Stealing bases when it countsby James Gentile
July 26, 2013
One of my earliest motivations to set up my own play-by-play database was to see if I could determine which players stole bases when his team really didn't need then. I'm not sure why this particular brand of stat-padding bugs me more than any other, but it was enough to inspire one of my first Retrosheet-fueled witch hunts.
I'm going to bet you know exactly what I'm talking about. Your team is up five or six runs, it's the bottom of the eighth. Johnny Quickpants is on second and he really has no business thinking about stealing third. But he steals the base anyway. Why? I suppose if the base is available with little doubt of being thrown out then you should take it, sure. But in your gut you suspect Johnny just wants to see some figure between 40-50 under the "SB" column on the back of his baseball card, regardless of whether it helps his team or not.
I was reminded of this old crusade recently when Tom Tango rekindled those old flames of fury by asking to see "how many 'empty steals' runners make" in response to my last article.
My original attempts at unearthing this brand of fleet-footed stat-padders was limited to analyzing changes in run expectancy. But now, with access to the Fangraphs win probability database, we can view a player's stolen bases through the prism of run expectancy, Leverage Index and Win Probability Added as well.
For those not familiar with these metrics, our Hardball Times glossary defines Win Probability Added (or WPA) as "the impact each specific play has on the team's probability of winning" and Leverage Index (LI) as "a measure of how critical a specific batting situation is."
Let's get to it then by looking at the average Leverage Index for all players that made at least 100 successful stolen base attempts since 1972. And for the time being let's leave out those steals in which the player was the trailing runner in a double steal. (If you'd like, we can address this in the comments—how much credit should the trailing runner be given in a double steal? Half? Less than half? None?)
Here are the players who stole bases most often in non-critical situations:
Lowest average LI on steals (min 100)
Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett stands in a virtual tie with journeyman infielder Damion Easley with the lowest average LI for their stolen bases. Their shared average LI of just "1.0" suggests they committed some of the most needless and boring bag-thefts one can imagine in the game of baseball.
Naturally the pair also demonstrate a weaker average WPA on their stolen bases at just .014, significantly lower than the league average mark of .019. Yet long time New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams returns the lowest figure of the group with an average of just .013 WPA for his 141 non-trailing stolen bases.
Of course, one could certainly argue that it may have been difficult for Williams to contribute much WPA as a member of a franchise that seemed to always have a big lead. He was, after all, a staple in the lineup of arguably the most successful dynasty of all time. But Bernie did not add much run expectancy with his stolen bases either, with just .014 runs above average in his career, tenth lowest amongst qualifying base stealers.
This suggests that Bernie's steals weren't simply less important because of the score, but also when considering base and out state. Not all steals are created equal in the eyes of run expectancy, after all. A steal of third base with two outs will get you very little love from RE24 (just .05 runs or so), but a steal of second with no outs increases your team's run expectancy enormously (about .3 runs).
Coincidentally, another New York superstar, David Wright currently owns the lowest average RE24 on his stolen bases at just .0139 runs.
I suspect that some of the players on this list simply made a habit of stealing a base when the defense wasn't expecting it. When the game is in a low leverage state, the middle infielders might be caught daydreaming, or the first baseman may not feel the need to hold a slow-footed base runner. In these cases a Jason Kendall or Ivan Rodriguez might see an opportunity and ask himself, why not steal a base here?
Should they be penalized for this? Absolutely not. They still increased their team's chances of winning and scoring runs, just to a lesser degree than average. If, instead, we wanted to look only at players who were true stat-padding base-stealers, we might opt to raise the minimum requirement a bit. In that case we find that players like Edgar Renteria, Reggie Sanders, and Lloyd Moseby to be the most offending, as they all ammassed at least 250 steals with an average LI below 1.16 during their careers.
Conversely, here are the speedsters with the highest average LI on stolen bases minimum 100 since 1972:
Highest average LI on steals (min 100)
Here we find a handful of players with just enough to creep over the 100 steals requirement, and that might include one of the world's most famous replacement level icons in Willie Bloomquist. Regardless of their low totals, I still find figures like Matt Alexander's record high .039 career average stolen base WPA absolutely astounding. As you might have already guessed, the reason for this grossly impressive figure is an egregious amount of pinch running.
As it turns out, no player since 1950 has seen more pinch running appearances than Matt Alexander. In fact, using Retrosheet play-by-play files, I count a whopping 85 of his 103 (total) stolen bases that were achieved as a pinch runner. Similarly, other players from the list like Miguel Dilone (176) and Larry Lintz (140) also amassed some of the highest pinch running appearances in the Retrosheet era as well.
So that a player like Eric Davis was able to achieve an average LI of 1.6 over the course of an incredible 339 steals is hugely impressive. But it almost seems like small potatoes compared to the timeliness exhibited by legendary speedster Tim Raines. 'Rock' held onto an average LI of 1.5 over the course of his 23 year career and nearly 800 non-trailing stolen bases!
But to fully appreciate the timeliness with which Raines used his speed, we should compare him to the other great base stealers of this era. Among all 38 players with at least 350 non-trailing stolen bases, Raines beats them all in average Leverage Index and WPA. Other base stealing greats like Ricky Henderson, Vince Coleman, and Willie Wilson all had average LI's of just 1.4.
Of course the true mark of superior base stealing skills reveals itself when we include caught stealing LI and WPA as well. Raines' average WPA on all his stolen base attempts ranks fifth best since 1972. He trails a handful of active base stealers that have yet to lose their speed, and don't have nearly the amount of raw career stolen base totals to their credit-- those four are Carlos Beltran, Jayson Werth, Chase Utley, and Brett Gardner.
More to come
Extracting stolen bases from a player's LI, WPA, and RE24 totals is something I intend to pursue quite a bit in the future here at THT. But if you'd like a sneak peek at some of the data, here's a google doc with most of the data I used for today's article along with some other interesting information. If there's any thing you'd suggest this line of inquiry ought to include or do differently, please drop a line in the comments.
References and Resources
Thanks to Fangraphs and Retrosheet.
James Gentile writes about baseball at Beyond the Box Score and The Hardball Times. You can follow him on twitter @JDGentile