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April 30, 2013 5:00 am

Skewed Left: Explaining Chase Utley's Stolen Base Success


Zachary Levine

How did Chase Utley become the best percentage basestealer in baseball?

To understand why Chase Utley, a man who is not very fast or really much of a base-stealer at all, stands alone as the most efficient base-stealer in modern baseball history, you have to look a little bit farther down.

Not much farther down, usually just a spot or occasionally two in the Phillies order. Stop when you get to Ryan Howard. The big first baseman, not any left-hander’s pickoff move or any right arm behind the plate, has been the biggest deterrent to Utley’s steals.

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Catchers can't throw anyone out anymore. Why is that, and should we be worried?

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.

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