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February 27, 2004

Baseball Prospectus Basics

Stolen Bases and How to Use Them

by Joe Sheehan

Think of stealing bases as a bit like one of those commercials for breakfast cereal. You know, the ones where they say it takes 14 bowls of Cereal X to equal what you get from one bowl of Cereal Y. In this case, it takes three stolen bases to equal one walk of shame back to the dugout. If you're stealing at less than a 75% success rate, you're better off never going at all.

Consider the run-expectation table from 2003:


     Bases               Outs
                   0       1      2
------------------------------------
      empty   0.5219  0.2783  0.1083
        1st   0.9116  0.5348  0.2349
        2nd   1.1811  0.7125  0.3407
    1st 2nd   1.5384  0.9092  0.4430
        3rd   1.3734  1.0303  0.3848
    1st 3rd   1.8807  1.2043  0.5223
    2nd 3rd   2.0356  1.4105  0.5515
1st 2nd 3rd   2.4366  1.5250  0.7932

A runner on first with no one out is worth .9116 runs. A successful steal of second base with no one out would bump that to 1.1811 runs, a gain of .2695 expected runs. If that runner is caught, however, the expectation--now with one out and no one on base--drops to .2783, a loss of .6333 expected runs. That loss is about 2.3 times the gain.

Not all steals come with a runner on first and no one out, of course, and there's a lot of math that goes into the 75% conclusion. Michael Wolverton covers the concept in this excellent piece. The main point is that in considering stealing bases, you have to consider both the benefit and the cost. In all but the most specific situations, outs are more valuable than bases, which is why the break-even point for successful base-stealing is so high.

Much of the frustration "statheads" have with base-stealing isn't that it's happening, but with how teams misuse the tactic. You want to steal bases when:

  • The value of one run is of great importance. In general, one-run strategies--steals, bunts, hit-and-run--are overused early in games. Especially in today's game, teams aren't willing enough to give themselves a chance at a big inning, and cut off a rally with a caught stealing where no attempt would have been the best choice.

  • The batter at the plate is a double-play threat. Stealing makes more sense with a right-handed batter up than a left-handed one, and with a groundball hitter up rather than a strikeout or flyball hitter.

  • The batter at the plate is much more likely to score the runner from second than he is from first. Teams will often use their best base stealers at the top of the lineup, even players with low on-base percentages, in front of their most powerful batters. In fact, they should be using those players lower in the lineup, in front of their least powerful hitters. Risking an out to advance from first base to second base is much more important when the guy at the plate can't get the runner home from first base.

The vaunted secondary effects of stealing bases--distracting the pitcher, putting pressure on the defense--do not appear to exist. In fact, most secondary effects argue in favor of keeping the runner of first base. A runner on first is more disruptive to a defense, with the first baseman holding and the second baseman cheating towards second for a double play, than a runner on second. Additionally, studies show that stolen-base attempts negatively impact the performance of the batter at the plate, presumably due to hitters getting themselves into negative counts by taking pitches or swinging at bad balls to protect the runner.

While you can use stealing bases to assist in run scoring, you can't run your way into a good offense. The core elements of offense are getting on base and advancing runners on hits. Teams--more often managers--that announce plans to create more runs by stealing bases are usually saying, "we can't hit, and we hope that if we move around a lot, no one will notice." It won't work. Here are the top basestealing teams since the 1993 expansion:


Year Team       Steals   Runs    Lg. Rank
1993 Expos         228    732       7
1996 Rockies       201    961       1
1996 Royals        195    746      14
1997 Reds          190    651      14
1995 Reds          190    747       2
1998 Blue Jays     184    816       8
1996 Astros        180    753       8
2002 Marlins       177    699      12
1995 Astros        176    747       3
1999 Padres        174    710      15
2001 Mariners      174    927       1
1996 Reds          171    778       2
1997 Astros        171    777       5
1993 Blue Jays     170    847       2
1993 Angels        169    684      13
2000 Marlins       168    731      14
1999 Dodgers       167    793      11
1999 Astros        166    823       8
1999 Reds          164    865       4
1997 Cardinals     164    689      11

Stealing a lot of bases doesn't have anything to do with having a good offense. Here's the flip side:


Year Team         Runs  Steals  Lg. Rank
1999 Indians      1009    147      1
1996 Mariners      993     90      9
2000 White Sox     978    119      4
2000 Rockies       968    131      3
1998 Yankees       965    153      2
1996 Rockies       961    201      1
2003 Red Sox       961     88      9
1996 Indians       952    160      2
2000 Indians       950    113      5
1996 Orioles       949     76     12
2000 A's           947     40     14
1999 Rangers       945    111      6
1998 Rangers       940     82     13
2000 Astros        938    114      5
1996 Red Sox       928     91      8
1996 Rangers       928     83     11
2001 Mariners      927    174      1
2000 Giants        925     79     13
1997 Mariners      925     89     10
1997 Rockies       923    137      6
2001 Rockies       923    132      2

There looks to be a little more of a relationship here, which can be attributed to good offenses having more runners on base, and therefore more opportunities to steal. Certainly, though, a number of these teams eschewed the stolen base and yet still ranked among the best offenses of the period.

One last note that deserves mention: For all the attention the running teams of Whitey Herzog got--teams that were successful more because of their high OBPs than their stealing--the unheralded master of the running game is Lou Piniella. In his career as a manager, Piniella's teams have almost always been among the league leaders in stolen-base percentage:


Year   Team    SB  CS    Pct.   Rank   Lg. Pct.
2003    TBY   142  42   77.1%     3     70.0%
2002    SEA   137  58   70.3%     5     68.1%
2001    SEA   174  42   80.6%     1     71.0%
2000    SEA   122  56   68.5%     7     68.8%
1999    SEA   130  45   74.3%     3     68.0%
1998    SEA   115  39   74.7%     1     69.0%
1997    SEA    89  40   69.0%     5     67.3%
1996    SEA    90  39   69.8%     6     69.6%
1995    SEA   110  41   72.8%     3     69.4%
1994    SEA    48  21   69.6%     8     69.0%
1993    SEA    91  68   57.2%    12     64.0%
1992    CIN   125  65   65.8%     8     67.8%
1991    CIN   124  56   68.9%     3     67.1%
1990    CIN   166  66   71.6%     6     71.1%
1988*   NYY   146  39   78.9%     1     68.7%
1987    NYY   105  43   70.9%     6     69.2%
1986    NYY   139  48   74.3%     1     65.9%

Total        1903 808   70.2%

*Piniella managed the Yankees for their first 93 games. Stats listed are for the full season.

Piniella identifies the guys who can steal bases at a high rate of success and lets them run, while not wasting outs with the other guys. That's how you use the stolen base as a weapon.

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:  Stolen Base

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