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April 30, 2013

Skewed Left

Explaining Chase Utley's Stolen Base Success

by Zachary Levine


To understand why Chase Utley, a man who is not very fast or really much of a base-stealer at all, stands alone as the most efficient base-stealer in modern baseball history, you have to look a little bit farther down.

Not much farther down, usually just a spot or occasionally two in the Phillies order. Stop when you get to Ryan Howard. The big first baseman, not any left-hander’s pickoff move or any right arm behind the plate, has been the biggest deterrent to Utley’s steals.

It’s why for every time Utley has been caught stealing, he’s been safe better than eight times, making him the only player since 1950 who has at least 100 steals and can say that. Over his 1218-game career, he’s 121-for-135 stealing second, 3-for-3 stealing third, and 1-for-2 stealing home (he was caught on a double steal in 2008, when Howard was behind in the count to a lefty). It gives him a modest average of 17 steals per 162 games, but only two times thrown out per 162.

“I don't steal that many bases, but when I steal, I have a good feeling that I'm going to be safe,” said Utley, who is also coping with knee problems that threaten to further slow him. “I don't want to get thrown out with a home run threat and then the guys behind [Howard] who can drive in runs.”

And with Howard a regular part of the Phillies lineup with the exception of early 2012, when both players happened to be simultaneously injured, Utley stays put despite his outstanding aptitude for stealing bases. He outranks by roughly three percentage points the next three players on the success rate leaderboard, including Carlos Beltran, who has produced much more value with his base-stealing thanks to sheer quantity.

Top base stealers by percentage since 1950 (min 100 SB)

Player

SB

CS

SB%

Chase Utley

125

15

89.3%

Jayson Werth

106

16

86.9%

Carlos Beltran

306

48

86.4%

Nate McLouth

107

17

86.3%

Kazuo Matsui

102

18

85.0%

It’s no surprise that the top names come from the modern era. Go several more names down the list and it gets a little more temporally diverse—Eric Byrnes, Pokey Reese, Tim Raines, Eric Davis, Ian Kinsler, Henry Cotto, Willie Wilson, Barry Larkin, Tony Womack

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<< Previous Article
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