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June 21, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

When It Doesn't Pay To Steal

by Brian Cartwright

In 2008, Ichiro Suzuki, regarded as one of the fastest players in baseball, stood at first base with second base empty a total of 262 times. From 2006 to 2008, Ichiro has been thrown out by the catcher on only 9.2% of his attempts, one of the best rates in history. Despite this, he only attempted 34 steals, a rate of 13.0%. In 1980, a year in which Omar Moreno of the Pirates was thrown out by the catcher on 22.2% of his steal attempts, Moreno ran an amazing 68.4% of his opportunities. At that rate, Ichiro could have stolen 163 bases last year.

A successful stolen base increases the team's chances of scoring, but it is paired with the risk of the cost in lost opportunity of a caught stealing. The successful steal is most valuable when it is more difficult scoring by other means. In 1968, when Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA the average major league wOBA was .289, a successful steal was worth .027 wins, while each caught stealing cost a team .040 wins. With the high offense of recent years, from 1999 to 2002 the value of a steal had dropped to .018 wins, while each caught stealing cost .043 wins. The return is lower, while the cost of being caught is more. In 1968, a runner had to be safe 60% of the time to break even, but now it's risen to 70%.

From 1963 to 1968 baseball used a high pitcher's mound and a larger strike zone, depressing offense to the point that in 1968 the majors as a whole hit only 237/302/340. Although these were rescinded in 1969, large ballparks and expansion also helped to keep offensive levels low through 1976. In such an environment, stolen bases were one of those market inefficencies that some teams used to try to gain a competitive advantage. The major league rate of attempting steals of second was 6.7% in 1971, and then began a steady increase until it peaked at 10.9% in 1976. That year, manager Chuck Tanner's Oakland A's stole 341 bases while being caught 123 times. In 1977 Tanner was traded to Pittsburgh, where the Pirates stole 260 bases in Tanner's first year at the helm, and over 200 in three of his first four seasons. The Cardinals and Astros were two teams that played in cavernous stadiums paved with AstroTurf, and both turned their lineups away from power and to speed.

From 1976 to 1992, the attempt rate held steady between 9.6 and 10.9%. The premier base thieves were given a green light to steal at will, with Moreno setting the record with a 68.4% rate of attempts in 1980. Rickey Henderson attempted second base 51.5% in his record year of 1982, and again at 50.9% in 1983. Vince Coleman topped 40% six of his first seven seasons, and Tim Raines ran 61.5% of the time in his rookie season of 1981.

The brakes were applied starting in 1993, coinciding with an explosion in production in the batter's box that continues to this day. There has been much study of the two year jump in offense in 1993 and 1994, including an article last year by Tom Tango at The Hardball Times, where he advocated a juiced ball as the culprit. Whatever the reason, run scoring was up 13% from 1993 to 2008, compared to 1976 to 1992.

Paradoxically, even as the average rate of caught stealing has continued to drop to where it has only been 22% the past two years, the rate of stolen base attempts has also dropped steadily since 1992. With conditions so favorable for power hitting, teams have moved their rosters away from speed and towards power. The higher batter's production has then decreased the benefit of a successful steal while increasing the cost of a caught stealing. With fewer steals being attempted, teams can risk playing offense oriented catchers with below average arms such as Jorge Posada or Ryan Doumit. Therefore, most steals today are attempted when the runner has a substantial advantage - a superior base stealer matched against pitchers and/or catchers lacking the skill to stop him (Dexter Fowler vs Chris Young, Carl Crawford vs Jason Varitek). Being more selective in attempting steals then further drove down the caught stealing rates.

In the 17 season from 1976 to 1992, there were 52 player seasons of more than 100 opportunities in which the runner attempted to steal second more than 40% of the time, 9 times higher than 50%. In the 16 seasons since, there have been only 5 player seasons of 40% or better, none higher than 50% - Chuck Carr 42.2% in 1993, Alex Sanchez 41.9% in 2003, Corey Patterson 40.7% in 2006, Jose Reyes 40.2% in 2007 and Roger Cedeno 40.1% in 1999. Today's best base stealers, such as Willy Taveras, Hanley Ramirez, Michael Bourn and Jacoby Ellsbury attempt steals of second base in the 30% range, where as 25 years ago they each would have likely stolen at least half again as often. Ichiro and Carlos Beltran, with two of the lowest rates of caught stealing, only attempt in the 15% range.

It was the lack of offense of the early 1970's that drove the push for more stolen bases, but the need for speed was cut back nearly twenty years later when suddenly anyone in the lineup had the ability to hit the ball out of the park. Willy Taveras bragged this past winter that he could steal 100 bases with Cincinnati - of course he will need better than a .270 on base percentage, but he also will likely never be given the green light to attempt 50 or 60% of his opportunities as long as offensive levels stay near their current levels. It just doesn't pay enough.

