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Why does anybody try and run on Yadier Molina?

Last season, only 39 runners tried to steal on him. In spite of their apparent selectivity, only 14 of those men succeeded. This was the fewest number of steals allowed by an everyday catcher since 1960 (minimum 100 games caught):

CATCHER          YEAR        SB        CS        G_C
Yadier Molina    2005        14        25        114
J.C. Martin      1964        15        17        119
Elston Howard    1962        19        23        129
Johnny Roseboro  1964        19        29        128
Elston Howard    1961        20        20        111
Elston Howard    1963        22        15        132
Gus Triandos     1961        22        20        114
Thurman Munson   1971        22        30        110
Bill Freehan     1964        23        26        141
Ivan Rodriguez   2001        23        35        106
Paul Casanova    1970        23        24        100

Now, 2005 was Molina’s first full season in the league, and opponents were having a tough enough time scoring runs against the Cardinals, so perhaps their aggression can be excused. But already this season, 23 men have tried to steal in Molina’s 51 games behind the plate. True to form, he’s gunned down 11 of them. We can debate whether the breakeven success rate for a stolen base attempt is 67 percent or 75 percent or something else, but surely even the Dusty Bakers of the world can understand that creating an out half the time you attempt to steal a bag simply isn’t worth it.

Well, perhaps not. These are Ivan Rodriguez‘ opposing basestealer numbers over the course of his career. SBR stands for stolen base runs, a simple linear formula that assigns .2 runs for a stolen base and deducts .5 runs for a time caught stealing (we’ll get to the rationale for these numbers in a moment).

Catcher               Year        SB        CS        SBR
Ivan Rodriguez        1991        36        34        -9.8
Ivan Rodriguez        1992        53        57       -17.9
Ivan Rodriguez        1993        64        51       -12.7
Ivan Rodriguez        1994        37        23        -4.1
Ivan Rodriguez        1995        40        37       -10.5
Ivan Rodriguez        1996        46        48       -14.8
Ivan Rodriguez        1997        37        49       -17.1
Ivan Rodriguez        1998        38        49       -16.9
Ivan Rodriguez        1999        34        41       -13.7
Ivan Rodriguez        2000        20        19        -5.5
Ivan Rodriguez        2001        23        35       -12.9
Ivan Rodriguez        2002        26        15        -2.3
Ivan Rodriguez        2003        40        20        -2.0
Ivan Rodriguez        2004        40        19        -1.5
Ivan Rodriguez        2005        33        3        -10.9
Ivan Rodriguez        2006         9        10        -3.2

Year after year after year, Rodriguez’ opponents have given up ten runs or more in attempting to steal on him, in spite of his long history as a Golden Gun. I hope you can see what I’m getting at here. Why do managers so consistently elect a strategy that so clearly has a negative expected return? If a catcher throws out runners at something much greater than the breakeven rate, shouldn’t the steal attempts against him quickly dwindle to zero?

Well, there are a couple of reasons that it might not, even if managers were applying perfect strategy. What Keith Woolner’s research in Baseball Prospectus 2006 reveals is that the average breakeven success rate over the past ten seasons has been just about 71%. This is how the SBR formula is derived; coefficients of .2 and .5 imply a breakeven success rate of .714. However, the breakeven rate varies from situation to situation. If you have a runner on first base in a tied game in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and a singles hitter at the plate, a stolen base is tremendously valuable; perhaps you could stomach a 50% success rate, or even a bit less. Other stolen base attempts are a lot more gratuitous. If the opponents of a Pudge or a Yadier Molina steal only when they can get away with a 50% success rate, then we shouldn’t be surprised if their results reflect this.

The other reason is that a lot of stolen base attempts aren’t really straight steals. If the runner is leading off first base too much, draws a pick-off throw, and breaks for second, that is recorded as a stolen base attempt. If a runner is breaking for home on a squeeze play, and the batter misses the pitch completely, that goes as a steal attempt, too. A more frequent occurrence is a steal attempt that results from a hit-and-run play where the batter fails to put the ball into play.

I went back and looked at play-by-play logs (and in some cases, video) for the 23 steals that have been attempted against Yadier Molina thus far on the season. I classified a steal attempt as H&R (hit-and-run) if it occurred with two strikes, or if the batter swung at and missed the pitch.

