Sports

Stats Sunday – Steal My Heart Away

sharmaby Sahadev Sharma

There are many misconceptions that have come along with the Sabermetric movement.

Moneyball was not about on-base percentage. It was about Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics taking advantage of market inefficiencies. WAR is not a number that’s used to end a debate, but rather, the one many use to start one. And I assure you, I’m not sitting in my parent’s basement in my boxers while I write this piece. In fact, I’m actually at the ballpark watching real baseball.

All of these fallacies are frustrating, but the one that bothers me the most is the myth that if you love advanced stats, you hate the stolen base. How could anyone hate the stolen base? When done correctly, base-stealing is baseball in its purest form.

The game of cat and mouse between a pitcher and base-runner. The runner pinpointing the exact right time to break for second, then getting that perfect jump and sliding in just before the infielder can place a tag. The fact is, speed is exciting and watching a good base-runner master the art of stealing a base is an experience that’s tough to beat. Who can forget Rickey Henderson sliding into third for his record-breaking 939th stolen base, immediately popping up and picking the base out of the ground and holding it above his head?

But it’s more than just piling up the stolen bases. The concept that many people overlook when discussing stolen bases is not just pure number of stolen bases, but rather the ability to steal bases and limit the amount of times you get thrown out. A team has a limited amount of outs to work with in a game and every one of them should be treated as sacred. Unless you’re playing for only one run, giving away outs via the bunt or poor decisions on the base-paths should be anathema to teams. In general, stealing bases at a 75% success rate or better makes it a worthwhile venture. In fact, often times, if the situation calls for it, a steal attempt to put a runner in scoring position is a wiser move than giving the opposition an easy out with a bunt.

For many years, Lou Brock was considered the greatest base stealer of all-time. With 939 steals, Brock’s accomplishments are to be lauded. However, at 75.3%, he ranked 151st all-time in stolen base percentage. Tim Raines was overlooked for his base-stealing prowess in the 1980s because he was overshadowed by the likes of Henderson and Vince Coleman. Raines stole 808 bases in his career and did so at an 84.6% rate, good for 11th all-time. Those numbers pretty clearly make Raines a better base stealer than Brock.

In the eighties, stolen bases were the norm, with Henderson and Coleman reaching 100 in a season on numerous occasions. The power boom of the turn of the century put an end to the eighties free running ways, but a resurgence in quality pitching has led to a slight rise in stolen bases. While not near the levels of 30 years ago, teams do appear to be more aware of making sure that when their players do attempt a stolen base, they’re successful.

Of the top 50 most efficient base-stealers with at least 80 attempts in their career, 28 of them are active. That’s 56% of a list that goes back over 60 years. Veterans like Shane Victorino and Carlos Beltran don’t have eye-popping steal numbers, but when they do attempt to swipe a bag, they’re usually successful.

Last year’s AL MVP runner-up, Mike Trout, was so valuable not only for his impressive displays with the bat and on defense, but because he was such a proficient base-runner. Trout stole 49 bases on 54 attempts, delivering a remarkable 90.7% success rate.

The present day Raines may just be Coco Crisp, who broke down his technique in this fascinating one-on-one with Grantland’s Jonah Keri. Crisp has an 80.3% career stolen base rate and hasn’t fallen below 84% over the past five seasons, including this season’s 86% success rate.

At 4.25 runs per game, offense is at the lowest it’s been since 1992. Scoring runs is at a premium, so teams need to be creative in getting runners in scoring position while ensuring that every out is held sacred. What Raines did in the eighties is finally being appreciated in today’s game as players like Crisp and Trout not only steal bases, but do so efficiently. There’s no doubt that the stolen base is once again an art form.

Sahadev Sharma is a free lance writer who regularly contributes to, among other outlets, ESPN Chicago and Vine Line. You can also hear his thoughts on baseball on the weekly Cubs-centric podcast he co-hosts on BleacherNation.com. You can follow Sahadev Sharma on Twitter:  @sahadevsharma.

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