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March 22, 2007

Schrodinger's Bat

Double Steals And More

by Dan Fox

"I've never really bunted early. I'm going to run, hit-and-run, steal, double steal, but I don't like idea of bunting early in game. Late in game with a 3-2 lead, 4-2 lead, you get the first couple of runners on, you're looking to tack on, I like the bunt then."

--Cubs manager Lou Piniella showing his affection for the double steal

As I was perusing my copy of Baseball Prospectus 2007 in the warm Arizona sun while waiting for a Rangers workout to begin, I ran across this little ditty in the manager comment on the Angel's Mike Scioscia: "His MLB-leading 13-for-13 success rate on double steals last year was a nice turn." Indeed. And as comments like this will do, it spawned questions ranging from how frequently other managers employed the double steal, to just what the success rate of double steals is, to whether the frequency and success rate changed over time, and, finally, to exactly how beneficial the double steal is from a Run Expectancy standpoint.

All good questions, the answers for which I could only approximate at the time. Well, a week after returning from the desert I devoted a few blissful hours to all-things-double (or should I say multiple) steals. What follows are the fruits of that labor.

The Managers

Although the observation relating to Scioscia's fondness for the double steal was contained in the manager's comment, we didn't present the attempts and successes for each manager in the manager stat section of the book. So without further ado, here are the 2006 results.

2006 Double Steals Sorted by Attempts


Team    Manager              Succ     Att     Pct
LAA     Mike Scioscia          13      13   1.000
CIN     Jerry Narron           10      12   0.833
NYA     Joe Torre               8       9   0.889
NYN     Willie Randolph         7       7   1.000
WAS     Frank Robinson          4       7   0.571
CHN     Dusty Baker             5       6   0.833
DET     Jim Leyland             4       6   0.667
FLO     Joe Girardi             5       6   0.833
MIL     Ned Yost                5       6   0.833
MIN     Ron Gardenhire          3       6   0.500
ARI     Bob Melvin              4       5   0.800
BAL     Sam Perlozzo            5       5   1.000
SLN     Tony LaRussa            4       5   0.800
CHA     Ozzie Guillen           2       4   0.500
KCA     Buddy Bell              4       4   1.000
LAN     Grady Little            3       4   0.750
TBA     Joe Maddon              2       4   0.500
TOR     John Gibbons            2       4   0.500
COL     Clint Hurdle            3       3   1.000
SEA     Mike Hargrove           3       3   1.000
SFN     Felipe Alou             3       3   1.000
ATL     Bobby Cox               2       2   1.000
PIT     Jim Tracy               1       2   0.500
TEX     Buck Showalter          2       2   1.000
CLE     Eric Wedge              0       1   0.000
HOU     Phil Garner             0       1   0.000
OAK     Ken Macha               1       1   1.000
PHI     Charlie Manuel          1       1   1.000
SDN     Bruce Bochy             0       1   0.000
BOS     Terry Francona          0       0   0.000

In addition to Scioscia, Jerry Narron was successful calling for the double steal (10 times in 12 attempts), while the pair of managers from New York did well with 8-for-9 and 7-for-7 performances. For managers with more than four attempts, only Ron Gardenhire was as low as 50% with his 3-for-6 showing. Historically he's done better than that, and was 19-for-25 from 2002 through 2005.

It should be noted that a successful double-steal attempt is one in which more than one stolen base is recorded and all runners are safe. In the event that any runner is thrown out, the attempt is marked as a failure. Of course, there are attempts, such as the "delayed double steal" when the runner on first draws a throw in order to buy time for the runner from third to score, that are "successful" despite the fact that the runner on first may be put out. Still, we're counting those as failed attempts for the purposes of the first two sections of this article. On a related note, some readers may not be aware but under rule 10.08(d) other runners are not credited with stolen bases when one runner is caught stealing.

It's also the case that here I'm looking at double-steal attempts and not the sum total of stolen bases and caught stealing that make up those attempts. Accounting under that alternate method would result in percentages that are much higher since two or more stolen bases are credited on successes and typically only one caught stealing is debited on a failure. For example, in 2006 the success rate for double-steal attempts from the table above was 79.7% (106 for 133) while overall that constituted 212 stolen bases and 27 caught stealing (88.7%).

