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Monday, May 12, 2008

The Need for Speed 

The Phillies emerge from a so-so trip out to the West which saw the team drop four of even games against the Diamondbacks and Giants with an off-day before starting up a three-game series with the Atlanta Braves tomorrow. I’ll preview the Phillies – Braves series tomorrow.

Despite losing two of three to the Giants over the weekend, I think the Phillies are returning a stronger team than they left Philadelphia as. Jimmy Rollins has returned to the roster and extended trips to the West Coast have to be draining on the Phillies. Up next: the Braves and then an inter-league series with the Toronto Blue Jays, a rematch of the 1993 World Series …

I wanted to talk a little about speed and the Phillies … There are basically two things we look at to measure speed in baseball: stolen bases and triples. The stolen base is a measure of speed because the player attempting to steal has to traverse the area from first to second while the ball is still within the baseball diamond area. You have to be fast to go from a dead-stop to a run and accomplish that. We also look at triples because players need to be quick to leg out the extra 90 feet to take this from a double to a three-bagger. We usually don’t count doubles because usually doubles are the product of hard-hit balls to distant portions of the ballpark rather than speed.

As those who read sabremetric publications like The Hardball Times or Baseball Prospectus, or who read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, know the stolen base isn’t typically a strategy held in high esteem by the sabremetrics community. I’ve often argued that where you stand on the stolen base is a pretty good indication about whether or not you stand on the Catholic or Protestant divide of baseball, the old schoolers or the sabremetricians. To the old school, Small Ballers, the argument for the stolen base is basically this: you’ve got to be aggressive and do little things like bunt, hit-and-run and, yes, steal, to get that extra base to get into position to score and to claw out those runs.

The counter-argument is basically that base-stealing is counter-productive because the penalty for being caught stealing out-weighs the benefits. Better to play safer station-to-station baseball, advancing runners with singles, doubles and the mighty home run. Consider this …

According to Baseball Prospectus’ Run Expectancy Matrix (see, Table 4-1.1 of Baseball Between the Numbers), a team with a runner on first and no outs can expect to score 0.9259 runs in an inning. Let’s say that runner attempts to steal second base. There are two possible outcomes:

If he’s safe, the run expectancy matrix improves to 1.1596, an improvement of 0.2337 …
If he’s out, the run expectancy matrix declines to 0.2866, a decline of 0.6393 …

Your position can increase by a quarter of a run, or it can decline by two-thirds of a run. The guys at Baseball Prospectus ran the numbers and determined that a stolen base adds 0.1593 runs to a team’s total, while a caught stealing subtracts 0.3687 runs from a team’s total.

If you play the numbers, the BP guys argue, then stealing bases is a losing strategy unless you can be successful around 73% of the time.

The 2007 Phillies were a remarkable successful team in this respect, successfully stealing 138 bases in 157 tries, for a 88% success rate. Applying the numbers above, the Phillies added 22 runs to their offense with base-stealing though they lost 7 runs with the caught stealings. Total net gain: 15 runs. The New York Mets, the Phillies competition last season, led the majors with 200 stolen bases, but their aggressive base-running only netted them an extra 15 runs as well because they were caught stealing 46 times (in fact, they were actually a tenth of a run behind the Phillies). While it isn’t conventional sabremetric wisdom, I think that the stolen base was a successful strategy and helped the Phillies improve their offense in ‘07. I think that most of the credit for that belongs to First Base Coach Davey Lopes, who was brought onto the team last season to help Charlie Manuel. Taking players like Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Michael Bourn and Chris Roberson aside, he made them all into aggressive base-runners who stole bases by the bushel. J.Roll and Victorino finished fifth and sixth respectively in terms of stolen bases in the N.L. in 2007, with J.Roll swiping 41 in 47 tries (87.2% success) and Victorino taking 37 of 41 (90.2%). Michael Bourn, in limited playing time, stole 18 of 19 bases (94.7%).

Applying BP’s numbers, that meant that J.Roll’s running added 4.32 runs, Victorino added 4.42 runs, and Bourn added 2.50 runs. Compare those totals to that of the Mets Jose Reyes, who led the N.L. in steals with 78 in 99 attempts (78.8%), but whose manic base-running only added 4.68 runs.

