It’s Dumb Not To Steal

A fact about MLB I keep forgetting is that your experience of the league is skewed by the games you watch.  This year I’ve watched a lot of two teams: the Guardians and the Cubs. And in watching these teams play, I’ve seen a lot of stolen bases. Way more than I’m used to watching, like a couple per game.

If I combine that with the fact that I’m constantly being told in articles, podcasts and tweets that stolen bases are up and the success rate is up, I’ve assumed that this was a league-wide thing.  It isn’t!

I did some cursory glances at some team stats for 2023 and was shocked that what I have been watching isn’t occurring elsewhere.

Firstly, let’s get the overall details out of the way. Stolen bases are up, a 47% year-on-year increase comparing the first three weeks of the season. This is driven partly by more stolen bases being attempted (34%), and also by the increase in success rate, up from 73.5% to 80.8%. 

This is happening because runners are getting further from first base and creating better stolen base attempts. The analysis from Tom Tango, below, shows this to be true, with a big increase in low probability caught stealing chances and a decline in high probability chances.

The rule changes around limiting pickoffs and slightly larger bases have definitely increased the run game. But it isn’t equally applied to all teams. To show it isn’t a league-wide increase, I’m going to highlight a couple of cities and then show you all the teams.

Tale of Two Cities

Cleveland and Minnesota are the “powerhouses” of the AL Central, and these teams’ approaches to the new rules couldn’t be more different. In the first three weeks of the 2022 season, Cleveland and Minnesota had 10 and eight stolen base attempts, respectively. In the first three weeks of 2023, Cleveland has attempted to steal 10 times more than Minnesota.

The Twins have decreased their stolen base attempts, whilst the Guardians have tripled theirs. For me this is remarkable, the league has implemented rules to increase the run game, and a team isn’t utilising it. For me, it’s close enough to front-office malpractice for teams to be encouraging base stealing less now.

Divergent Paths 

Minnesota isn’t just a one-team exception to the others; there are nine teams which have attempted fewer steals in 2023 compared to 2022. 

In contrast, the Cubs and the Guardians have attempted 20 more than in 2022, with a further seven teams attempting 10 more. There isn’t even a split between what I would have thought were analytically strong teams versus weaker ones.

Some teams can possibly be explained by a change in staff (Dodgers losing Turner and Bellinger), but on the whole, these teams are not utilising the new rules.  I know of one team which has come out saying straight up they aren’t going to steal much, the Angels.

“We’re not really constructed to steal bases and move guys over,” Angels manager Phil Nevin said.

The Angels attempted fifteen less than last year, which maybe they should have done because they were objectively bad with their 58% success rate. But do they really have a team that cannot steal?

The other thing to note is that the 81% overall success rate, and the success rate for most of the top stealing teams, is above the required amount to break even on stolen bases. This means we could see them try and steal even more. In 2023, it’s sat at roughly a 74% success rate for no-outs steals of second to be a net positive.

Need for Speed

If you’ve read any of my erstwhile Bat Flips & Nerds colleague Darius’ work at Baseball Prospectus on stolen bases you might be aware of this, but while the very fast players have always been good at stealing, in the aggregate, slower players have become better and better at stealing bases in recent years. Do the Angels have a comparatively slower team than the others, and does that even matter?

The average sprint speed for the Angels team is 26.5 ft/s which is slightly below the league average of 27 ft/s. It would rank them as the 6th slowest team in MLB. If we were to look at it from a different angle to see how many players they have above league average, they have five, which is once again just below the average of six per team and would have them 11th lowest.

So, Nevin is right in saying that he doesn’t have a speedy bunch, but do you have to be speedy to steal? The answer is not really.

The two graphs above show that a team’s average sprint speed or how many players they have above league average has very little impact on the number of stolen base attempts. There are some very slow teams, like the Yankees and Mets that are stealing lots of bases.

This then highlights a separate issue, are these players bad at getting a good lead on the base paths, and if so, do the Angels not have the requisite coaching staff to rectify this problem? That’s sadly something we cannot answer with the data which is publicly available, but it does kind of seem like that might be the problem.

Why do I think this is the case? Because there are runners with below-average sprint speed like Gleber Torres (26.0 ft/s) and players with just above-average Cedric Mullins (27.6 ft/s) and Steven Kwan (27.3 ft/s), who are stealing bags for fun already this season.

What’s the cost of not stealing?

Going back to our two cities, from stolen bases alone, Cleveland has increased the expected runs score by about three runs so far, and Minnesota has decreased theirs by about one run. That four-run difference is over the first 19-20 games of the season; if we project that for a full season, it would be something around 30-35 runs.  And by the current rate of 10 runs per win, the difference in these two teams’ running game is 3-3.5 wins to Cleveland.

The Angels are already on -1.5 weighted runs from base stealing, compared to 0.5 runs for the Astros. 

These are actually massive numbers, which teams shouldn’t be overlooking. Teams would pay a player handsomely to add one who could provide that output. If teams have players who cannot steal, then they should be spending money getting the right coaches in to help out otherwise, they’re giving up runs and wins in the aggregate to other teams.

So, when a team comes out saying they aren’t stealing much, that just tells me they aren’t serious about trying to win. Sorry Angels fans.

Featured image of Esteury Ruiz by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Russell is Bat Flips and Nerds’ resident analytical genius, and arguably Europe’s finest sabermetrician.  If you’re not following Russell on Twitter @REassom then you’re doing baseball wrong.

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