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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Speed, A Reflection 

Here is the basic argument against speed from the sabremetricians: stealing bases is risky because it takes a lot of effort to get a runner on base in the first place, so if someone is caught, you’ve squandered a potential run. The benefit, moving a runner closer, is out-weighed by the risk of running, and the potential for a home run or double scoring the runner at the base he currently sits at sometimes renders the benefit of an extra base moot.

Case-in-point: I was at a Cardinals – Pirates game and watched how Tony LaRussa’s small-ball cost his team a run: he sent Edgar Renteria to steal second base with one out. Renteria was called out. Two outs. The next pitch, Scott Rolen walked. Two pitches later, Jim Edmonds hammered a fastball for a home run. Renteria’s run was gone. Had he been successful stealing second it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because Edmonds home run cleared the bases. All LaRussa did was cost his team a run and turn a three-run home run into a two-run homer.

In the book Baseball Between the Numbers, James Click illustrates in Chapter 4.1, “What If Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviglia’s Legs?” how Ricky Henderson’s base-stealing in 1982 didn’t add much to the Oakland A’s offense. Henderson stolen 130 bases that season, breaking the modern record held by the Cardinals Lou Brock in 1974 (118 steals), but was caught 42 times. He gained 130 extra bases for the A’s, but cost them 42 base-runners. The stats say that Henderson’s base-running gained the A’s 22.2 runs with his steals, but he cost them 20.6 when he got caught. Total benefit to Rickey Henderson’s running? 1.6 runs. Click goes on to note:

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.

Click ultimately values the stolen base at .1593 runs and a caught stealing at -.3687 runs. This is partly calculated by looking at the “Win Expectancy Matrix”, which shows how many runs a team can expect to score when runners are on base in a particular situation: a team with a runner on first with no outs can expect to score 0.9259 runs in an inning. Sending the runner to second and succeeding raises that to 1.1596, and increase of 0.2337 runs. Getting caught plunges your chances down to 0.2866, or a decline of 0.6393 runs. Getting caught can cost you half a run or more, while succeeding usually improves your chances slightly. That’s why the numbers say it is a bad move.

In his article Click de-constructs the argument that base-stealing threats significantly distract pitchers as well, noting that while there is evidence that they do indeed improve hitters performance, the effect is pretty negligible.

I looked at the 2007 Phillies and wondered what sort of impact the Phillies running game had on the team. My position all this season has been that the Phillies decision to emphasize the running game this season has sharpened the team’s focus, made them better and more precise base-runners, and helped the stretch the defense. Do I have any particular evidence this is true? No. But I suspect that it is and I want to try and put the numbers to the test.

The Phillies got some nice performances in 2007 in terms of base-stealing: Jimmy Rollins did his usual thing and take 41 of 47 steals. Shane Victorino came out of nowhere, after succeeding 4 of 7 times in 2006, to swipe 37 of 41 bases he tried for. Michael Bourn came out of Triple-A like a bat out of hell and stole 18 of 19 bases. I have harkened back to Bourn’s performance against the San Francisco Giants in May when he entered the game as a pinch-runner, stole second, then stole third and scored when Wes Helms tapped a weak grounder to the infield, but they couldn’t catch Bourn, who was streaking home. Bourn’s legs carried him from first base to home, a true manufactured run if there ever was one.

The 2007 Phillies stole 138 bases and got caught just 19 times. The Phillies ranked second in steals and still managed to rank dead-last in getting caught. That means that the Phillies were successful 87.9% of the time, the best percentage in the N.L. This is absolutely stunning and one of the finest performances in baseball history by a team. The Mets, by contrast, led the N.L. with 200 stolen bases but were caught 46 times, 81.3%.

Applying the formula that a stolen base is worth .1593 runs and a caught stealing costs you .3687 runs, I ran the numbers and figured out who benefited from a running game in 2007:

SB Runs:
Phillies: 14.9
Mets: 14.9
Diamondbacks: 8.5
Giants: 6.8
Rockies: 4.5
Marlins: 4.2
Reds: 4.0
Brewers: 3.5
Dodgers: 3.4
Nationals: 2.5
Cubs: 1.5
Pirates: -0.2
Braves: -0.9
Padres: -0.9
Astros: -1.8
Cardinals: -3.3

Who would have expected the Rockies, of all teams, to generate about 8.5 runs with base-stealing? The Phillies stole 62 fewer bases, but were also caught 27 fewer times. In the end, the benefit to the Phillies offense was just as much and the Phillies put far less effort into it: 89 fewer attempted steals.

So the Phillies score 14.9 extra runs thanks to the running game in 2007. How much extra did they score in 2006? Well, the Phillies stole 92 bases and got caught 25 times. Answer: 5.4 runs. So the Phillies running added nine and a half more runs to their offense this season over last season. Given that the Phillies scored thirty more runs in 2007 than they did last season, it does look like the running game is responsible for the Phillies offense continuing to be so strong.

Individually, here are who on the Phillies contributed to the 14.9 extra runs:

Victorino: 4.41
Rollins: 4.31
Bourn: 2.50
Utley: 1.06
Others: 2.68

One thing that I am very curious about is the Bill James Handbook's projections about how each individual player does in terms of base-running. Good base-runners can take extra bases on balls put into play and affect the game there too. Chase Utley, for example, can run from first base to third or first base to home on a Ryan Howard single. That’s a piece of team speed that doesn’t show up in the stats pages usually, but James has been keeping tally and I expectantly await the 2007 results contained in the 2008 Bill James Handbook. In 2006, James determined, Chase Utley was the second-best base-runner in baseball, with +27 bases gained. He probably added another 4-to-5 runs to the Phillies offense with smart base-running.

There is another thing to discuss along with base-stealing and base-running: triples. The 2007 Phillies led the N.L. in three-baggers with 41. Jimmy Rollins was the prime architect of this, taking 20 himself. A triple, especially when leading off an inning, has a major effect on the game, raising the run expectancy for an inning from 0.5379 with none out to 1.4535. With one out, from 0.2866 to 0.9722. With two outs, from 0.1135 to 0.3623.

Hitting triples is a testament to a player’s speed and skill at running the bases. The triple has been on the decline in the majors for years because of the trend towards the static station-to-station style of the game. Well-hit balls became doubles as hitters played it safe and pulled into second rather than trying to stretch their hit and take third base. Jimmy’s aggressiveness and skill at running the bases is why he was able to hit twenty three-baggers.

So if base-stealing added 10 or so runs to the Phillies offense and better base-running added another 10 or so, we can safely assume that superior base-running skills and aggressiveness added 20-25 runs to the Phillies offense, which is basically how much better the 2007 team was over the 2006 team. Credit Davey Lopes, the Phillies new base-running tutor, for the positive changes made here. He succeeded in making the Phillies more aggressive and faster and that helped to add a new dimension to the Phillies offense. Base-stealing might be a bad move sabremetrically, but I think it paid off handsomely for the Phillies in 2007. Speed was a major reason for success last season.

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