The table above brings up a question. Which manager has been the most successful in a single season and over time?

Looking at data since 1970 and excluding 1999, the unquestioned leader in this category is Terry Collins and the 1996 Astros.

That season, Collins' charges were an excellent 20-of-23 in double-steal attempts with Craig Biggio picking up 12 stolen bases in 14 attempts, Jeff Bagwell a perfect 8-for-8, and Derek Bell 7-for-7. It appears Collins was warming up to that 1996 season, having attempted just eight double steals in his first season with the Astros in 1994 (with seven successes) and then nine successes in 16 attempts in 1995. He didn't show near the same aggressiveness when he moved to the American League with the Angels as he accumulated just five attempts (four successes) in his first two seasons as their manager in 1997 and 1998. All of those managers with 15 or more attempts are shown in the following table (all attempts for a season are credited to a manager even if he managed only part of the season).

Year    Team   Manager             Succ     Att     Pct
1980    OAK    Billy Martin          15      28   0.536
1996    HOU    Terry Collins         20      23   0.870
1992    MIL    Phil Garner           16      23   0.696
1992    LAN    Tommy Lasorda         14      22   0.636
1982    OAK    Billy Martin          17      21   0.810
1993    MON    Felipe Alou           14      20   0.700
1995    CIN    Davey Johnson         12      20   0.600
1989    OAK    Tony LaRussa          16      19   0.842
1976    OAK    Chuck Tanner          16      19   0.842
1985    SLN    Whitey Herzog         13      19   0.684
1988    SLN    Whitey Herzog         16      18   0.889
1995    OAK    Tony LaRussa          14      18   0.778
1997    CIN    Ray Knight            13      18   0.722
               Jack McKeon
1989    MIL    Tom Trebelhorn        13      17   0.765
1995    COL    Don Baylor            11      17   0.647
1997    SLN    Tony LaRussa          10      17   0.588
1989    MON    Buck Rodgers           8      17   0.471
1987    SLN    Whitey Herzog         14      16   0.875
1978    PIT    Chuck Tanner          13      16   0.813
1992    OAK    Tony LaRussa          11      16   0.688
2001    SEA    Lou Piniella          11      16   0.688
1997    HOU    Larry Dierker         10      16   0.625
1980    SDN    Jerry Coleman         10      16   0.625
1997    COL    Don Baylor            10      16   0.625
1987    MON    Buck Rodgers          10      16   0.625
1995    HOU    Terry Collins          9      16   0.563
1986    MON    Buck Rodgers           9      16   0.563
1993    CLE    Mike Hargrove          8      16   0.500
1988    CIN    Tommy Helms           14      15   0.933
               Pete Rose
1983    OAK    Steve Boros           13      15   0.867
1970    LAN    Walter Alston         12      15   0.800
1991    OAK    Tony LaRussa          10      15   0.667
1991    MON    Buck Rodgers          10      15   0.667
1991    MON    Tom Runnells           6      15   0.400
               Buck Rodgers

From an aggregate perspective, Tony LaRussa called for the most double steals since 1970 and by a large margin with 219 while Sparky Anderson finished a distant second at 170 as shown in the table below for managers with 50 or more attempts.

