April 13, 2012
Can Dee Gordon Steal 80 Bases?
In Monday’s piece about bold predictions, reader dodgerken22 called his shot by saying that Dee Gordon would steal 92 bases in 2012. My initial response was that I am not sure an 80-steal season is possible in the major leagues any longer with the increased use of slide steps, improved pickoff moves, more awareness about time to the plate, and managerial tendencies, but I figured it was worth going back and looking at where those kinds of seasons came from in the past.
There have been 23 instances of players stealing 80 or more bases in a single major league season with Rickey Henderson holding the major league record at 130 bases in 1982. The minor league record belongs to Vince Coleman, who swiped 145 bases in 1983 while in the South Atlantic League, just edging out Donnell Nixon, who stole 144 in the California League that same season.
In a piece last season, I mentioned that there are three metrics I find useful when evaluating stolen bases: Bill James’ Speed Score, Stolen Base Attempt Percentage (SBA%), and Stolen Base Opportunity Percentage (SBO%). SBA% represents the percentage of times a runner will attempt to steal second once on first, while SBO% shows how often the runner has the opportunity to execute that stolen base attempt. Our own baserunning report contains stolen base opportunity data as well as stolen base totals, times caught stealing, and number of pick-offs.
Using those four metrics, here is how the previous players who have stolen at least 80 bases in a season have lined up:
Now, let’s compare that to what Dee Gordon did in his biggest stolen base season in the minors (2009), when he stole 72 bases:
The most important part of stealing bases is an ability to get on base in the first place. A high OBP and a spot near the top of the lineup are crucial to this. The lowest on-base percentage of any player in the first table is .302 by Vince Coleman in a season in which he stole 107 bases; the highest was .479 by Ty Cobb in 1915. The average OBP of the group was .365, which is skewed a bit by Cobb’s massive number plus three seasons of Rickey Henderson posting OBPs between .410 and .420. Other people look at Gordon’s slight frame and say that he cannot hit for enough power to get on base consistently, yet Coleman, Wills, and Moreno all had seasons of slugging below .340 and each of them stole 94 or more bases those seasons.
The plate appearances are the biggest factor here; Eric Davis is the only hitter with fewer than 580 plate appearances, stealing 80 bases in a season in which he came to bat just 487 times. In fact, he and LeFlore are the only players guys on the list with fewer than 620 plate appearances. The hitter’s plate discipline did not always matter much, because while Coleman and Wilson were never known as patient hitters and each had walk-to-strikeout rates below 0.50 (right about where Gordon was in 2009 and as a major-league rookie in 2011), they racked up huge plate appearance totals. In fact, Wilson stole 83 bases in a season in which he had a five percent walk rate, and there were eight other instances of 80-plus stolen base seasons where the batter had a single-digit walk rate.
Gordon most certainly has the skills to steal 80 bases in a season, and as long as the Dodgers stick with him in the leadoff spot, it can only help his chances. He is already five-for-six in just seven 2012 games. He has been on first base nine times and has attempted steals in six of those nine chances, showing that Don Mattingly is willing to let the kid run when he has an unoccupied base in front of him. There is no doubt Gordon has the skills to steal 80, and the Dodgers are giving him the opportunity to do it by hitting him leadoff and being aggressive with their play-calling on the bases. The only question is whether Gordon will hit enough to get on base at a .300 clip because he has not proven to be the type of hitter that is willing to take free passes from pitchers thus far in his young career.