Date     Opponent       Inning   Score     Runners   Outs   Count    Result      Type
8-Apr    Derrek Lee      2nd     Tie       1st, 3rd    1     3-2       SB        H&R
14-Apr   Felipe Lopez    6th      +1        1st        0     1-2       SB        H&R*
18-Apr   Jason Bay       4th      +7        1st        2     1-1       SB        Straight
22-Apr   Ronny Cedeno    5th      +1        1st        1     1-0       SB        Straight
24-Apr   Jason Bay       1st     Tie        1st        2     3-2       CS        H&R
27-Apr   Alfonso Soriano 1st     Tie        1st        0     1-2       CS        H&R
2-May    E. Encarnacion  8th     Tie        1st        2     3-2       CS        Pickoff
6-May    Miguel Olivo    2nd      -1        1st        1     0-2       SB        H&R
7-May    Joe Borchard    2nd      -2        1st        0     3-1       CS        Straight
9-May    Jamey Carroll   1st     Tie        1st        2     2-2       SB        H&R
12-May    Damion Easley  1st     Tie        1st        2     1-0       CS        Straight
12-May    Orlando Hudson 5th      -2        2nd        1     0-2       SB        H&R
14-May    Craig Counsell 5th      +1        1st        1     1-0       CS        H&R*
24-May    Omar Vizquel   3rd     Tie        1st, 2nd   0     2-0       SB        Straight
27-May    Dave Roberts   7th      -1        1st        0     1-0       CS        Straight
28-May    Mike Cameron   1st     Tie        1st, 2nd   1     3-1       SB        H&R*
28-May    Josh Barfield  8th      +3        1st        2     1-0       SB        H&R*
2-Jun     Tony Womack    1st     Tie        1st        1     0-1       CS        Straight
2-Jun     Ronny Cedeno   7th      +1        1st, 3rd   1     1-0       CS        Sac**
2-Jun     Freddy Bynum   10th    Tie        1st        2     2-0       CS        Straight
3-Jun     Juan Pierre    4th      +4        1st        2     2-1       SB        H&R*
7-Jun     Felipe Lopez   5th      +2        1st        0     2-1       SB        Straight
16-Jun    Jamey Carroll  3rd     Tie        1st        2     3-1       CS        Straight

* Swinging strike
** Attempt at squeeze play; picked off

As you can see, of the 23 steal attempts recorded against Molina thus far on the season, 11 were clear hit-and-run plays, one was a pick-off attempt where the runner broke for second, and another one was a botched squeeze play. That means that at most 11 were straight steals. I say “at most” because I did not review the video for all of these, and it is possible that several others could have been hit-and-run attempts on counts where the batter still had a strike left to burn, the result of a pickoff attempt, and so forth. A couple of others that I did review on video were unusual plays. Omar Vizquel‘s steal of third on May 24th, for example, was a steal on pitcher Tyler Johnson; Vizquel was most of the way to third base by the time the pitch was thrown. It’s only about once a week or so that managers are calling a straight steal against Molina, which is about as close to shutting down the running game completely as I think we’re liable to witness.

The complication is that, in general, it would seem that teams are giving up runs with the stolen base. As I described earlier, the breakeven success rate over the past ten years or so is about 71%. However, the actual success rate during this period is 69%. So perhaps having a catcher like Molina isn’t so valuable at all, since he only serves to deter a strategy that opponents apply incorrectly to begin with.

The first thing we should ask is: what should the actual steal success rate be, assuming that both the offense and the defense are applying perfect strategy? At first glance, it would seem that it should be a fair bit higher than 71%, because a manager should only attempt a steal when he has at least a 71% chance of success, and sometimes situations will arise–Carl Crawford on first with Mike Piazza behind the plate–when the implied success rate is clearly higher than 71%. However, the quality of the baserunner and the catcher aren’t the only factors impacting steal success rates. In particular, the defense can adopt counter-measures, such using pick-off attempts, calling for a pitchout, or playing the second baseman closer to the bag, that reduce the offense’s success rate (or deter it from stealing in the first place).

The problem is that these counter-measures have consequences that are undesirable for the defense. A pitchout gets the pitcher into a worse count, a non-optimal defensive alignment will improve batting averages, and a pickoff can result in an error, tire out the pitcher, or simply get the defense out of its rhythm. Note also that these negative consequences are the result of the threat of a stolen base, not a stolen base itself. Carl Crawford steals a lot of bags, but he also induces a lot of pitchouts, which is helpful to the batters hitting behind him. On the other hand, a manager that only stole in ‘perfect’ situations would not benefit from these externalities; there is therefore some incentive to steal a bit more often than the particular situation might seem to require.

Although my brain is a little bit too fuzzy at the moment to work through all the game theory permutations, I suspect that the equilibrium might well be an actual stolen base success rate that is very close to the idealized success rate of 71%. But this does not mean that the offense would score as many runs (or more runs) if the stolen base were not a legal play. In exchange for getting actual stolen base success rates back down to the breakeven mark, the defense pays a price in the form of extra pitchouts and so forth.

However, this price is less if the catcher has a strong throwing arm. These are the number of pitchouts that Tony LaRussa has called for since taking over as the manager of the Cardinals in 1996:

Year      Primary C    Pitchouts
1996      Pagnozzi        41
1997      Difelice        79
1998      Marrero         34
1999      Marrero         30
2000      Matheny         34
2001      Matheny         25
2002      Matheny         13
2003      Matheny          9
2004      Matheny          7
2005      Molina           9

With average defensive catchers like Mike Difelice and Eli Marrero behind the plate, LaRussa was pickoff-happy, calling for as many as 79 pitchouts in a season. At some point during the 2001 or 2002 season, however, LaRussa recognized that having a great defensive catcher like Molina or Mike Matheny behind the plate eliminated the need to call for pitchouts. The runner probably wasn’t going to bother to steal anyway–and if he did, he might well be thrown out. Alan Trammell, in Detroit, realized the same thing. In 2003, with Brandon Inge as his primary catcher, he called for 28 pitchouts. The next year, the Tigers acquired Ivan Rodriguez, and Trammell pitched out only 8 times.

Therefore, I suspect that the benefits of a catcher like Molina are understated by conventional sabermetrics. Molina’s contribution is not so much in eliminating the stolen base, but in eliminating the threat of one.

Acknowledgement: this column was somewhat inspired by The Book, which is recommended to all my regular readers.

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