Offensive production in major league baseball has dropped sharply over the past decade. The most frequently suggested causes behind this decline are an aggressive performance-enhancing drug testing, the implementation of state-of-the-art analysis on hitters’ tendencies, rising pitch velocities, increased relief pitcher specialization, and more defensive shifts.
Regardless of the cause behind the offensive swoon, teams are seeing fewer hitters reach base. League-average on-base percentage (OBP) in recent years harkens back to the levels that prompted Major League Baseball to lower the pitcher’s mound in 1969. You have to go back to 1972 to find a year where OBP was lower than it was in 2014.
The natural by-product of fewer base runners is fewer scoring opportunities. In 2005, teams averaged 4.59 runs-per-game compared to the 4.07 runs-per-game average in 2014. Offense has decreased across the board; home runs, singles, extra base hits, and walks have all declined. With that in mind, is there anything that a team could consider to improve their chances of scoring? Well, there’s an old baseball adage that “speed never slumps.” If that’s true, could the stolen base help offensively-challenged teams generate run production?
Taking advantage of speed
Potentially, stolen bases provide an opportunity to increase offensive production with a lower slugging percentage from hitters. A single or walk can be the equivalent to a double; likewise, a double can be turned into a triple. The following “run expectancy” table derived from Baseball Prospectus illustrates how advancing a runner an extra base impacts run scoring opportunities.
Run expectancy is the average numbers of runs scored from specific base/out scenarios. For example, with no runner on base and no outs, an average of .4552 runs score. Accordingly, the likelihood of scoring increases from .4552 to .8182 when there’s a runner on first base and no out. Regardless of scenario, advancing a runner to the next base increases the odds of scoring.
Another benefit of speed on the base paths is that it can be a disruptive force. A speedster can apply pressure on the pitcher/catcher tandem and force defenders to play more “honestly” with regards to defensive shifts. There are potential downsides to this strategy; it can backfire if the runner is caught stealing because run expectancy is zero if a runner is thrown out and sitting in the dugout. Also, a running threat can be equally disruptive to the hitter at the plate depending on the person hitting.
Measuring base running performance
Two statistics that can help estimate the value of stolen bases and base running are weighted stolen base (wSB) and base runs (BsR). The wSB statistic tallies the number of runs a player contributes to his team, via the stolen base, compared to the average player. A wSB value above zero indicates a player has contributed more runs than the average player with same number of opportunities; a value below zero indicates that a player has contributed fewer runs than an average player.
BsR quantifies the run value of a base runner while on the base path. It encompasses stolen bases, caught stealing, extra bases taken, and outs made while on base. BsR serves as the base running component for the FanGraphs version of Wins Above Replacement (fWAR).
Different approaches, similar success
In 2014, the use of the stolen base varied greatly between organizations. Let’s look at two teams at each end of the stolen base spectrum and one that appeared to balance power and speed more evenly.
The Kansas City Royals ran their way to the World Series with a major league-leading 153 stolen bases, while hitting the fewest home runs (95). The Royals spread their thievery throughout their lineup; only five players registered double-digit steals and only two surpassed 30 swiped bags. The American League (AL) champs leveraged the stolen base into an effective offensive weapon, which was reflected in their league-leading wSB of 11.5; far ahead of the second place New York Yankees (7.2). Kansas City skillfully offset their power deficiency and below-league-average OBP by advancing runners with the stolen base.
Conversely, the Baltimore Orioles were last in the majors in stolen bases. The team had no players with double-digit steals, posted a -5.9 BsR, and four major league players had more stolen bases than the entire Orioles’ roster (44). The team’s offense didn’t need to rely on speed to win the most games in the AL thanks to leading the majors in home runs and being fifth in on-base plus slugging (OPS).
