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Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Life in the Fast Lane 

It was the top of the seventh inning and Pat Burrell came to bat. Leading 7-5, the Phillies starting Left Fielder drew a walk off Giants reliever Jack Taschner. Manager Charlie Manuel chose to have reserve outfielder Michael Bourn enter the game to run for Burrell. With the heart of the Phillies order out of the way the Phillies six, seven, eight hitters were left to drive Bourn the final 270 feet to attempt to give the Phillies that extra cushion they’d need to escape San Francisco with a 2-2 split in the series. After Aaron Rowand flied out to right field, Bourn’s chances of scoring seemed to dim significantly as Wes Helms came to the plate.* Then, the impressive display of speed began:

First, Bourn took off for second base, beating the throw by a good margin. It was Bourn’s second steal of the season. Taschner dug in again to pitch to Helms. Then, suddenly, Bourn broke to third base and beat the throw again by a hefty margin. The Giants fans looked on with stunned amazement as Bourn stood up and brushed himself off. The cameras panned to the grins on the faces of Manager Charlie Manuel and Davey Lopes. Their gamble seemed to be paying off. Still, the weak-hitting Helms would have to get Bourn the last ninety feet home.

Could Helms hit a fly deep enough to score Bourn or even get a hit? The answer was no. Helms put the ball into play by tapping a weak grounder to the Giants Omar Vizquel at shortstop. Playing in to try and prevent Bourn from scoring, Vizquel saw Bourn breaking for home and fired the ball to Giants catcher Bengie Molina. The throw from Vizquel was right on the money and Molina did a nice job trying to shield the plate, but Bourn was one step ahead, beating the tag from Molina by a half second.

Safe!

The Phillies lead was now 8-5. The ESPN crew broadcasting the game excitedly raved about Bourn's speed. The margin gave the Phillies beleaguered bullpen some room to work with as they closed out the victory. Impressively it was an explicit example of how speed produced a run. Without speed the Phillies weak-hitting 6-7-8 hitters would have squandered Burrell’s walk. Without speed the Phillies wouldn’t have scored that run.

* Specifically, when Bourn was on first with no outs, he stood a 42% chance of scoring. When Rowand flied out, that dropped to 27%. The steal of second improved that to 41%. When Bourn stole third, the odds swung in his favor, with a 66% chance of scoring. (See, Chapter 4.2, "When Is One Run Worth More Than Two?", Baseball Between the Numbers, page 129.)

The issue of the stolen base lies at the heart of both the sabremetric and small-ball ideologies. To the small-ballers, the stolen base is a vital weapon, a tool that turns a meaningless single into a double, that puts a runner in scoring position. Stolen bases are one way that you “manufacture” runs in small ball and goes hand-in-hand with bunting and the rest of it. To the sabremetricians, the stolen base is an irritating piece of conventional wisdom that the small-ballers cling to against precious little evidence it is useful. Writes James Click in Chapter 4.1 of Baseball Between the Numbers:


“The stolen base may be exciting, but even the best base-stealers in the game are producing only marginal gains for their teams in the recent offensively-dominated era … Stolen-base totals still garner a lot of attention, as teams like to point out how they play ‘Smallball’ or emphasize the running game. But very little attention is paid to the number of times those same runners are thrown out and the damage those outs can do … The stolen base is a useful weapon but also an overrated one.”

(See, “What if Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviglia’s Legs?”, page 115.) In sum, the argument against the stolen base is that teams tend to risk having runners gunned down and surrender outs when they are caught stealing. Teams have to be successful about 75% of the time in order to make the stolen base worth it.

Scenario #1: the team sends the runner from first to second base. What is the benefit? Teams with a runner on first with no outs can expect to score 0.9259 runs an inning. If the runner gets to second base, that increases to 1.1596 runs, or an increase of 0.2337 runs. Roughly +25%.

Scenario #2: the team sends the runner from first to second and he is caught. So the team goes from .9259 runs per inning to 0.2866. That is a 70% drop! When teams are playing for one run to win a game the stolen base is a big risk: a runner on first with no outs stands a 42% chance of scoring. Second base and no outs? 63%. Getting caught going from first to second? The scoring expectations drops to a mere 17%. It is not a winning strategy if you are playing for a run, and it is not a winning strategy to try and put runs up on the board.