Manager                Years   Succ     Att     Pct
Tony LaRussa              28    160     219   0.731
Sparky Anderson           26    125     170   0.735
Joe Torre                 24    111     165   0.673
Lou Piniella              18    111     160   0.694
Billy Martin              17    102     151   0.675
Tommy Lasorda             21     91     151   0.603
Buck Rodgers              14     76     145   0.524
Whitey Herzog             18    112     141   0.794
Mike Hargrove             14     87     124   0.702
Tom Kelly                 15     75     111   0.676
Chuck Tanner              19     72     103   0.699
Jim Leyland               14     67     101   0.663
Dick Williams             18     68      95   0.716
Bobby Cox                 24     61      92   0.663
Frank Robinson            16     46      92   0.500
Don Zimmer                13     52      88   0.591
Phil Garner               13     62      85   0.729
Jack McKeon               14     58      85   0.682
Jeff Torborg              11     44      85   0.518
Bobby Valentine           14     45      82   0.549
Felipe Alou               13     56      80   0.700
Earl Weaver               15     49      79   0.620
Don Baylor                 9     49      77   0.636
Tom Trebelhorn             7     47      75   0.627
Bruce Bochy               11     51      76   0.671
Gene Mauch                16     43      74   0.581
Davey Johnson             13     52      73   0.712
Art Howe                  13     46      68   0.676
Bill Virdon               14     42      68   0.618
Roger Craig               10     29      66   0.439
Rene Lachemann             9     37      60   0.617
Buddy Bell                 8     39      58   0.672
Pat Corrales              10     35      55   0.636
Terry Collins              5     40      52   0.769
Danny Ozark                8     41      50   0.820

From a frequency point of view, Ray Knight takes the top spot for those managers who managed more than two seasons at 11 attempts per season while new Cubs manager Lou Pinella comes in fourth at 8.9 just ahead of Billy Martin. As you might expect, Martin was not very aggressive with his veteran Detroit teams of the early '70s, nor with Texas or the Yankees the first go'round. With Oakland, however, he called for 28 double steals in 1980 and 21 in 1982 where he was successful 17 times. On the other end of the spectrum, no one was more conservative than Ralph Houk who signaled for just 11 double steals in his 13 seasons of post-1970 managing and recorded six seasons (1971 with the Yankees, 1974 and 1978 with the Tigers, and 1981, 1983, 1984 with the Red Sox) in which his teams did not attempt a double steal. The leaders and trailers among managers with more than two seasons of experience are shown below.

Manager                Years   Succ     Att     Pct Att/Year
Ray Knight                 3     26      33   0.788    11.0
Terry Collins              5     40      52   0.769    10.4
Buck Rodgers              14     71     135   0.526     9.7
Larry Dierker              4     24      37   0.649     9.3
Lou Piniella              18    111     160   0.694     8.9
Billy Martin              17    102     151   0.675     8.9
Mike Hargrove             14     87     124   0.702     8.9
Don Baylor                 9     49      77   0.636     8.6
Steve Boros                3     18      24   0.750     8.0
Whitey Herzog             18    112     141   0.794     7.8
Bob Boone                  6     34      47   0.723     7.8
John Wathan                6     27      47   0.574     7.8
Tony LaRussa              28    160     219   0.731     7.8
Jeff Torborg              11     44      85   0.518     7.7
Lloyd McClendon            5     22      38   0.579     7.6
-----------------------------------------------------------
Lum Harris                 3      1       1   1.000     0.3
Ralph Houk                13      7      11   0.636     0.8
Joey Amalfitano            3      2       3   0.667     1.0
Eddie Mathews              3      1       3   0.333     1.0
Ken Macha                  4      5       5   1.000     1.3
Frank Quilici              4      3       5   0.600     1.3
Vern Rapp                  3      1       5   0.200     1.7
Clyde King                 4      3       7   0.429     1.8
Eddie Kasko                4      7       8   0.875     2.0
Gene Michael               4      1       8   0.125     2.0
Yogi Berra                 6     10      12   0.833     2.0
Terry Francona             6     12      13   0.923     2.2
Leo Durocher               5     11      11   1.000     2.2
Bill Rigney                4      5       9   0.556     2.3
Bob Lemon                  9     16      21   0.762     2.3

Calling for double steals is one thing, and being successful another. The following table orders the success percentage for those managers with 40 or more attempts. Interestingly, on the back of his team's 2006 performance, Scioscia now tops the list at 89.6% with recent irritant Pete Rose coming in second at 85.4%. For whatever reason, be it poor baserunners or poor decision making, Roger Craig (both in 1985 and 1989 he was 0-for-4) and Frank Robinson (he was 4-for-19 in 1976 and 1977 with the Indians) are the only two managers who fell under 50%.

