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The Cardinals are Terrible at Stealing Bases Again

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And again... and again... and again...

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Chicago White Sox v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The overwhelming majority of Cardinal fans fit neatly into two categories.* There are those who were alive to witness Whitey Herzog’s speed-fueled 80s madness. And there are fans, too young to be alive during Herzog’s era, who are constantly blasted with the loving nostalgia for that era from the people who witnessed it. If you’re between the ages of 35 and 50, those years made up the foundational era of your Cardinal fandom. If you’re even older, there’s a decent chance that your foundational years landed in the 1960s when Lou Brock and Curt Flood were the cornerstones of great fundamentally sound baserunning and basestealing teams. Both in the 60s and 80s, team speed presented itself in a flurry of stolen bases and extra bases taken, and it did so in ways that survive modern sabermetric scrutiny. In other words, it’s not just nostalgia. Those teams were legitimately great at creating value on the bases. Alas, those days are long gone.

*side note: you can use the “two categories” rule for just about anything. “There are two kinds of people in this world. People who throw rotten onions at other cars in traffic, and those who don’t.”

This is no surprise to you. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the current Cardinals aren’t as good on the bases as those from the halcyon days of the franchise. And to realize that they’ve been bad recently, you need only to have read other pieces here at VEB. For instance, there’s this great article from Ben Markham last year, this great article from Ben Godar in 2016, this great article from John Fleming before 2017, or this great Ben Humphrey piece before 2015. Terrible baserunning value is becoming an annual rite of passage for the franchise. This year is no exception. They’re struggling on stolen base attempts yet again. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate exactly what’s going on with the Cardinals.

Baseball Prospectus’ baserunning stats run deep. They’re available going all the way back to 1950, and I’ve collected them for every team in that timeframe. Their main metric, Baserunning Runs (BRR), defined:

Baserunning Runs. Measures the number of runs contributed by a player’s advancement on the bases, above what would be expected based on the number and quality of the baserunning opportunities with which the player is presented, park-adjusted and based on a multi-year run expectancy table. BRR is calculated as the sum of various baserunning components: Ground Advancement Runs (GAR), Stolen Base Runs (SBR), Air Advancement Runs (AAR), Hit Advancement Runs (HAR) and Other Advancement Runs (OAR).

Stolen bases are a big part of this, but far from the only part. Both positive and negative events are taken into account (getting caught taking an extra base, caught stealing, etc.). The other components are calculated very similarly- by taking the number of bases taken in various events, above what would be expected. First, let’s establish that, yes, indeed, the Cardinals have been a terrible baserunning team. Here are their league ranks in BRR and SBR. There’s a twist, though. I’m including this data going all the way back to 1980- basically, when Herzog started to rebuild the team to his liking. I think it’s important to give context to what a good baserunning (and stealing) team looks like. I’ve also split it out by manager. Keep in mind that BRR includes SBR. It’s one of the component parts of BRR.

Surprise! They’re actually not that bad this year in overall baserunning runs, floating right around the middle through the early part of this week. And in 2013, they were downright good at amassing baserunning runs. They came in 2nd in the league that year. Even last year, before the return of Oquendo, they were perfectly average (15th in the league).

A few other things stand out here. The most obvious item is that we can see that the Herzog years were extremely fruitful on the basepaths, both via stolen base and simply taking extra bases (and not getting caught doing either of those things). The collapse after Herzog left was swift and merciless. Where it gets interesting is the wild array of results during the LaRussa era. You don’t necessarily think of great baserunning as a hallmark of LaRussa’s teams, but 9 of his 16 teams finished in the top third in BRR. Three in a row (2003-2005) and four out of seven (2003-2009) finished in the top five. Only three of his teams finished in the bottom third- his first two, and his last one. For all of the weirdness of the LaRussa era, his teams were fundamentally sound enough on the bases to create above average runs.

Let’s put BRR aside for a moment and look only at stolen base runs (SBR). After all, stolen bases are in the title of the article. They have yet to finish above the bottom third of the league in SBR during the Matheny era. In fact, if we go all the way back to 2000, they have just five seasons (out of 19) where they finished better than the bottom third. That’s... terrible. They’re dead last in MLB in SBR since 2000. And as we can see in the line graph above, it’s not a fluke. This isn’t a bubble of a few bad seasons sinking an otherwise stellar record.

This is a franchise that has consistently struggled to create value using the stolen base, and it’s been that way for a very long time. Here is every franchise’s total SBR since 1991- the first year post-Herzog. Brace yourself. It’s not pretty.

We all understand that the game has changed, that stolen bases don’t happen anywhere near as frequently as they did even 15 years ago (much less the stolen base heyday of the 1980s). And as such, you would assume that the Cardinals won’t rack up as many stolen bases as they did during the Herzog years, or even close to it. The shocker here isn’t that their stolen base totals have declined. No, the shocker is that they’ve gotten so bad at it. They’re only ahead of two teams in SBR since 1991. One of the only teams they’ve surpassed in the last 28 years is the Tigers, a team that has universally dedicated itself to amassing three-true-outcome slugs with prodigious power for three decades. I think it’s worth reiterating that this isn’t about how many bases the Cardinals steal. Rather, it’s how much value they derive from their stolen bases, and how successful they are at it. In the Cardinals’ case, they’ve been dreadful for a long time.