However, it is a strategy that I predict we will see a lot more of in the coming days. Slugging percentages and home runs have declined somewhat precipitously this season and the lousy April weather is only partly to blame for it. The renewed focus on steroids by the media and the baseball establishment has had some effect, I believe. The silver age of the power offense, of the home run, is coming to an end. The last time that baseball saw an era dominated as this one has been by teams built around the long ball was the 1950s, the golden ages of the game. However the dominance of the home run faded as teams in the '50s began to emphasize the bunt and stolen base and moved away from home runs. Historian Bill James writes about baseball in the 1960’s: “The use of speed as an offensive weapon, which had atrophied for forty years, began to re-emerge late in the fifties, and by 1962 was a headline story.” (The Bill James Historical Abstract, page 249.) There are a number of reasons for this, like shifts in thinking by leading teams, the success the Go-Go Sox (the 1959 Chicago White Sox) had in reaching the World Series, the shift by some teams from hitters parks like Ebbets Field to the L.A. Coloseum, changes in personel and so on. By the 1960's, when the rules changed to favor pitchers, baseball was already moving towards a speed, defense and pitching style. I think, with the decline of the home run this season, you are going to see teams emphasize speed, defense and pitching more in the future. We are not entering a new dark age for offense, but we are seeing shifts in the game. As one Army officer remarked to author Robert Kaplan: "Attrition of the same adds up to big change." The template for the future team won't be the Oakland A's, but the Anaheim Angels.

So in all of this futurism we ought to talk about presentism. What do we know about the Phillies attitude towards stolen base this season? Well, they rank second in the N.L. in stolen bases attempted with 38, one behind the Mets. This is an increase over seasons past. And Davey Lopes, an enthusiastic proponent of the stolen base, is now an assistant coach.

In 2006 the Phillies ranked eighth in steals attempted with 117. The Nationals led the N.L. with 185 steals attempted, with the Mets right behind at 181. With the Phillies finding success hitting lots and lots of home runs, the team de-emphasized the running game last season. Here is how often the Phillies have been running:

Stolen Bases Attempted:
Phillies / N.L. Average
2007: 38 / 24*
2006: 117 / 133
2005: 143 / 119
2004: 127 / 117

* Thru Monday.

Last year was a bit of an abnormality for the team, how little it ran. I suspect that was largely due to the departure of Bobby Abreu, who had stolen twenty bases in twenty-four attempts in 2006, and left for the Yankees in late July. This year the Phillies seem more interested to trying to run. They have a terrific new weapon to do it: Shane Victorino. The talented Hawaiian attempted seven steals in 2006 and was caught three times. This season Victorino is running a lot more: thirteen steals in sixteen tries, impressive given that he's been on first base just 41 times and second 7.

Right behind him is Jimmy Rollins with eight steals in nine tries. J.Roll, with his powerful bat, is the best lead-off hitter in the N.L. right now. Who else would have eight stolen bases, five triples and nine home runs? Rollins has traditionally been a quick player on the base-paths:

Steals / Caught Stealing / Success %
2001: 46* / 8 / 85%
2002: 31 / 13 / 70%
2003: 20 / 12 / 63%
2004: 30 / 9 / 77%
2005: 41 / 6 / 87%
2006: 36 / 4 / 90%

* Led N.L.

This season is no exception. If he keeps up his current pace, J.Roll will steal 41-42 bases this season.

After J.Roll comes Bourn, who is three-for-three, and Chase Utley, who is three-for-four, and Aaron Rowand, at two-for-two. J.Roll, Victorino and Bourn are the Phillies speedsters. These guys are going to test the opposing defenses with their legs a lot this season. Oh, and in the minors they have two guys named Chris Roberson and Greg Golson who have some wheels.

So those are my thoughts on the importance the Phillies, and the rest of baseball, will be placing on the stolen base this season and in the future. With Ryan Howard in and out of the lineup, look for the Phillies to attempt to manufacture runs with the running game much, much more.

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