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July 25, 2003

Prospectus Today

Fish in a Barrel

by Joe Sheehan

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One of the less meaningful ways in which I make myself feel smart is by making fun of the factoids seen on scoreboards at ballgames. "Bob is hitting .273 in his last six games (6-for-22)" when Bob is hitting .317 on the season. "Tim has been called to the majors three times this year (4/18, 5/22 and 6/1)." "Alex was American League Player of the Week 6/14-6/20/96."

Last night, the Blue Jays retired the game. With Brian Daubach at the plate in the 11th inning, here's what the scoreboard at SkyDome read:


LIKES STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM

That ends it. No three-game hitting streak, no draft information, no "last homered here in 1999" blurb is ever going to do for me what "LIKES STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM" did.

--

I was watching the Tigers play last night--hey, there were a lot of day games yesterday--and I couldn't help but notice how bad they are on the bases. It's a bit like I imagine watching a game from 1914 or so might be: everybody runs, everybody bunts, and everybody looks real surprised when an outfielder has to turn around. Just in last night's game, the Tigers had two runners thrown out stealing and another gunned down at the plate, and Ramon Santiago bunted 14 times. Really. I counted.

The Tigers are a ridiculously bad basestealing team: 53-for-98 on the bases, or 54.1%. That figure would be the worst in the past 10 seasons (minimum 100 attempts):


Year    Team        SB   CS   Pct.
1994    Angels      65   54   54.6
2000    Expos       58   48   54.7
2002    Twins       79   62   56.0
1994    Cubs        69   53   56.6
2001    Astros      64   49   56.6
1997    Mets        97   74   56.7
1998    Mets        62   46   57.4
1999    Cubs        60   44   57.7
1999    Expos       70   51   57.9
2001    Mets        66   48   57.9

The received sabermetric wisdom is that the breakeven point on stolen bases is a success rate of 67%; if you're above that, you're adding runs; if you're not, you're just hurting yourself. Now, that's a broad stroke; for one, the run environment of the early 21st century is high enough to change the relative values of the base and the out, meaning that you want to be at least in the low 70s. For another, all situations are not created equal. Sometimes, you try and steal second base with a slower runner with two outs and a singles hitter up, especially in a close game. On the other hand, there's little sense in trying to steal with no one out and a power hitter at the plate, even with the love child of Tim Raines and Carlos Beltran edging off of first.

The general point is that you can't evaluate stolen bases in a vacuum. You have to consider the costs of the times you get caught stealing, and that cost is about twice the benefit of the stolen base. Regardless of how you adjust the numbers, though, there's no way that the Tigers aren't killing themselves on the bases with their 54% success rate. Had they never attempted a steal all year, they'd be a better offensive team for it.

Now, you'll see this a lot with bad teams, especially bad teams that can't hit. The general notion is that if you can't hit you might as well run, in order to "make something happen." The Marlins are doing this with a bit more success this year: they have an MLB-leading 108 stolen bases. Because they've been caught 45 times, however, all their running hasn't amounted to much on the scoreboard; maybe an extra win, total.

I think the trend of running with a bad offensive team is stylistic, rather than an approach that's been thought through. It's a marketing concept applied to a baseball game: "Come watch a lot of motion!" It ties in with what I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the misplaced emphasis on hustle, and its disproportionate appeal to people in and out of the game. If you can't be good, be dirty and sweaty.

Marketing aside, does it make sense for a bad offensive team to run more? It depends on the structure of that team. Now, the Tigers are probably a bad example, as about the only thing they do well on offense is watch Dmitri Young hit. But if you have a team that lacks power but has some decent on-base skills--like the Padres (.332 OBP, 388 SLG)--it might make sense to run more; the value of moving the runner from first base to second base is significant, because you probably can't get him home from first. If he gets thrown out, well, you have a reasonable OBP, and you'll probably get someone else down there soon enough. The Padres aren't running (47 steals) and aren't very successful when they try (27 times caught, a 63.5% success rate).

On the other hand, a bad offensive team that has lousy OBP but some power--the Indians (.319 OBP, .395 SLG) or the Devil Rays (.322, .401)--needs to take as few risks as possible with their baserunners. The offense has to be predicated on having guys on base--any base--when the extra-base hit comes along. The Indians are hurting themselves with 59 steals and 34 times caught (63.4%), erasing valuable baserunners. The Devil Rays are tremendous on the bases, thanks to one of Lou Piniella's quantifiable skills: he identifies who can run and who can't, and he restricts the base-stealing to the guys in the first category:


Player              SB   CS
Carl Crawford       25    5
Rocco Baldelli      18    6
Marlon Anderson     14    1
Damian Rolls         7    2

No other Devil Ray has more than six stolen-base attempts. More important, only one other Devil Ray has more than two times caught stealing, that being Aubrey Huff with three. As a team, the D-Rays have stolen 82 bases at a 75% clip. Only the Royals (75, 74%) approach that performance.

Piniella did this in Seattle as well, concentrating his steal attempts in those players with high success rates, and rarely running with the rest of the roster. Piniella has a little more talent at hand than Alan Trammell does, but he's maximizing that talent through his management of the running game. That's much more effective than just running for the sake of running, which appears to be Trammell's M.O.

The Tigers don't hit for power (.358 SLG, worst in MLB), but they do so better, relative to the league, than they get on base (.293). Tiger baserunners are precious, too precious to be wasted in an attempt to move up 90 feet. They need to pull back on the reins and keep as many runners on base as they can for Dmitri Young's daily double.

One of the biggest mistakes Dave Dombrowski made this year was picking up Alex Sanchez, a fast man who applies his speed as poorly as anyone in the game. He's a lousy center fielder and a mediocre percentage base-stealer: a passable 37-for-51 (73%) last year, but just 26-for-44 (59%) this year, and 18-for-30 (60%) as a Tiger. Sanchez is essentially the same player the Tigers already had in Eugene Kingsale and Andres Torres, both of whom play better defense.

Sanchez, unfortunately, is the "good" basestealer in Detroit. Kingsale was a pitiful 1-for-4 before losing his job; Torres is just 4-for-9 this year; Omar Infante was 5-for-8 before his demotion, and double-play partner Ramon Santiago just 4-for-6.

There is some hope. Trammell was 236-for-345 (68%) on the bases in his career, essentially breakeven. However, much of the bad running was in his first couple of seasons: 17-for-31 in 1979, 12-for-24 in 1980. He was generally a good percentage stealer after that, and was very good in the latter half of his career (87-for-118, 74%, from 1987 through 1996). Moreover, he has two coaches on staff who were good base stealers: Kirk Gibson (284 steals at a 78% clip) and Juan Samuel (396 steals at a 73% clip, but a 75% and above stealer in his prime).

Picking on the Tigers may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but their pathetic performance on the bases is something Alan Trammell has control over. He doesn't have the talent to contend, so what he can do is take a page from Lou Piniella's book and not shoot himself in the foot once a game. Putting up a red light for his players would be a start; leveraging his experience and the knowledge of his coaches to improve his charges' stolen-base percentages is another.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Stolen Base,  Running Game

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