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Most of the Cardinals should stop trying to steal

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Aggressive base-running isn’t a good idea, especially when base-running isn’t your strength.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

We all know it, but I’ll say it anyway: The Cardinals have played some ugly baseball this year. Mostly, I try to just talk about value. A strong hitter can make up for his defensive weaknesses, and a plus defender can afford to carry a weaker bat. In terms of putting together a winning team, both could be equally valuable.

Aesthetically speaking however, no one wants to watch ugly baseball. I unexpectedly really enjoyed the WBC this year, and it was largely because of two teams: Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Both teams had several strong defenders and base-runners. Seeing that on display on most balls in play was a lot of fun.

This is far from a foreign thought among Cardinals fans, especially for those that were fans during the 1980’s. Of course, the 2017 Cardinals’ strengths are definitely not base-running and defense. That doesn’t make them a bad team exactly, they have other strengths that make up for it. I understand the feeling that at times it’s hard to watch though.

For me though, it’s not just the fact that the team doesn’t excel on the base-paths. It’s the fact that it seems like they feel the need to be aggressive on the bases. Former VEB editor Dan Moore sums up my thoughts quite concisely here:

Aggressive base-running might sound nice as a buzzword, but it misses the point to try to be aggressive when the base-runner in question isn’t actually a good base-runner. Aggression can be helpful with a very fast runner, because he can put pressure on the defense to execute quickly. It’s not a base-running move, but think Billy Hamilton attempting a drag-bunt. With an average runner, it’s not a big deal. As long as it’s not perfectly placed, the defense has time to execute. With a fast runner, there’s less margin for error and and that can cause defensive mistakes.

Anyone who has watched the Cardinals can attest to the fact that there has been plenty of mistakes on the base-paths. I wanted to see what the stats had to say. To do that, we’ll make use of Base-Out states and the associated Run Expectancy of each. A base-out state is any combination of runners on base with any amount of outs in an innings. So an example would first and third with one out. The Run Expectancy is how many runs are scored in that Base-Out state on average. For instance, with runners on first and third and one out, the Run Expectancy is 1.14 runs.

You don’t have to settle for just one example though, here’s the full chart:

Base-out Run Expectancy Chart.txt

Runners 0 Outs 1 Out 2 Outs
Runners 0 Outs 1 Out 2 Outs
Empty 0.461 0.243 0.095
1 _ _ 0.831 0.489 0.214
_ 2 _ 1.068 0.644 0.305
1 2 _ 1.373 0.908 0.343
_ _ 3 1.426 0.865 0.413
1 _ 3 1.798 1.14 0.471
_ 2 3 1.92 1.352 0.57
1 2 3 2.282 1.52 0.736

Nothing too surprising here. The more outs, the less runs expected. The more runners, and the farther along on the bases they are, the more runs expected. To me it’s cool to see the individual numbers, but your mileage may vary. The important thing is that we can use these numbers to judge base-running decisions. For instance, we can find the break-even point where it’s worth it for a runner to attempt to steal second or third.

On an individual play level, if a runner has better chance than the break-even point of successfully stealing a base, then he should attempt to do so. On a player-level, a player with a Stolen Base success rate higher than the break-even rate adds value on stolen bases. If he’s below it, he’s cost his team value when attempting to steal. There’s a lot of aspects of base-running, but that’s the one we’ll look at today.

For this exercise, we’ll make the assumption that the runner in question is the only one on base. Here’s the results:

Stolen Base Breakeven points.txt

Situation 0 outs 1 out 2 outs Average
Situation 0 outs 1 out 2 outs Average
Stealing second 71.3% 71.8% 70.2% 71.1%
Stealing third 69.7% 71.3% 73.8% 71.6%

Both situations range around the low 70’s, which is convenient for analyzing the data we’re looking at. We won’t have to control for context, we’ll just take a rough average of these as the Break-even point, which is 71.3%. With that in mind, we’ll look at the team’s stolen base rate in 2016 and 2017, compared to average:

Team Stolen Base success rate.txt

Team/League SB CS SB%
Team/League SB CS SB%
2016 League Avg 2534 1000 71.7%
Cards 2016 35 25 58.3%
Cards 2017 14 7 66.7%

Now we’ve found something: The Cardinals’ success rate was below the break-even point in 2016 and is so far in 2017. This implies that had the Cardinals attempted no stolen bases in 2016 and 2017, they would have provided more value than the value they did attempting to do so (because it’s negative).

