Walk don’t run
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.