Manager                Years   Succ     Att     Pct
Mike Scioscia              7     43      48   0.896
Pete Rose                  6     41      48   0.854
Cito Gaston               10     36      43   0.837
Danny Ozark                8     41      50   0.820
Whitey Herzog             18    112     141   0.794
Terry Collins              5     40      52   0.769
Sparky Anderson           26    125     170   0.735
Jim Fregosi               14     33      45   0.733
Tony LaRussa              28    160     219   0.731
Phil Garner               13     62      85   0.729
Bob Boone                  6     34      47   0.723
Dick Williams             18     68      95   0.716
Davey Johnson             13     52      73   0.712
Mike Hargrove             14     87     124   0.702
Felipe Alou               13     56      80   0.700
Chuck Tanner              19     72     103   0.699
Lou Piniella              18    111     160   0.694
Jack McKeon               14     58      85   0.682
Walter Alston              7     30      44   0.682
Art Howe                  13     46      68   0.676
Tom Kelly                 15     75     111   0.676
Billy Martin              17    102     151   0.675
John McNamara             18     29      43   0.674
Joe Torre                 24    111     165   0.673
Buddy Bell                 8     39      58   0.672
Bruce Bochy               11     51      76   0.671
Rene Lachemann             9     36      54   0.667
Jim Leyland               14     67     101   0.663
Bobby Cox                 24     61      92   0.663
Frank Lucchesi             7     29      45   0.644
Don Baylor                 9     49      77   0.636
Pat Corrales              10     35      55   0.636
Doug Rader                 7     26      41   0.634
Tom Trebelhorn             7     47      75   0.627
Earl Weaver               15     49      79   0.620
Hal McRae                  6     26      42   0.619
Bill Virdon               14     42      68   0.618
Tommy Lasorda             21     91     151   0.603
Dusty Baker               13     27      45   0.600
Dallas Green               8     24      40   0.600
Don Zimmer                13     52      88   0.591
Gene Mauch                16     43      74   0.581
John Wathan                6     27      47   0.574
Bobby Valentine           14     45      82   0.549
Darrell Johnson            8     24      44   0.545
Buck Rodgers              14     76     145   0.524
Jeff Torborg              11     44      85   0.518
Frank Robinson            16     46      92   0.500
Roger Craig               10     29      66   0.439

The Trends
This leads us into a discussion of the frequency of double-steal attempts wondering how they've changed over time. The following graph captures the dual trends of success percentage and attempts per 162 games since 1970.

image 1

Following the blue line and using the Y-axis on the left you can see that double steal attempts per 162 games (both teams) remained in the eight to 12 range from the early 1970s through around 1986.

At that point, the numbers rose substantially, reaching a high of over 17 in 1995 before trending downward once more to where that number has hovered between 7.5 and 8.9 since 2003. One would think that this pattern would follow the general historical increase in stolen-base attempts, but interestingly that is not the case. Stolen-base attempts that were not a part of double steals (represented by the dotted line although not scaled to either Y-axis) rose steadily in the 1970s and peaked in 1986 at the time double-steal attempts were beginning to rise.

It would appear that double steals were lagging the general increase in stolen bases perhaps as a late managerial response to increasing success on the basepaths, or simply a kind of fad that soon began to wane.

The yellow line tracked by the Y-axis on the right indicates that from a success standpoint things haven't changed much in almost 40 years. Percentages did dip slightly in the early to mid 1980s and have been rising slightly since the mid 1990s with lots of variation thrown into the mix.

The Strategy

From a traditional Run Expectancy standpoint, calculating the breakeven percentage for a successful double steal attempt is straightforward. For example, for the period from 1999 through 2002 (the highest offensive environment represented in our data set) the breakeven percentages for a double-steal attempt when attempting to maximize runs with runners on first and second (which make up 79% of double-steal attempts since 1970) assuming the lead runner is put out are:

Outs   BE%
0     .639
1     .558
2     .735

In leaner offensive times like those that persisted during much of the rest of the period since 1970, the breakeven percentages would be lower with less than two outs, since making outs on the bases would not have been as costly. For example, in 1980 the breakeven percentages fall to .600 and .530 with zero and one out, and raises slightly to .778 with two outs.

