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How good were the St. Louis Cardinals at stealing bases in 2014?

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As a child of the Whiteyball era, I was instilled at an early age on the virtues of good baserunning. But the extent of the baserunning preaching was pretty narrow, just one column on the back of a baseball card: SB. Seriously, there wasn't even a caught stealing (CS) column on the back of a 1987 Topps card, let alone one showing a player's success rate (SB%).

How good were the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals at stealing basesin 2014?

The following chart shows how the individual Cardinals compared to the team and major-league stolen-base success rates. The "SBO" column shows stolen-base opportunities, per Baseball-Reference. The "SBA/SBO" column shows the number of stolen base attempts (SB + CS) divided by the number of stolen base opportunities.The other columns are self-explanatory. I've ordered them from highest SB% to lowest.

2014

SBO

SB

CS

SB%

SBA/SBO

Kolten Wong

118

20

4

83%

20.34%

Matt Holliday

264

4

1

80%

1.89%

Mark Ellis

56

4

1

80%

8.92%

Peter Bourjos

102

9

3

75%

11.76%

MLB*

66,468

2,764

1,035

73%

5.72%

Jon Jay

200

6

3

67%

4.50%

STL

2,319

57

32

64%

3.84%

Matt Carpenter

397

5

3

63%

2.02%

Matt Adams

188

3

2

60%

2.66%

Jhonny Peralta

258

3

2

60%

1.94%

Yadier Molina

185

1

1

50%

1.08%

Allen Craig

123

1

1

50%

1.63%

Daniel Descalso

62

1

3

25%

6.45%

Shane Robinson

22

0

1

0%

4.55%

Oscar Taveras

73

0

1

0%

1.34%

A.J. Pierzynski

26

0

1

0%

3.85%

Randal Grichuk

47

0

2

0%

4.26%

Tony Cruz

53

0

3

0%

5.66%

*I'm comparing the Cardinals to the MLB average stolen-base rates. Since pitchers attempted virtually no stolen bases, I don't think it makes enough of a difference to compare St. Louis only to the National League.

The Cardinals stole 57 bases collectively in 2014 and were thrown out attempting to steal on 32 occasions, which equals a SB% of just 64%. The Cards posted the third-lowest stolen-base total in the majors last season, well below the league-average for a team of 92. Their 64% success race tied with the Rockies for the second worst in MLB, behind only the Cubs (62%).

As you can see, nowadays, the Redbirds are hardly runnin' in the 80s sense. St. Louis doesn't attempt to steal a lot of bases and isn't successful at doing so all that often. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, given the the skills on the club's roster.

One of the contributions sabermetricians have made to the game is a more refined valuation of base-stealing. By placing a value on situations via run expectancy, it has been deduced that stolen-base success rate is more important than volume. We all know that stealing a base improves a team's expectancy of scoring a run, and that getting caught stealing has a negative effect on a team's run-scoring expectancy. By placing run values on the different base states, we can measure the help and harm of base-stealing events.

For example, say the leadoff batter reaches first base safely. According to the Baseball Prospectus run-expancy chart for 2014, with nobody out and a runner on first base, a team has a run expectancy of 0.8182. If the baserunner steals second successfully with nobody out, his team's run expectancy increases to 1.0393. But if the baserunner is thrown out attempting to swipe second, making the first out of the inning, his team's run expectancy drops to 0.4552. Based on run-expectancy analysis, Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin write in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, that a stolen-base success rate of about 70% is necessary to justify the risk of attempt to steal.

The Cardinals don't have a lot of speedsters. Entering 2014, they added speed by trading starting third baseman David Freese (and Fernando Salas). This added Peter Bourjos to the St. Louis roster and opened up a starting spot for rookie second baseman Kolten Wong, who is a very good base-stealer and excellent baserunner. Other than Wong and Bourjos, the Cards don't have a lot of players that the manager should be sending on straight steal attempts.

Mike Matheny only sent Wong, Bourjos, Ellis, and Descalso more often than the major-league average by SBO/SBA. The explanation behind Wong and Bourjos is obvious: They're fast and pretty good at stealing bases. Ellis is also a good base-stealer, if not known for being particularly fast as a player. Descalso, on the other hand, had a pretty bad base-stealing year. His 1-for-4 on attempts dropped his career success rate from 65% (close to the 70% threshold when we're talking about just 23 attempts) to 59%. It'll be interesting to see how often the Rockies give Descalso the steal signal over the term of his two-year contract.

Other than those four, one could argue that Matheny could've sent the aging Holliday more often, but I'm not really all that critical. Holliday has a career 74 SB%, so he's a good base-stealer. But he is also getting older and has suffered from recurring back problems in recent years. It's tough to quibble with Matheny's decisions not to send Holliday on more stealing adventures.

One might also wonder why Matheny doesn't send Jay more often. Jay appears to be a below-average swiper of bags. He has had one year in his career above 70% (in 2012, Matheny's rookie year as manager, he stole 19 bases with a 73% success rate) and has a 67 SB% in 69 career attempts. That's close to 70%, but not a success rate that leaves one questioning why Matheny doesn't order Jay to attempt larceny on the base paths a lot more often.

Grichuk posted an 81.2 SB% in the minors, so he might offer another base-stealing option on the roster. How many opportunities he or Bourjos will receive fulfilling primarily bench roles remains to be seen.

The rest of the Cardinals don't make much of a case for stealing more often, which means Matheny is correct not to be sending them. The St. Louis roster, as constructed, isn't one that ought to be taking off on the pitcher's delivery like the Cardinals used to do back in the days of Whitey Herzog.