The mystifying part is that the franchise is actually good at deriving value on the bases when you strip out the stolen base component. If we subtract stolen base runs (SBR) from baserunning runs (BRR), the Cardinals rank a very solid eighth from 1991 to present. Since 2000, they’re fourth league-wide, surpassed only by the Rockies, Angels, and Rangers. Even in the Matheny era, they’ve collected the 14th highest BRR-SBR. That’s right around average. And while that’s no great shakes, it’s still a far cry from the poor showing in SBR. All of this begs the question whether or not this is normal. How often does a terrible basestealing franchise also register very positive results in all other baserunning components? And in fairness, I think we also want to see if the opposite is true- are there franchises who are great when stealing bases but terrible at baserunning?

To test this out, I’m going to take each team’s SBR since 1991 and compare it to their BRR-SBR (their baserunning runs stripped of stolen bases), and show it in a scatterplot. I’ve highlighted the Cardinals as well as some outliers in the quadrants.

First of all, let’s all take a moment to admire how comically bad the Red Sox have been at baserunning since 1991. They’ve forfeited twice as many runs on the bases (outside of stolen bases) as the second worst team in the sample (the Mariners). Second, we can see that the Cardinals aren’t quite an outlier here, at least not in terms of having wild discrepancies between their standing in the two categories. To be sure, the Cardinals’ gap is a little on the high side, but they aren’t alone. The Angels’ gap is enormous- they’re the true outlier here. And the Phillies stand on the opposite end of the spectrum with lots of success stealing bases, but a poor ability to take extra bases. In all, the distance between the Cardinals’ SBR and their BRR-SBR is the 10th largest in the sample. If we look at rankings instead of total SBR and total BRR-SBR, their distance is the 6th largest. Again, it’s on the high side, but not outlandishly so.

Before I go too much further, I want to defend my selection of 1991 as my starting point for that last graph. As a franchise, the Cardinals value consistency and stability, probably much more so than any other franchise except maybe the Yankees. Howard Megdal’s The Cardinals Way goes into great detail about this. Since 1995, the franchise has had one owner, two or three general managers (three if you count Michael Girsch as a unique operator from John Mozeliak), two managers, and countless on-field and baseball operations employees who have served as the organizational backbone for multiple decades. Names like George Kissell, José Oquendo, and John Vuch come to mind, for instance, amongst so many others. There’s no doubt the organization has shifted and changed over the years, but there’s a strong direct line from at least 1995 to the present day. Moreover, we’ve seen that these SBR and BRR-SBR results have been very consistent going all the way back to 1991. I could have shown only 2000 to present (the 21st century), or 1995 to present (the DeWitt era), or even 2012 to present (the Matheny years), but each would have shown the exact same thing.

As a franchise, the Cardinals are fundamentally sound at taking extra bases on the basepaths, or at least above average. How can a franchise with such a firm grasp of effective baserunning suddenly forget everything they know when it comes to stolen base attempts? I have three theories, but sadly no way of knowing the degree to which any of them are accurate.

Theory #1: Reaching back two paragraphs, given organizational stability and the value they place on development, this could be a development issue. As players rise through the farm system, perhaps the folks who are teaching them proper baserunning and basestealing fundamentals are succeeding in one area and failing in another.

Theory #2: Drafting talent is a bit of a zero sum game. Sure, everyone wants every draft pick to flash five tools. But frequently, you have to prioritize different parts of a prospect’s game when choosing who to draft. If Prospect A has great bat control, can mash, and play defense reasonably well but has a poor baserunning IQ, he’s still a much better prospect than Prospect B who has no power, mediocre bat-to-ball skills, but supreme baserunning talent. Prospects are puzzles with tons of variables making up their total value. It’s very possible the Cardinals have placed a very low priority on speed and basestealing IQ, compared to other tools, when evaluating prospects.

Theory #3: You can coach up a kid’s ability to react appropriately on the bases as they develop. And if you have, say, a game-savvy veteran third base coach with decades of experience, you can maximize a team’s value on the bases. Something like that might even manifest itself via years and years of positive numbers in BRR-SBR. You’d want to exclude SBR there because they’re different. Stolen bases are a different critter. When a player attempts a stolen base, it’s frequently a choice made in the dugout, by the manager. Or if a player has a permanent green light, the choice to give him the permanent green light is made in the dugout by the manager. In other words, theory #3 is that Cardinal managers since 1991 have had a poor grasp of when to attempt stolen bases.

I lean towards #3, especially since the current manager is a disciple of the previous manager, which implies that the situation easily could have compounded itself. For what it’s worth, Joe Torre- responsible for the bad 1991 to 1995 portion of these SBR numbers- went on to post some very positive SBR numbers as Yankee manager from 1996 to 2007 (many finishes in the upper 80th percentile). Likewise, Tony LaRussa’s Oakland teams also excelled in SBR, with the caveat that, well, they had RICKEY! His White Sox teams were all over the map (as low as 2nd percentile, as high as 99th percentile).

The good news is that the impact here is minimal. Watching poorly timed stolen base attempts can be maddening as a fan, but the reality is that even the very worst teams cost themselves 5 to 10 runs in a single season with poor stolen base choices. In fact, other than the 20 worst SBR teams since 1991, the max value lost is -5.8. That comes out to about half a win over the course of a season. I don’t mean to be too dismissive of this because every run counts, and marginal values (like SBR) add up fast. It frustrates us all as fans annually, and it precipitates articles like these annually. It’s clearly an area where the franchise could improve. But in the grand scheme, their poor ability to steal bases is not killing the offense or sinking seasons, not by itself.