Rate of attempted steals of second base


Rate of caught stealing by catcher at second base


The play by play information used here was obtained free of charge from and is copyrighted by Retrosheet. Interested parties may contact Retrosheet at "www.retrosheet.org".

Related Content:  Stolen Base,  Steals

37 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links


I think this was Brian's best piece. I don't see any "heavy duty stats," Will. He uses percentages. I think we should allow the contestants to divide. At this rate, you're going to have Brian assigning different types of emoticons to players within 2 weeks instead of using any informative numbers.

Brian, just a suggestion for an extension (and not a negative comment on this article at all): maybe quantify the tradeoff between catcher defense (throwing out runners) and offense that's evolved over time. Very interesting stuff.

Jun 21, 2009 10:48 AM
rating: 6

Overall, I like this article.

One thing I'd love to see (and Will might hate to see) is some tables. In particular, the top N player-seasons, player-career, and team-seasons for stolen base attempt rate. Maybe that's available on Retrosheet somewhere, but I couldn't find it easily. :)

Jun 21, 2009 11:56 AM
rating: 0
John Carter

Content: B+ - learned something interesting
Writing: B - Brian's cleanest job, yet, but there were a couple of points that required me to go back and re-read it to make sure it made sense. And, yes, it was dry, but not enough to lose my interest.

Jun 21, 2009 12:07 PM
rating: 0

I like this article. It clearly points out that the risk / reward isn't as balanced as it once was and why SB attempts should be down.

Any thoughts on if the bigger / stronger players (due to PEDs and increased weight lifting) lead to less speedster types playing prominent roles on teams? Guys that used to be 'fast' got bulkier and slower
(I think of Bonds and Sosa as guys who obviously slowed down as they grew).

One critique - I would've positioned the charts in the article as opposed to at the end. I expected something after the charts and had a "oh, that's it" reaction.

Jun 21, 2009 12:12 PM
rating: 0

Definitely learned something new from this piece ... I found myself thinking about these percentages and facts while watching the Mets/Rays this afternoon and musing about the tendencies and predilections of base stealers in the game like Beltran, Upton and Crawford.

Jun 21, 2009 12:18 PM
rating: 1
Richard Bergstrom

It was easy for me to follow along with this article and I did learn something from it. It was definitely more accessible than some of Brian's previous entries, but that's most likely from using simple-to-use statistics to conduct his analysis. I guess my quibble is, it felt like a "summary of a history of stolen base attempts", maybe from the times the writing felt a bit choppy or dry but it never really lost my interest. Given the choice though, I prefer the storytelling voice he used a few weeks ago. The other quibble I have is about ending an article with charts when those could have been inserted into the body of the article.

I liked it, and it gets a thumbs up, but I wasn't wowed by it.

Jun 21, 2009 13:14 PM
rating: -3

Not sure where the 262 figure came from. in 2008, Ichiro had 213 hits and was walked 56 times (including HBP). That's 269 times reaching base, minus 33 extra base hits puts him on first 236 times, presumably not all of which saw second base empty. Certainly he hit into a number of fielder's choices which would add to the total, but I can't seem to find that data anywhere, short of going through the play-by-play data. Can you point me to your FC data source?

Jun 21, 2009 13:44 PM
rating: 0
Brian Cartwright

I did go through the play by play data in my RetroSheet database (1953-2008), extracting all plays with a runner on 1st only (BASE_OCCUPIED_CD=1) or 1st & 3rd (BASE_OCCUPIED_CD=5), storing the runner, batter and pitcher IDs. These are the opportunities. Also collected are whether there's a successful SB, a CS by the catcher, pickoff or pickoff CS by the pitcher or catcher, pickoff error by the pitcher or catcher, and overthrow errors by catchers.

Unfortunately, the way I have the data extracted I can't tell how they reached base. I can look at the database structure and see how easily I can add that info.

Jun 21, 2009 14:35 PM
rating: 1
Brian Cartwright

Actually, in the Retro db it's START_BASES_CD. There is a field which gives the ID number of the event that allowed the runner to reach base. It's then possible to use the gameID and the EventID to link to the events table. EVENT_CD is a classification of play types, where there are seperate codes for fielder's choice, hit by pitch, walks, singles and more. I'm not sure how much time it will take to process, but it sounds interesting, and it's not like I have a deadline on it now.

Jun 21, 2009 14:45 PM
rating: 1
Brian Cartwright

The times on 1b is for how many different batters. For example, Ichiro leads off the inning with a single. The next three batters all fly out. That's three different batters where he was at 1b with an opportunity to steal. On ome levels this is fine - there are different win expectancies as each out is made, which effects the decision on whether to attempt a steal. On the other hand, if he hypothetically steals with no one out, the second and third opportunities no longer exist. This complicates the programming of probabilities, but I think it can be accomplished.