We can then compare this percentage to the actual results shown below for the entire period.

Outs      Succ    Att     Pct
0          638   1127   0.566
1         1587   2258   0.703
2          769    776   0.991

Per the graph shown above, these percentages increase slightly in the period 1993 through 2006.

What is clear from these two tables is that success rates are higher than they technically need to be.

This is a indication that a double steal is probably perceived by players and managers as a more risky play than it actually is from the Run Expectancy standpoint. The primary reason for this is that the benefits from success are still only potential benefits and so remain partially hidden while the cost of failure is immediately obvious. Essentially, humans are reward-seeking and risk-averse.

What's more interesting, however, is that the table above highlights the disconnect between the actual and perceived value of moving a runner to third base with less than two outs. If it had been the case that managers internalized the much greater run expectancy with a runner on third and one out as opposed to that runner being on second, then we would expect them to take more risks with one out leading to a lower success rate.

As it is, the success rate is lowest with zero outs indicating that managers tend to take more risks with nobody out (there are certainly a percentage of the attempts with no outs that were actually broken hit and run plays, but the play by play data doesn't reliably allow us to exclude those). Even so, about 16% of the unsuccessful attempts in these scenarios actually results in the runner breaking towards second being thrown out rather than the runner advancing to third. When that is factored in, it drives the break even percentages down a few percentages points further.

Of the remaining 21% of double-steal attempts, 19% of those occur with runners on first and third. The success rates using the same definition used for calculating manager's success rates (where at least one runner is credited with a stolen base) are as follows:

Outs      Succ    Att     Pct
0           20     70   0.286
1          146    478   0.305
2          349    457   0.764

Here the accounting of success and failure needs to take a different turn. In a delayed-steal situation, which the majority of these events likely fall into and which has been a hallmark of the game since before 1875, a success is actually dictated by whether or not the runner scores or no outs are recorded by the defense. Under that definition the success percentages for these types of double steals increases by 12%, raising the overall success rate to 63%.

Outs      Succ    Att     Pct
0           31     70   0.443
1          195    478   0.408
2          409    457   0.895

What is perhaps the most interesting point in these two tables is the fact that the success rate is so much higher when there are two outs as opposed to zero or one out. At first glance it is not obvious why this should be the case although I'm sure our enlightened readers will provide some clues.

The Minutiae

Of course not all double steals are double steals.

Since 1970 our data set includes 12 instances of successful triple steals with the last of those occurring on October 1, 1987 as the Braves visited the Astrodome in a game that would see nine total stolen bases. In the top of the fourth inning, the Braves loaded the bases with two outs with Jeff Blauser on first, Ken Oberkfell on second and Gerald Perry on third. The Astros then replaced catcher Ronn Reynolds with Troy Afenir and on the first pitch to David Palmer, all three runners broke and all three were safe extending the Braves lead to 3-0. To add insult to injury Afenir, who would catch just 204 big-league innings, allowed a passed ball on the very next pitch which scored Oberkfell before Palmer mercifully struck out. At least Afenir should be glad that the play was only pulled once against him. On July 25, 1930 the A's executed it twice against the Indians.

And just as there have been successful triple steals, there have been double steals that ended very badly. In our data set we have 11 instances where more than one runner was caught stealing and in once instance it resulted in a triple play. On May 29, 1982 the Yankees were visiting the Twins with the game scoreless in the top of the second inning. After Bobby Murcer and Graig Nettles hit back-to-back singles to start the frame, Roy Smalley struck out with both runners on the move. Sal Butera threw to third base and apparently both runners, not being particularly speedy, stopped. Gary Gaetti at third threw to first base where Kent Hrbek tagged Nettles out. Hrbek then had time to throw to pitcher Terry Felton covering third in time to nab Murcer who had continued on.

The last double caught stealing occurred in 1998 when the Diamondbacks' Yamil Benitez was caught stealing at home and Danny Klassen was gunned down at second, both plays made by Brad Ausmus.

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