One of the knocks on contemporary baseball is that it’s a little boring. The proliferation of the Three True Outcomes (since the term was coined by a BP alum, Christina Kahrl, I can use it without sending her a royalty payment) make for less action. In 2016, 32.3 percent of plate appearances ended with a strikeout (21.1 percent, the most in history), a home run (3.0 percent, also the most), or a walk (8.2 percent, the 13th-fewest since World War II, but let’s not spoil the narrative here).
Nobody even has to run when that stuff happens, unless it’s the rare inside-the-parker, an outfielder futilely pursuing a fence-scraper, or a fielder going after a foul ball that goes out of play. In all, the 32.3 percent of plays that ended with one of the TTO crushed the old record of 30.7 percent set way back in … well, 2015.
But how about running otherwise. One of the minor stories of the season was the Orioles stealing only 19 bases, tied for the eighth-fewest in history. That’s the lowest total since the 1972 Tigers, who stole just 17 in a strike-shortened (156-game) season with a team on which only one of the 11 players appearing in at least half their games was under 29. Over the summer, I discussed on Effectively Wild whether smart baseball is boring, evidenced by the stolen base totals of Vince Coleman in the 1980s compared to Billy Hamilton 30 years later. Stolen base attempts are fun, right? So if there are fewer of them, that’s less fun.
Baserunning overall is fun, too. Watching Byron Buxton or Hamilton blaze across the bases is exciting. One of the gripes about home run-dependent offenses is that they play “station-to-station” baseball, with runners never taking more than a base at a time. Now, in fairness, there’s a logic behind that. It’s silly for a runner on first to risk getting thrown out on a single when there’s a reasonable chance that the next batter is going to hit one out.
Take 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. If a batter that year hit a single with a runner on first and no outs, the runner could stop at second. That year, runners on first and second and no outs yielded, on average, 1.2542 runs. The runner could also try for third. If he made it, the run expectancy rose to 1.4869. If he didn’t, it fell to 0.4168 (runner on first, one out; I’m not assuming the batter goes to second on the throw, in which case the expected runs rise to 0.5679).
So the offense must weigh the difference between picking up 1.4869 – 1.252 = 0.2327 runs by taking third vs. losing 1.252 – 0.4168 = 0.8374 runs by getting thrown out. The break-even is 78 percent, or 75 percent if the batter takes second on the throw. Last year, the relevant numbers are 1.4615 with first and second and no out, 1.6842 with first and third and no out, 0.5262 with first and one out, and 0.6880 with second and one out. The break-evens rise by three percentage points. So being cautious makes sense.
But is that what happened? Let’s start with stolen bases. Here’s a chart showing attempted steals of second per team and the success rate from 1996 (the first non-strike year of three-division baseball) through 2016.
Well, at least they’re not being reckless! Basestealers were successful on 71 percent of their attempts to swipe second. But teams averaged only 101 attempted steals of second. That’s the fewest since 1965, when teams averaged 98. So, yeah, caution’s ruling.
Steals of third:
Same story, pretty good success rate, not a lot of attempts, though attempts haven’t completely cratered the way steals of second have.
Steals of home are kind of bogus, since a lot of steal attempts are suicide squeezes when the batter misses the pitch. Here are the numbers, anyway:
Overall, runners were successful on 71.7 percent of steal attempts in 2016, the 13th straight year in which they’ve topped 70 percent. Since 1951, there was only one other season during which the success rate topped 70 percent: 1987, when it was 70.1 percent. But they just didn’t get sent much. The average team in 2016 attempted 118 steals. That’s the fewest since 1967. So yes, a record dependence on TTO has resulted in a reluctance to attempt steals.
How about station-to-station baserunning? Are baserunners playing it safe (and boring) by not attempting extra bases?
Let’s start with the example I cited above, runners going from first to third on singles. This chart displays the percentage of baserunners on first who take only one base. Note that this total includes all runners on first, including those with runners ahead of them on second. If a fast runner’s on first (let’s call him “Mookie”) has an immovable object (let’s call him “Papi”) on second and there’s a single to right, Mookie’s not going to third, because Papi’s not going to get waved in.
That’s pretty…what’s the opposite of reckless? Reckful? That’s pretty reckful baserunning. It’s not peak station-to-station like 2008-2009, but runners aren’t going first-to-third the way they did 15-20 years ago.
How about a runner on second when a single’s hit? In that case, a Mookie at second shouldn’t be held up by a Papi at third. What’s happened in those cases?
It’s another case of runners being more cautious. Not record cautious, but more cautious than they were 15-20 years ago.
There’s one other situation where taking an extra base is optional: Runner on first, batter hits a double. This is another case where Mookie shouldn’t get slowed down by Papi in front of him.
Well, that’s not very encouraging. Runners were held at third at a very high rate. No sign of falling off from a recent peak.
Now, there are explanations other than the Papi/Mookie situation that could explain baserunners not going for an extra base, such as hit location (especially, in the case of going first to third, left field vs. right field), how much a lead the runner takes, the outfielder’s arm, and the baserunner’s speed. But a lot of that should average out over course of a season.
And doesn’t it seem (completely subjective statement alert!) that baseball players are more athletic than they were, say, a decade-and-a-half ago, and there should therefore be more speed on the basepaths? This seems more a product of coaching—as noted, perhaps completely rational coaching—than baserunners’ limitations.
It seems that there are two conclusions here. First, baserunners definitely appear to be more cautious. They’re picking their spots for steals carefully, resulting in higher success rates but a lot fewer attempts. And once they’re on base, their approach toward taking an extra base is also very conservative. There are good reasons for this: a desire to avoid baserunning injuries and the math of run expectancy in a high-homer environment. But it makes for fewer all-out sprints on the basepaths, culminating in a slide and a safe or out call. It’s smarter baseball, but it may not be more fun baseball.
And, as I teased, there’s a second conclusion. I’ll discuss that in my next article.
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