Jun 21, 2009 16:13 PM
rating: 1

Expansion kept offense low through 1976?! That doesn't make any sense to me.

And there should have been at least a little acknowledgement that if Suzuki had tried to steal 68% of the time he had an opportunity, like Moreno, his caught stealing rate would certainly have shot up. There's no doubt that Suzuki picks his spots wisely.

Jun 21, 2009 14:52 PM
rating: 1
Brian Cartwright

Good point that not choosing your spots as wisely will lead to a higher CS%.

Unfortunately, this week's instructions were a day later than usual (Tues 1 pm) which pretty much gave a two and a half days to research and write, then the first idea had to be abandoned because MySQL decided to run like a tortoise and eight hours later hadn't given an query results. Then thursday night to find out that Dan Turkenhopf at day did a historical stolen base article at The Hardball Times.

Two main things should be considered when deciding to steal or not - how important is the run to winning the game, and what are the chances of being successful? I want to add win expectancy table a to my steals database. As Matt Swartz showed in his article this week, WE gives a weight on each event based on how important it is to winning the game, looking at inning, outs, bases occupied and score. Then look at the ability of each pitcher and catcher to prevent a successful steal. The combination of the two would give the expected win probability added with an attempt in that particular situation.

It would be a safe assumption that most steal attempts would be in the situations with the highest eWE (and this can be tested, looking for the average Att% at different levels across time). If the Mariners decide to run Ichiro at a 50% rate instead of 15%, we could look at the 50% of the times he was on 1st that offered the best eWE, and then sum the expected steals, caught stealing and pickoffs given those runner, pitcher and catcher matchups. Just not enough to do in a day or two, but it is now on my to-do list.

Jun 21, 2009 15:24 PM
rating: -1

I'm more surprised by the comments here than I was informed by the article. It's nice, I suppose, to have the obvious supported, but it isn't instructional. And still, this is one of just I'm giving a thumbs up this week.

How about an assignment that limits the writers to one chart or table?

Jun 21, 2009 15:17 PM
rating: 0

considering how short the article was, I think he should have used to the extra room to explain a few things. I have a terrible feeling that he didn't explain how he came to the conclusion that a "successful steal was worth .027 wins" in 1968 out of fear of certain judges hatin' on his number heavy approach. But I definitely feel that this was something he could have touched on. I hate when analysts say 'doing this adds x many runs, while this subtracts x wins' without saying why or how they came to such a number. Even if it's just a "Based on win expectancy charts with a runner on 2nd [...] we see that a sb was worth .027 wins". Without a basic explanation, .027 has much less meaning than it could.

Jun 22, 2009 06:54 AM
rating: 0

This is the first of Brian's articles that I've genuinely enjoyed all the way through. He gave me information that I did not know, and presented it in a mostly readable fashion. This sure was short, though. The word limit for this week was 2000, and Brian didn't even break 1000, but I found the brevity refreshing.

Jun 22, 2009 10:20 AM
rating: 0
Brian Cartwright

Thanks. Unfortunately, with really only two days I couldn't do enough research for a longer article. I made my point with the numbers I was able to crunch, counted around 1100 words, and decided to stop there - I thought any additional words (without the benefit of more research) would just clutter up the readability of the article. This week the judges are deliberately giving us only 24 hours, but also put in a 900 word floor to avoid us being too brief.

Jun 22, 2009 11:07 AM
rating: 0

Good article and left me wanting more. That can be a positive or negative I suppose depending on your viewpoint.

Jun 22, 2009 11:57 AM
rating: 0

I also enjoyed reading it, but the whole thing felt like an intro. I kept waiting for the meat of the article to start and all of a sudden it was over.

Jun 22, 2009 20:16 PM
rating: 2

Whatever his skills with research and statistical manipulation, I've yet to read an article from Brian that doesn't make my eyes glaze in boredom by the third paragraph. I believe he's the only contestant left that I haven't voted for.

He'd make a killer backend guy, so long as you let someone else actually choose the topic and write the article.

Jun 22, 2009 14:07 PM
rating: 2

I just disagree with Will as to what I want out of a baseball column. This wasn't terse so much as concise. There was a ton of great information here, arranged logically, with a nice tie-in to the modern game.

There was simply nothing wrong with this article. I loved it.

Jun 22, 2009 14:09 PM
rating: 0

I don't read BP to be entertained. I read BP to learn things, and Brian makes me do that.

Jun 22, 2009 14:10 PM
rating: -1

Hmmmm... I read BP because I can both learn things AND be entertained.

Jun 22, 2009 17:45 PM
rating: 1
John Carter

Oh heavens. The written study of baseball is an endeavor that should be taken very seriously. We should never mix entertainment with baseball enlightenment. It should be forbidden!

Jun 22, 2009 19:45 PM
rating: 2

I'm not suggesting that entertainment isn't allowed. I'm saying it isn't necessary when the article is already doing other useful things.

