Baseball may be the most “conservative” of all major sports in the sense that once an idea or a philosophy gains broad acceptance, it is almost impossible to change. Baseball’s “Conventional Wisdom” is, at times, venerated as inviolable dogma akin to Holy Scripture. Woe unto ye heretics who question the value of “Small Ball,” Batting Average, or the Speedy Lead-Off hitter.
If you think I exaggerate, just listen to Tim McCarver or Joe Morgan as they wax eloquent as to why sheer aggressiveness on the base-paths is always preferable to a more calculated, cautious approach by a base-runner. Or how On-Base Percentage is an overrated stat because where is the value in a slow-footed catcher clogging the bases?
Over time, I’ve compiled a list of what I call, “Stupid Manager Tricks.” Originally, I was going to include all of them in a single blog-post, but as I began to write about the first item, “The Dubious Value of the Attempted Steal,” I quickly realized that “Stupid Manager Tricks” would have to become a series of posts.
Therefore, in this post, I will highlight one common baseball strategy, part of baseball’s Common Wisdom, that I believe needs to be consigned to baseball’s Dust-Bin of History.
The first item, as I’ve already alluded to, is one of the oldest and dearest strategies in baseball history. I am referring to the The Dubious Value of the Attempted Steal.
The most important word in that short phrase is Attempted because, of course, some stolen base attempts result in the base-runner being thrown out, thereby, in many cases, short-circuiting an otherwise promising scoring opportunity.
It has long been surmised that stolen base attempts rise and fall with the era in which they occur. For example, the assumption is that base-stealing was a more significant part of the game in the Dead Ball era, and then again in the late 1960’s-early ’70’s, when runs were more difficult to come by.
Surprisingly, however, according to baseballanylists.com, there has been no distinct pattern between run scoring and stolen base attempts when comparing one era to another over time.
In fact, they concluded that, “baseball teams have behaved irrationally with their base-stealing strategies throughout history… It seems that steals have not been based on the actual value of the steal.”
They cite “mere fashion” as one reason teams decide to run more in one era as opposed to another one.
Last season, Phillies second-baseman Chase Utley stole 23 bases without getting caught once. In effect, he turned 23 singles into doubles. Think about that for a moment. Does that mean that Utley’s overriding strategy once he reached first base was to automatically try to steal second base? No, it doesn’t. How do we know that? Because Utley reached first base a lot more than 23 times last season, yet he attempted only 23 stolen bases.
Now, not all that many years ago, playing in Joe Morgan’s 1970’s National League, Utley would have been considered less aggressive (negative connotations) on the base-paths compared to a player like Frank Taveras of the Pittsburgh Pirates who stole 46 bases in 1978, but was caught stealing 25 times.
In his day, Taveras was often lauded as an aggressive base-runner who put pressure on the opposing team’s pitcher, a player you would place at the top of the batting order to take better advantage of his speed and base-stealing capabilities.
Yet, despite those 46 stolen bases, Taveras managed to score just 81 runs in 702 plate appearances despite the fact that the Pirates, featuring Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Al Oliver, etc., were one of the premier run-scoring teams in the National League in 1978.
That’s what happens when your “Table Setter” also comes equipped with a .313 on-base percentage.
Meanwhile, Chase Utley, whose on-base percentage was .397 last season, scored 112 runs last season in 687 plate appearances.
Utley is perhaps not as fast or as “aggressive” as Taveras, but he was certainly a better base-stealer, and a much more effective run producer.
And, in the end, isn’t producing runs, (as opposed to merely stealing bases), the reason why any particular player goes up to home-plate, bat in hand, in the first place?
Taveras’ over-aggressiveness, a fatal flaw for the Pirates in 1978 when they finished in second place to the Phillies in the N.L. East, resulted in an extra 25 outs for his team, with little obvious correlation of value-added runs scored as a result.
In other words, it is quite possible that Taveras would’ve scored 81 runs, perhaps a few more, even if he had never attempted a single stolen base that season.
Some stat-heads have calculated that a successful stolen base results in an extra .17-.20 runs scored for the base-runner and his team per steal. This means that if a base-runner successfully steals 40 bases, he might be adding an additional eight runs scored for his team over the course of an entire season.
Meanwhile, it has also been calculated by statisticians far more competent than I that each caught-stealing costs a team about .50-.60 runs apiece.
Therefore, Taveras’ 46 steals may have resulted in an extra 9 runs scored over the course of his 1978 season. But his 25 caught steals cost his team about 13 runs. So, in effect, Taveras aggressive base-running actually cost the Pirates a net total of four runs over the course of the season.
In fact, between 1977-78, the Pirates had several base-runners who ended up costing their team numerous runs over the course of those two seasons. Here are some numbers showing steals / attempted steals:
1977: D. Parker – 17/36, A. Oliver – 13/29, E. Ott – 7/14, R. Stennett – 28/46.
1978: B. Robinson – 14/25, P. Garner – 27/41, F. Taveras – 46/71.
The combined totals for those two seasons by these seven players are 152 steals in 262 attempts, a 58% success rate. If you calculate the theoretical runs gained from successful steals vs. the runs lost from caught stealing, you end up with, conservatively, a net loss of about 100 runs over the two seasons.
In other words, if the Pirates didn’t attempt a single stolen base in either 1977 or ’78, they would have been better off as a team. In ’77, they finished in second place, 5 games behind the Phillies. In ’78, they once again finished in second place behind the Phils, only 1.5 games out of first.
It is entirely possible, then, that the Pirates ran themselves out of at least one, perhaps two, division titles.
So what’s a manager to do? Should he shun stolen bases entirely as an effective offensive weapon in his arsenal? Of course not. In fact, evidence compiled over the past several seasons suggests that many of today’s managers are using the stolen base as a discretionary, tactical weapon in carefully chosen, particular circumstances.
In fact, stolen base success rates are at an all-time high, approaching 78-79 percent over the past few years.
Shouldn’t managers, then, become more aggressive with the running game now that base-stealing success rates are soaring?
Of course not. If today’s Mets, for example, began to run as frequently as the ’78-’79 Pirates, there is no reason to think they would gain any additional strategic advantage over their opponents.
It is likely, then, that we are now at a point in the evolution of baseball strategy that base-stealing today is now at a near-perfect balance between what can reasonably be gained, and lost, by the current, cumulative number of stolen-base attempts in any given season.
There is nothing wrong with aggressiveness in baseball. All things being equal, who wouldn’t enjoy having a Jackie Robinson on their team? And speed on the base-paths is certainly important. Having a base-runner who is capable of moving from first to third base on a single, or who can score from second base on a base-hit, is always an unquestionable asset.
But the term, “aggressive baseball,” used without a qualifying context, is not the same as intelligent baseball. In fact, as we have seen with the example of the Pirates of the 1970’s, it can be quite the opposite.
Which is why the often over-used, under-analyzed value of the “aggressive” Attempted Steal, an example of baseball’s unwise Conventional Wisdom, is a primary example of a Stupid Manager Trick.
Now, if only more of baseball’s T.V. “Analysts” would see it that way…
Next up on Stupid Manager Tricks: The Almost Always Pointless Sacrifice Bunt.