The Los Angeles Dodgers blended their speed and power and were the only team, other than the Royals, to have more stolen bases (138) than home runs (134). The majority of their swiped bags came from two players; second baseman and league-leader Dee Gordon (64) and outfielder Carl Crawford (23). The team liked to run despite its league-average 73% success rate, which can be traced back to the low rates of Gordon (77%), Yasiel Puig (61%), and Matt Kemp (62%). Despite less-than-optimum base stealing efficiency, Los Angeles recorded a 2.9 wSB and 3.0 BsR on their way to winning 94 games and the National League (NL) West division. Leading the majors in OBP certainly helped offset any base stealing setbacks.
Different approaches, dissimilar success
I’m going to focus on the majors’ top three in 2014 stolen bases and the Seattle Mariners’ top base stealing threat to illustrate the different approaches and their varied results from base stealing.
Entering 2014, Gordon had only 657 major league plate appearances since debuting with the Dodgers in 2011. Last season, he nearly surpassed that total with 650 plate appearances leading the majors in stolen bases and infield hits.
The 26-year-old infielder finally had sustained success, although he was far less effective in the second half of the season. After walking 27 times in the first half, he only walked four more times during the rest of the season. His second half offensive swoon was reflected in his base stealing activity too; he was caught stealing 35% of the time in the second half (10 of 31 attempts) after only being thrown out nine times during 52 first half attempts. Despite his second half decline, the Miami Marlins believe Gordon has value and acquired him via a December trade. Assuming he doesn’t improve on the base paths, it’ll be interesting to see if the less-potent Miami offense can absorb his mediocre 77% success rate.
The Houston Astros’ second baseman had a breakthrough season by leading the majors in batting average and delivering an all-star level 5.1 fWAR value. Altuve’s impressive 7.7% strikeout rate was second only to Detroit Tiger Victor Martinez (6.6%). The 24-year-old only attempted to steal during 20% of his base stealing opportunities, but he delivered a league-leading wSB making his speed a valuable, but not singular, component to a balanced offensive approach.
The Cincinnati Reds’ center fielder has been heralded for his base stealing prowess throughout his minor league career. Any doubts about Hamilton have always been focused on his difficulties at the plate; he had a 2013 triple slash of .256/.308/.343 at AAA-Louisville and a poor .292 OBP during his 2014 rookie season. When the 24-year-old rookie did get on base, he was the majors’ most aggressive base stealer attempting to steal during 46% of base stealing opportunities.
The downside to this aggressive approach resulted in Hamilton being caught stealing 23 times and being picked-off eight; both league-leading numbers. As a consequence, his 2 wSB lagged behind 36-year-old veteran Jimmy Rollins’ 3.2, which was earned with half as many stolen bases (28). The Reds’ 2014 offense was one of the worst in the NL. Going forward, Hamilton must get on base more frequently and be more efficient on the base paths. Otherwise, he has limited value to an offensively-challenged lineup.
Mariners outfielder James Jones is proof positive of another old baseball adage; “you can’t steal first base.” The 26-year-old’s 28 stolen bases in just 328 plate appearances was impressive and placed him among the majors’ top 25 in stolen bases. Unfortunately, his OBP was an awful .278. Despite his offensive woes, Jones’ wSB (4.7) was fifth in the majors and he tied for the league lead with an outstanding 96% stolen base success rate.
The former collegiate pitcher’s plate patience didn’t help his cause; he walked just 12 times during those 328 plate appearances. Interestingly, he walked 13 times in 173 plate appearances during his stints at AAA-Tacoma. Prior to 2014, Jones had demonstrated more patience with a walk rate that hovered near 10% compared to his 3.7% effort in Seattle. The left-handed hitting outfielder is a great example of someone who could significantly increase their value by being just league-average at getting on base.
Offensively-challenged teams and players can certainly benefit from speed on the base paths, if utilized as a component of a balanced approach. However, nothing will ever replace a proficient hitter who gets on base often and/or creates runs with their bat. Players like Billy Hamilton and James Jones will always create excitement on the base path for fans unless they can’t reach first base. Then, they’re just an exciting out in the box score.