November 8, 2012
Why Nobody Gets Caught Stealing
At the end of May, Rob Neyer wrote a piece about baseball’s ever-rising strikeout rate, which reached yet another new high this season. In that piece, he called Ernesto Frieri a canary in a coal mine—the coal mine, in this case, being the major leagues, and the toxic substance being strikeouts. Instead of keeling over in his cage, Frieri had started striking out everyone: when that piece was published, he’d struck out 23 batters in his previous 11 innings, without allowing a hit. For some, Frieri’s feat was just kind of cool. For Neyer, it was the latest reminder of a creeping strikeout menace that has already proved harmful to the health of the game. You can disagree with Neyer’s stance on the trend toward more strikeouts—Sam Miller and I did, on our podcast in September—but you can’t deny that the trend is there. Frieri is the face of it for Neyer; probably some other pitcher is the face of it for you.* It has many possible faces, which was precisely Neyer’s point. Ten years ago, there were 26 relievers who pitched at least 50 innings with at least as many strikeouts; this year, there were 61.
*The face of it for me was Jason Grilli, who struck out 1.5 batters per inning after striking out half a batter per inning six years ago.
But the strikeout rate wasn’t the only rate continuing its slow and inexorable rise this season, and Frieri wasn’t the only canary. There’s also this rising rate to consider:
We have complete caught stealing data for both leagues back through 1951. Sixty years ago, would-be basestealers succeeded about 55 percent of the time. Estimated caught stealing stats for the years when we don’t have official ones suggest that the success rate was even lower three decades before that. These days, basestealing attempts succeed almost three quarters of the time. That’s not as dramatic an increase as the rise in strikeout rate,* which has nearly doubled over the same span, and it hasn’t had equivalent impact on the game. But it’s still a significant shift.
*Like the strikeout rate, the stolen base success rate has sometimes held steady or reversed course for some seasons before resuming its gradual climb. What’s interesting is that neither rate tracks especially well with runs scored. For instance, you’d probably assume that the strikeout rate rose in 1968, the so-called “Year of the Pitcher,” when .35 fewer runs were scored per game than in the previous season. Nope. That year, the strikeout rate fell. You’d probably also assume that the stolen base success rate had dropped that season, since the breakeven point for steal attempts is lower when runs are scarce. Nope. That year, the stolen base success rate rose by over 2.5 percentage points. Teams actually scored more often in 1951 than they did this year, so you’d think they would have been more selective when picking spots to steal. Obviously, there’s something else at work here.
A rising tide lifts all boats, and a rising rate lifts most players' statistics. When the league strikeout rate rises, we see a lot of players and teams set strikeout records. Similarly, when the league stolen base success rate rises, we’d expect to see some unprecedented individual success with steals. And we have! If there’s a canary for stolen base success rate, it might be Quintin Berry, who became the first American Leaguer in at least 62 years to steal more than 20 bases (23, including two postseason steals) without once being caught. (Kevin McReynolds and Chase Utley did it in the NL, in 1988 and 2009, respectively.)
But in my mind, the real canary is a catcher with two career steals and none since 2009: Rod Barajas. Because in 2012, Barajas threw out 6.1 percent of attempted basestealers.
I did a cartoonish double-take when I saw that stat, and if you didn’t, you’re either a Pirates fan or not easily impressed. (But not both. Pirates fans are very easily impressed.) Think about that: 99 runners tried to steal a base with Barajas behind the plate, and all but six of them succeeded.* Not only is that the worst seasonal success rate of any catcher who’s faced at least 50 attempts since 1950, it’s less than half as successful as the second-worst.
*The six included a couple of name-brand basestealers. Here’s the whole not-very-long list, with the pitchers on the mound when they were caught: Michael Bourn (James McDonald), Nate Schierholtz (McDonald), Justin Christian (Juan Cruz), Nyjer Morgan (Brad Lincoln), Ryan Ludwick (A.J. Burnett), Jon Jay (Burnett). If it seems strange that Barajas could’ve thrown out Bourn, who stole 42 bases this year and owns a career success rate over 81 percent, well, it was:
Not only did the throw bounce and arrive on the wrong side of second, but the umpire blew the call. Barajas should look on the bright side: he could’ve finished at 5.1 percent.
That second-worst success rate is where things get even more interesting: it’s also from this season, courtesy of the Cubs’ Steve Clevenger. That’s not all: four of the worst five, and six of the worst 10, were from 2012.
I’ll end the table there, but if I were to extend it, the next seven entries, and nine of the next 10, would be from 2010-12.
Clearly, this isn’t about any one catcher, but let’s briefly get back to Barajas, who entered the year with a slightly above-average career caught stealing rate. He also entered the year 36 years old and coming off his least successful season at stopping the run, but there wasn’t any obvious indicator that his throwing game was about to be historically bad. If he was hurt, he wasn’t letting on: he missed a few games after a play at the plate in late June, but that was it for injuries.
The question is how much of the blame Barajas deserves. Michael McKenry, Barajas’ backup, threw out only 18 percent of attempted basestealers, so this may have been more of a Pirates pitching problem than an issue exclusive to Barajas.* To find out, I timed a bunch of Barajas throws, taking down multiple times for each (both in the interest of accuracy and because clicking a stopwatch makes me feel like more of a man). According to Jason Parks, 1.85 is a plus pop time, 1.95 is average, and 2.05 is below average. I clocked Barajas at an average time of 2.02: solidly on the slow side, but not nearly as slow as his success rate might suggest.