Lopes also helped press Jimmy Rollins in the basepaths to leg out more triples. J.Roll, who had previously led the N.L. in triples three times, led the N.L. in triples once again, but he hit 20 in ‘07, eight more than his previous season highs in ’01 and ’04. With Lopes counsel, the Phillies went from eighth in stolen bases in 2006 to second last season, and from sixth in triples to first last season.

Now, one thing that I thought when I looked at the Phillies base-stealing totals was that Lopes tutelage helped the Phillies run the bases well. Well … the Phillies base-running stats yield some interesting facts. While the Phillies over-all gained +104 bases in 2007 with their aggressiveness on the bases, they gained 100 of those 104 via base-stealing. The Phillies rated a +4 based on pure running on the bases according to the 2007 Bill James Handbook … As an aside, I’ll note that the Mets likewise struggled, posting an MLB-best +111, of which all but three were a product of base-stealing … It is kind of an interesting thing: that the two fastest teams in baseball were actually average base-running teams. The best MLB in running the bases in 2007 was, of all teams, the Kansas City Royals at +60. The best team in the N.L. was the Atlanta Braves at +40.

What else? The Phillies made 24 base-running outs, which was pretty average (the N.L. average was 22.6) … Phillies base-runners scored about 29% of the time, a little bit better than the MLB average of 28%.

One way of looking at what Lopes did was to look at the improvements Victorino and Rollins made in ’07 over their ’06 stats. (Not enough data to look at Bourn.) Unfortunately, while there is data on Victorino, there isn’t much. Victorino made a base-running out and was +14 in base-running in ’06. Last season he made four base-running outs and was +36, but James sub-divides base-running (+7) from base-stealing (+29). Looking at Victorino’s numbers, I cannot say that there is anything to support m theory that Lopes influence made the team better, more aggressive base-runners or improved the team in any better.

The numbers are much different with Rollins: in ’06 Rollins was a mere +9 in base-running and made four base-running outs. In ’07, Rollins was a whopping +61. While +29 of that was base-stealing, even more – +32 – was honest-to-goodness base-running. Additionally, Rollins didn’t make a single base-running out. It is difficult to draw conclusions from numbers relating to one player, but it seems likely to me that Lopes influence made Rollins a better threat running the bases and helped make him the 2007 N.L. MVP. Given how critical Rollins play was to the Phillies success last season, then Lopes – it could be argued – played a vital role in securing the Phillies the N.L. East title by making J.Roll into an aggressive base-runner.

The Phillies have had numerous set-backs this season and I wondered how the setbacks were affecting the Phillies totals. First, the Phillies dealt Michael Bourn to the Astros in the Brad Lidge deal, thus losing their fourth outfielder and their primary defensive replacement / pinch-runner. Then Lopes was diagnosed with cancer and took a leave of absence from the team. Finally, Rollins and Victorino both went down during big portions of the month of April. Rollins only just made his return to the lineup Friday night against the San Francisco Giants.

At the moment the Phillies top base-stealer is – surprise, surprise – Jayson Werth with six steals in seven tries. Victorino is right behind him with five in six tries, while J.Roll has swiped just two. Collectively the Phillies have 21 steals in 26 attempts (80.7%). The Phillies have also only hit five triples so far this season. Astonishingly, Ryan Howard (1) has out-tripled Jimmy Rollins (0). That will change …

Overall, the Phillies rank ninth in stolen bases and eleventh in triples. The Phillies poor showing in both categories is largely a product of Rollins and Lopes being away from the team. Rollins is already back in the lineup and Davey Lopes ought to re-join the team shortly. I’d expect to see the Phillies get much, much more aggressive on the bases and start to really stretch opposing defenses. It is worth noting that despite the Phillies injuries the team has emerged from April with a winning record and sits, at 21-18, just three games out of first place at the moment. With J.Roll back, look for the Phillies to start positing some big speed numbers to balance their awesome power stats.

Phillies – Braves tomorrow.

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I love the way you find a way to bash the Mets in each and every post. It's pathetic. Maybe that's why you post one article a week.
Now if only Howard starts seeing the pitches... look out! As for anonymous, the Mets deserve all of the bashing they get and more. They're a bunch of serial over-rated, no-hustle (Reminder of Jose Reyes' repeated lack of hustle on batted balls), under-achievers.
Good analysis - and to the cockroach New York fan who thinks the world orbits the 5 boroughs - there was no bashing here just a truly interesting and common sense way to determine and evaluate true effectiveness in baserunning. Get over yourself and find some other dark alley of the internet to infest.
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