Otherwise, we'll never learn of great new analysis if it happens to be discovered by someone who can't write well.

Jun 22, 2009 21:02 PM
rating: 0
Brian Cartwright

haha...thanks - I guess that's a compliment!

Jun 22, 2009 23:53 PM
rating: 0

I liked the information presented, but I felt it wanting in a couple of ways. When you are jumping back and forth between two time periods, it can get very confusing. In particular, there are various lines identifying various years, while other sentences site periods of years. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it felt like you were trying to take the charts at the bottom of the page and explain each in 500 words.

I haven't looked at the constraints placed on you for this week's effort, but that data could have been explained more clearly by placing a relevant chart/graph or two early in the article, then identifying the elements of the chart that you found most interesting. This approach leans on the visual to help tie together what you are saying.

The other piece I was left wanting is judgment. Has the base stealing pendulum swung too far to the conservative side? Oakland has moved into the middle of the league in stolen base attempts, where they used to trail the league significantly. And that's with a AL worst OBP. Is this shift something the A's are trying to exploit? Jack Cust picked up the second stolen base of his season and his career last night. Kurt "the slower" Suzuki has 3 SBs this year, bringing his career total to 5.

What is your opinion? I'm Seattle's manager. I have Ichiro "the speedy" Suzuki on first in the bottom of the first with no one out. I have a league average pitcher going up against a league average pitcher, with a league average catcher behind the plate. I don't know if the game will be decided by one run or ten. Do I steal? If the break even mark for value is 70% success, shouldn't I steal almost every time in this situation? If I think Ichiro is successful 80% of the time in this situation (hypothetically invented number), don't I have to go if your 1999-2002 numbers approximate the state of the game today (the value of a steal had dropped to .018 wins, while each caught stealing cost .043 wins)? How many wins did Seattle leave on the table last season by not stealing more aggressively with Ichiro? This is what I was seeking at the end of your article. Synthesize the numbers and tell me not just what managers have done, but what they should be doing.

This has to violate some type of word count limit.

Jun 23, 2009 08:41 AM
rating: 2

This piece was very good, but it lacked a "point". Yes, stolen base numbers are down now because there are so many better hitters. If that was the point, it was pretty weak. I was disappointed by the ending. I read the last sentence, viewed the charts, then expected a bit more talking about what I just saw. Thumbs up anyway because I've found your articles to be the most out-of-the box, and your writing is quite good. But as Will said, it felt like a first draft.

Jun 23, 2009 10:42 AM
rating: 1
Mike M

Like Chris, I found myself wondering what the point was. I also share Will's conclusion about the "draftiness" of the writing. Brian's syntax makes it difficult to follow his logic at points and there were a number of points of word choice, tense and number disagreement that jarred my reading enjoyment. Clearly these would go away with an editor's support, but I would hope that the author would do a better job of proof-reading his own work.
There were also several points that were made that seemed to beg for added comment. For example, the notion that stealing was at one point a market inefficiency demands that one contrast the value vs. the cost. Maybe this was implicit, but I didn't see it.
A second potential point where the analysis could have been deepened was the reference to the "cavernous" stadiums in St. Louis and Houston. Doesn't that just beg for a park-adjusted measure of the value of a steal?

Jun 23, 2009 13:25 PM
rating: 0
Brian Cartwright

I commented previously on how I would like to expand this research by looking at inning, outs and score to determine the importance of the steal, and runner, pitcher and catcher to determine the odds of success. The other item is run environment - you don't really know the value of the successful steal or caught stealing in a particular situation until you look at the pitcher and the next couple batters, and what park they are in. In the Astrodome, they knew runs where hard to come by, so the value of a steal was higher and the lost opportunity cost of the caught stealing was lower. There are probably very few times when it's good to run in Coors Field.

Jun 23, 2009 15:14 PM
rating: 1
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

Brian -- is there a way to simulate those next few batters given what we know (steal, pitcher, park) and come up with a range that would perhaps help know the value even more precisely?

I'd be curious to see a chart of park-adjusted steal "break evens."

Jun 25, 2009 07:06 AM
Richard Bergstrom

ALong similar lines, I'm curious about the quality of pitcher... I wonder if there's a point where a pitcher is so bad that a stolen base isn't worth risking. Or perhaps a pitcher is so good that stealing third base is a good option.

Jun 25, 2009 07:13 AM
rating: 0

It would be interesting to know this stuff, but it's of questionable utility - the baserunner or manager can't possibly determine whether there is an 80% chance of success vs. a 65% chance of success.

Jun 26, 2009 07:56 AM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

They can make a pretty good guess. Each pitcher's delivery to the plate and how quick the catcher throws it to second is included in a lot of scouting reports.

Jun 26, 2009 12:27 PM
rating: 0
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