Almost half of the attempts I saw against Barajas went off without a throw—they were stolen off the pitcher. Barajas did drop, bounce, or airmail the occasional ball, but he seemed to be rushing to make up for a slow feed from his batterymate. Roughly a third of the attempts came with A.J. Burnett on the mound, including a six-steal day on September 18th (with Barajas behind the plate for the first five). Burnett and Barajas reportedly worked well together, but they made a terrible team when it came to suppressing steals.
Burnett is notoriously slow; over the course of his career, runners have succeeded in over 77 percent of their attempts to steal against him. Again according to Jason, a pitcher release time between 1.0 and 1.2 is quick to the plate, 1.3-1.4 is average, and anything over 1.5 is slow. I never clocked Burnett below 1.5, even when he slidestepped. Without the slidestep, he was closer to two seconds. As someone said on the Pirates broadcast after Bourn stole two bases off Burnett and Barajas on the last day of the season, "If you have a fast runner and A.J.'s leg kick, you're never going to throw anybody out." Barajas' slow transfer didn’t help his cause, but he deserves only part of the blame for the Pirates’ problems. And the falling success rate for catchers across the league is much bigger than Barajas alone.
*Actually, steals were a problem for Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball. They not only allowed the most steals in the majors, but they also swiped the fewest bags themselves, finishing with the lowest Stolen Base Runs total of any team since the 1998 Devil Rays.
It’s hard to pinpoint one factor responsible for the rise in strikeout rate, and it’s just as hard to identify a primary cause for the increasing success with steals. The obvious explanation is that teams have gotten smarter about stealing and learned when it makes sense to send runners. And maybe they have. But if increased selectivity were the only reason that the rate had risen, we’d expect to see fewer attempts, as teams simply stopped trying to steal in low-percentage spots. That doesn’t seem to be the case. In 2000, when the success rate was over five percentage points lower than it was in 2012, there were 118 fewer attempts—even though that was the highest-scoring season since the 1930s, which means that there were more baserunners and opportunities to steal. Granted, it also means that there was less incentive to steal, but that didn’t seem to stop runners from taking off at inopportune times. That disconnect led Dan Fox to come down against the “smarter teams” hypothesis when he took a look at the topic in 2007 (and in this comment).
We can come up with other plausible explanations. Baseball players have generally gotten better over time, but it’s possible that some of their skills have made greater strides than others. Maybe foot speed has improved more quickly than catcher arm strength or accuracy or pitcher pickoff moves. Or maybe batters have gotten so much better that pitchers can no longer afford to pay as much attention to restricting the running game. Better batters might also have something to do with the fact that pitchers almost certainly throw harder now, a development which would seem to make stealing more difficult—the faster a pitch gets to home plate, the faster the catcher can throw it back the other way. Then again, throwing with greater effort might mean longer deliveries, which would have the opposite effect. And there’s also considerable evidence to suggest that pitchers are throwing fewer fastballs, which would also make the catcher’s job harder.
Maybe teams were trading strong arms for better bats behind the plate? As Jason Wojciechowski pointed out here and here, catchers had a heck of a year, hitting-wise. As a group, they posted a .258 True Average, among the best offensive performances on record at the position. But of the six catchers from 2012 in that table, only Mauer was an asset on offense. The other five all finished in the bottom 15 in True Average among the 42 catchers who made at least 200 plate appearances this season.
One more theory: now that teams can quantify the effect of framing, maybe they’ve gone from caring about catch-and-throw guys to caring only about the “catch” part. That wouldn’t explain why the strikeout rate has been rising for decades, but it might explain the terrible throwing seasons we’ve seen so far this decade. At first, this theory sounds persuasive: Barajas, after all, replaced Ryan Doumit, the patron saint of poor receivers.* Except that Doumit hasn’t exactly been blacklisted behind the plate: in fact, he caught more innings for Minnesota in 2012 than he did as a Pirate the season before. Well, okay, you might say, but that was the Twins, the one team you could almost persuade yourself hasn’t heard about PITCHf/x yet. (“Wait, you mean all this time all of our pitchers were throwing really slowly?”) But Barajas isn’t a great receiver himself. And according to Max Marchi’s ratings, all eight catchers from the PITCHf/x era in the table of 10 above were below-average framers in the seasons they qualified for the list. Marson was one of the worst.
*I don’t say this about many decisions, but starting Doumit at catcher might be a fireable offense. In 60 games at catcher for Pittsburgh in 2011, his framing cost the Pirates 20 runs. In 59 games for Minnesota in 2012, his framing cost the Twins 21 runs. All told, his framing has subtracted 98 runs over the past five seasons, on top of the damage from the other things he does poorly behind the plate, which wipes out his offensive value.
The danger of a runaway strikeout rate isn’t so much that it could upset the balance between batter and pitcher as it is the possibility that it would make baseball boring: people want to see balls put in play, the thinking goes, and if baseball devolves into an endless succession of strikeouts and home runs, no one will watch. The danger of a runaway stolen base success rate is that Major League Baseball will start to look like Little League, where no catcher can actually throw the ball to second base and steals (or leads) are strictly prohibited. We’re not nearly there yet, and maybe we never will be (at least until Billy Hamilton debuts). But a baseball where every backstop threw out runners as often as Barajas would be just as broken as one where every pitcher fanned as many hitters as Frieri.