The Mockingbird

Walk don’t run

with 8 comments

    In what is obviously a direct rebuke to yours truly, immediately after I mocked the pending overreaction to our new “running team“, there was an article on the Jays site titled “basepaths open for business“. So is it true? Are we really going to stop this boring, wussy station-to-station, walk and home run strategy, and start mixing it up on the basepaths? Well, no. If you read everything that the Jays say about stealing bases, it’s couched in conservatisms like “we’ll take what they give us“, or “If we have a good chance to make it“. So why is this team so reluctant to be aggressive when we have some speed with guys like Reed Johnson, Alex Rios and Vernon Wells?

The reason is a type of analysis called “run expectancy”. It works by figuring out how many runs on average a teams score starting from certain situations- say, one out and runners on the corners. Here’s the data:

So if you have a runner at first with nobody out, on average you score .93 runs in the inning. If that runner successfully steals second, your “run expectancy” goes up- now on average you will score 1.15 runs in the inning. So in a sense, that stolen base helped your team by about .22 runs (not a heck of a lot). On the other hand, if the runner gets caught, your team’s run expectancy for the inning goes down to about .30. That means getting caught hurt your team by .63 runs.

Look back at the last few seasons, and the cost of being caught stealing is about three times the value of stealing a base- so a player needs to be successful 75% of the time just to break even on the number of runs he is contributing (and even then, it takes a lot of .22 runs to mean anything). This has some pretty crazy implications- for instance, Juan Pierre lead the NL last year with 58 stolen bases, but that meant squat to his team because he was caught 20 times. For the Jays, it means:

1) Vernon was awesome last year. He stole 17, at at a 81% success rate. It makes sense for him to keep running as much as he can if he can pick his spots like that.
2) Rios was great his first year, but the last two on the basepaths- 14-9 (56%) and 15-6 (71%), have not been so good. He may have wheels, but at this point he’s not helping us with his basestealing.

This analysis doesn’t make sense when you first think about it- what about the value of “manufacturing” runs with small ball? And how come getting to second adds so few runs when you’re in “scoring position”? The answer is we’re looking at how to score the most runs in the long run, not how to increase the likelihood of scoring one once you get someone on base.

If you’re against a tough pitcher or everyone is in a slump, it may make sense to take a risk and steal because then you can score once without needing a hit. If you’re down by one late in the game, you might want to take the risk of stealing to score just that one. But with today’s high-powered, run producing lineups, to score the most runs over a season, you should only steal when you’re very sure you can make it. The average team (and the Jays are anything but an average offensive team) scores too many runs an inning to run their way out of any of them.


Written by halejon

April 8, 2007 at 8:31 pm

Posted in Seriousness

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8 Responses

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  1. I can understand the conservatism stance, but the analysis is too mechanical for my taste.

    The threat of the steal is often as influential to a team’s outcome as the actual stolen base. Unless your name is Gustavo Chacin, pitchers do their best work when their sole focus is the batter.

    Whatever the psychology is, having to worry about too much is bound to cause a slight lapse in judgement.

    Jose Reyes on first base in the bottom of the 9th in a tie game is more nerve-racking (to a pitcher) than, say, Alex Rios (who still has wheels).


    April 9, 2007 at 10:00 pm

  2. I know Jon already has his reply cued so I thought I’d just throw one more tidbit into the mix:

    Jason! Jason! Jason!


    April 10, 2007 at 4:45 pm

  3. Haha! I was waiting for the ol’ distract-the-pitcher riposte to whip out my battersbox sabremetric thumping of preconceptions: and

    Final results? About 1.3 runs a year. More balls went through the infield, but no real offensive boost, even with a top 10 stolen base threat dancing off first. Interestingly enough, walks were actually down. As Dan pointed out last night, some hitters (*cough* Rios *cough*) hit noticably worse with runners on base.

    Of course, bottom of the ninth and down by one is an exception- then all variations of smallball are valid because you’re just trying to score 1. And I’d rather have Reyes out there because he might score from first on a single. But the whole “stretch the defence/put pressure on the pitcher?” Maybe it could be the final straw to break A.J. Burnett’s brain in an already tight situation, but over a full season it’s a bit of a myth.


    April 10, 2007 at 5:10 pm

  4. Dan- I love the results, we could have gone 1-2, but that is some seriously sketchy analysis.

    Speed scores = “stolen base percentage, stolen base attempts, triples, runs scored per time on base, and double plays grounded into.”

    So Bengie gets “speed cred” for the sketchiest triple of all time (and his first in a decade), and one game where Gibbons sent him against his brother twice- the first because nobody was even covering second, and the second because nobody was expecting it (he got nailed).

    And I would think that runs scored per time on base and DP’s are heavily influenced by the offence you’re a part of.


    April 10, 2007 at 5:41 pm

  5. Well you don’t pay me enough for anaylsis! I only produce RESULTS!


    April 10, 2007 at 6:02 pm

  6. Well, I looked up some stats from last season. There is a positive correlation between Runs and Wins, and a lesser positive correlation between Stolen Bases and Wins. Did you know the Angels, Mets, and Yankees led the league in stolen bases last year?
    (of course, Tampa was fourth, but I digress).

    I will pile through some numbers. Maybe you’ll change my mind.

    One caveat: on average, teams attempt far less than 1 stolen base a game. I think the analysis should be more situational, which you’ve pointed to above.


    April 10, 2007 at 7:33 pm

  7. Preloaded: And the Tigers and the Cards were 24th and 25th!

    Though I think this analysis is begging the question (ermmm….probably the wrong fallacy). The Yanks steal more bases than crappy teams because they’re all superstar athletes- but their offence would be just as sick if they were in wheelchairs. It’s like looking back at our 92-93 teams and saying our offence was great because Robbie and Devo were at the top stealing 50 bases. Ummm, yeah…but we also finished 1-2-3 for the batting title…

    On the other hand, nobody’s arguing the benefits of having a fast team- stretching doubles, beating out infield hits, etc, are all great. Speed still kills- it’s just how you use it that the statheads are harping on.


    April 10, 2007 at 8:20 pm

  8. […] However, it is fundamentally against human nature to be able to accept that these sorts of things just happen, and you have to wait them out (unless you are a professional poker player in which case you live and breathe this concept). And so, theories abound as to what is wrong with the Jays. One of the most popular is that we don’t steal enough, even though all of baseball discovered long ago that the effect of the SB was hugely overrated and it has dropped off the map for good reason. […]

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