and are generally accepted by Sabermetricians and others when talking about professional baseball, there has been little or no research conducted examining the stolen base at other levels of play. As a Division I college baseball coach, this leads me to wonder: Is the stolen base a more valuable offensive weapon in college baseball than it is at the professional level?
The numbers seem to indicate that the stolen base is more a part of the college game than it is the professional game, even to the casual fan who has taken a few minutes to compare player and team statistics from both levels. For example, in 2006, the Los Angeles Angels led all of Major League Baseball in stolen bases with .91 stolen bases per game. That same season, the average Division I college baseball team stole 1.2 bases per game, with the national leader averaging slightly more than three stolen bases per game.
A deeper analysis of both college and professional statistics is even more revealing. A series of multiple linear regression models were created using data from both NCAA Division I and Major League Baseball. The models used both stolen bases per game and caught stealing per game to predict runs scored, while controlling for base-stealing opportunities. The results were interesting. The first set of regression models, examining the relationship between stolen bases per game and runs scored, revealed that in college baseball, runs per game increased by .295 with each stolen base per game. However, in Major League Baseball, runs per game actually decreased by .208 with each stolen base per game. While it seems strange that a successful stolen base attempt would result in fewer runs scored, it is likely explained by the fact that teams stealing more bases generally do so to compensate for a lack of offensive firepower (i.e. power hitting). Therefore, it is not the stolen base itself that is costing the team runs but the team's overall style of play. The second set of regression models, analyzing the relationship between caught stealing per game and runs scored, indicated that in college baseball, runs per game decreased by .304 with each unsuccessful stolen base attempt per game. In Major League Baseball, the cost of a failed stolen base attempt was even more severe at .845 runs per game.
So what do these findings actually tell us? In the most simplistic sense, they indicate that the stolen base is indeed a more valuable offensive weapon in college baseball than it is in Major League Baseball for two reasons: 1) The reward for a successful stolen base attempt is greater; 2) The cost of an unsuccessful stolen base attempt is less significant. Therefore, because they have more to gain and less to lose, it makes sense for college teams to utilize the stolen base more liberally. However, the fact that college baseball teams attempt considerably more stolen bases per game than do big league teams seems to suggest that many college coaches are already aware of this more favorable "risk/reward" ratio.
That being said, it is also important to acknowledge and understand the limitations of these findings. The biggest weakness of this study is the inability to examine specific situations. Therefore, while the above findings provide information about the big picture, they offer little or no guidance relative to specific in-game strategy decisions. In other words, there are a multitude of factors (i.e. the ability of the base runner, the opponent, the game situation, etc.) that were not considered in this study but are extremely influential in the outcome of any base-stealing attempt. As a result, coaches must remember that the actual "risk/reward" ratio changes with the situation. Below is a more detailed look at factors that must be considered before attempting a stolen base.
The Base Runner
The speed and base-running ability of the runner are extremely important when deciding whether or not to steal a base. It makes the most sense to run when the base runner is fast and has good instincts.
The ability of the hitter at the plate is extremely important. It makes the most sense to attempt a stolen base when the hitter at the plate is a double play threat and/or when the hitter has little chance of driving a runner in from first base.
The ability of the pitcher and catcher to stop the running game is also important. A pitcher that is slow to the plate is much easier to run on than one who is quick. Similarly, a poor throwing catcher is easier to run on than one who throws well.
The Game Situation
Research has repeatedly shown that in the majority of Major League Baseball games, the winning team scores more runs in one inning than the losing team does in the entire game. This revelation backs up Earl Weaver's advice to play for the big inning, especially early in games. Therefore, one-run strategies, such as the stolen base, make the most sense in situations where one run is of great importance (i.e. late in games or in low-scoring games).
Michael Current is an assistant baseball coach at Illinois State University. He graduated from Blackburn College with a degree in Communication and recently completed his master's degree in Sport Management at Illinois State University. Last summer, Current served as an assistant coach with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the prestegious Cape Cod League, where his team won the league championship.
Dr. Chad D. McEvoy is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management in the School of Kinesiology and Recreation at Illinois State University, where he is the coordinator of the sport management program. Dr. McEvoy has published articles in journals including Sport Management Review, Sport Marketing Quarterly, International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing, and Sport Management and Related Topics.