The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Stolen Bases”

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 14 – The Detroit Tigers

One in a Million movie poster.

Image via Wikipedia

There are many paths to the Major Leagues.

Some teenagers are drafted right out of high school, spend a few years in the minors, and eagerly ascend to the parent ball-club.

Others make an almost seamless transition from college baseball to the Majors, spending little if any time in the minor leagues.

Still other players from foreign lands, such as Ichiro, jump right into Major League roles with varying degrees of success.

There is one unique avenue to the Major Leagues, however, that very few players have ever traversed:  Federal Penitentiary to the Major Leagues.  In fact, it is certainly the most unlikely path to Major League stardom.

There was one player, however, who broke into the Major Leagues in 1974 after having followed that exact path.

His name was Ron LeFlore.

Ron LeFlore was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1948.  Then, as now, Detroit was a rough town.  His father was an unemployed alcoholic.  His mother was a hardworking nurse.  It didn’t take long for young Ron LeFlore to find trouble.  By the time he was a teenager, he’d acquired a criminal record.  Within a few years, LeFlore found himself in a Federal Penitentiary, a 5 to15-year sentence for Armed Robbery hanging over his head.

Then something remarkable happened.  Billy Martin, then manager of the Tigers, decided to pay a visit to an incarcerated friend of his, Jimmy Karalla.  (I find this humorous, but unsurprising.)  During this visit, Martin just happened to notice LeFlore’s speed and strength during prison workouts.  Right then and there, he convinced the prison administrators to allow LeFlore a pass for Day Parole so that LeFlore could attend a tryout with the Tigers.  LeFlore so impressed Tigers management that they signed him to a contract which allowed LeFlore to meet his conditions for parole.

Ironically, Martin was fired soon afterward for ordering his pitchers to throw at opposing team’s hitters.

Finally, already 26-years old, LeFlore first donned a Tigers uniform 1974.  A part-time player in ’74, LeFlore was still learning the game, periodically displaying his natural athletic abilities.

In his first full season in 1975, LeFlore hit just .258, but the Tigers stuck with him.  His 28 stolen bases (despite 20 caught stealings) promised more to come.

In 1976, LeFlore improved dramatically.  He hit .316, scored 93 runs, and stole 58 bases.  He even got to play in his one and only All-Star game.

The ’76 squad, which also included Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, had to be one of the most unlikely groups of players ever assembled.

But 1977 signaled Ron LeFlore’s full arrival as a Major League talent to be reckoned with.  At age 29, he batted .325 lashing 212 hits, including a career high 16 home runs, plus 30 doubles, ten triples, and an even 100 runs scored.

His aggressive style of play in the field and on the base-paths drew a few awkward comparisons in the Press to a previous controversial Detroit star named Ty Cobb.  Although the comparison was, in some respects, highly exaggerated, LeFlore, like Cobb, was much more respected than he was liked.

But despite LeFlore’s accomplishments in 1977, I have chosen 1978 as Ron LeFlore’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season.

Although his batting average actually dropped to .297 in ’78, he drew a career high 65 walks, and he led the American League in runs scored with 126, and in stolen bases with 68.  He just missed 200 hits for a second consecutive year (198) and he drove in a career high 62 runs.  His 105 runs produced was good for second place in the A.L.  He also led the A.L. in singles with 153.

LeFlore worked hard to become a very good defensive outfielder as well.  In 1978, LeFlore led all A.L. center-fielders in put-outs with 438.  The previous season, he led A.L. center-fielders in assists with 12.

Also in 1978, “One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story” starring LeVar Burton as LeFlore, aired on CBS to positive reviews.

LeFlore spent just one more season in Detroit before moving on to Montreal for the 1980 season.  But he continued to improve his stolen base totals for four successive seasons, swiping 78 for Detroit in his final season with that club, and then grabbing an N.L. high 97 in his one season with the Expos.

LeFlore played in the Major League for just nine seasons, retiring after the 1982 season with the White Sox at the age of 34.

In just six full seasons and three partial seasons, LeFlore successfully stole 455 bases (among the top 50 all-time), scored 731 runs, posted a .288 career batting average, and lashed 1283 hits.

Clearly, LeFlore found redemption on a Major League playing field.

After his retirement, LeFlore worked briefly as a baggage handler for United Airlines. Then he spent several years coaching and managing in various minor league organizations in both the U.S. and Canada.

There are currently over two million Americans serving prison time in the United States, by far the most in the entire Western World.  How much wasted talent and human potential languishes hopelessly behind bars, hoping, perhaps even praying, to find some redemption of their own?

And, as Billy Martin did in 1973, who will take a chance on some young man, granting him perhaps one last chance to embrace his inherent human dignity and self-respect?

Stupid Manager Tricks: Part 1

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.

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