April 30, 2013
Explaining Chase Utley's Stolen Base Success
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)
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…
Stolen base percentages have been rising since we’ve kept good data on both parts of the fraction. Taking the decades as a whole to weed out the year-to-year noise, it’s been a clear and steady rising trend through the decades, even as power has waxed and waned in the game.
Go two more down the list from where we left off above, and we find a pair of interesting names as they relate to Utley. No. 15, with an 83.0 percent success rate, is Jimmy Rollins, who also had the pleasure of hitting in front of Howard and had to be careful in picking his spots, but is just much faster and has 406 steals to Utley’s 125. Then at no. 16, with an almost identical percentage, is the earliest player in the top 25—Davey Lopes, who went 557-for-671 from 1972-87.
More relevant to this topic, Lopes was the Phillies first base coach and baserunning guru from 2007 to 2010. In those four seasons, the team ranked first, first, first and first in stolen base percentage.
While every team should want to be careful ahead of the middle-of-the-order hitters, who tend to have the most power, Howard represents a special case. He is no. 8 in major-league history in percentage of his hits that have gone for extra bases, meaning a steal of second base in front of him is less worthwhile even if successful than in front of almost any other hitter.
Part of the reason that one should tend to believe Utley’s report of a real reluctance to go is that his stolen base numbers weren’t all that great in the minors. He was stealing bases in similar quantities per season, but he was caught much more frequently, stealing 48 out of 68 successfully.
When the pitchers and catchers got better at stopping the running game, it wasn’t just that Utley instantly became faster or better at recognition. He just changed his standards for when he wanted to go and has turned that into two perfect seasons—23-for-23 in 2009 and 14-for-14 in 2011.
“The times I steal are the times that I feel like I have a very good chance of being safe,” said Utley, who isn’t really watching pitchers’ moves that much from the dugout. “I'll usually do my homework before the game from video, just to see if I pick up anything or guys that are quick, guys that are slow, guys that I can try to take a base on.”
As for the decision on when to go, he described it as “about 80 percent my call.”
Rollins, who was kibitzing the interview from a nearby locker, mockingly suggested that we talk to somebody who actually steals bases. But that’s just the point. Through Utley’s discretion in not stealing bases, he’s become the most efficient in the recorded history of such things.
Oh, and the one time he was caught this year, he might have been safe.