It’s also interesting that the league average rate is almost a match with the break-even rate. Obviously the best base-stealers add value, but it’s cancelled out by just as much value lost by the weaker base-stealers who are attempting to steal when they shouldn’t be. While the Cardinals are below-average, it still indicates that there’s value to be gained by organizations that discourage stealing for those players that shouldn’t be. It would be nice for that organization to be the Cardinals.

So, the Cardinals should just stop stealing then? Well, if every Cardinal was below-average at stealing, that would be the case. However, there are some that add value on the bases. Here are some current Cardinals, and their stolen base success rates from the start of 2016 to now:

Stolen Base success rates 2016-2017.txt

Name SB CS SB%
Name SB CS SB%
Jose Martinez 1 0 100.0%
Jedd Gyorko 1 0 100.0%
Kolten Wong 10 1 90.9%
Dexter Fowler 14 4 77.8%
Greg Garcia 3 1 75.0%
Yadier Molina 4 2 66.7%
Randal Grichuk 6 4 60.0%
Aledmys Diaz 7 5 58.3%
Tommy Pham 2 2 50.0%
Stephen Piscotty 8 9 47.1%
Matt Carpenter 0 5 0.0%
Eric Fryer 0 1 0.0%
Matt Adams 0 1 0.0%
Total 56 35 61.5%

Note that the totals here should differ from the totals in the previous chart, as we’re including Fowler’s stolen base numbers as a Cub last yea. Jedd Gyorko and Jose Martinez top the chart at a 100% success rate. Yeah, it’s only one steal a piece, but for Gyorko at least, it means he understands that he shouldn’t be attempting to do so except in the most extreme cases. To his credit, Jhonny Peralta didn’t attempt to steal a single base over this time frame. Maybe Jedd and Jhonny can impart that knowledge to Stephen Piscotty and Aledmys Diaz, two players with well-below break-even success rates that are attempting to steal way too much.

Wong and Fowler both add value from stolen bases, and attempt to do so relatively often. They’re the only ones that should be attempting to do so often. Greg Garcia’s results show good judgement, but the sample is small. Everyone else was below the break-even point, and thus have shown that they shouldn’t be stealing often.

As I mentioned, Piscotty and Diaz are two big offenders. Matt Carpenter’s 0 for 5 is up there as well. Randal Grichuk, Yadier Molina, Tommy Pham, Eric Fryer, and Matt Adams have all been below average at base-stealing, even though they’ve only tried a few times. Those few times should have been when they were able to get their best leads, their best reads on the pitcher, and had catcher with poor defense against steals behind a plate, and they still cost the team value.

Fangraphs has a stat called wSB (weighted Stolen Bases Runs), which attempts to quantify how many runs above or below average a players was in stolen base attempts. Carpenter, Piscotty, and Diaz combined to lose five runs. The other five bring the total up to 8.7 runs below average.

That’s not a huge amount, it’s a little less than a win over the last year and a month. The team missed the playoffs by one game last year though, so every run matters. Even besides that, a win is worth $9M on the free agent market, not chump change by any means. In a climate where now most front offices are smart, getting smarter in the clubhouse is a potential advantage. And this just concerns stolen bases. Value can be saved through similar means with closer looks at other aspects of base-running, which we can do in future installments. Overall base-running is calculated by Fangraphs, using the stat BSR, which is included on their leaderboard pages. I’m betting Statcast will also bring about much better ways of looking at this aspect of the game in depth.

The point is, aggressive isn’t always better. This isn’t Whitey Herzog’s team and pretending it is would be counterproductive. A good base-running team would be fun, but that’s not what the Cardinals have. A properly cautious base-running team is the next best thing. That’s what the Cardinals should aspire to be.