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Should the Mets Put the Brakes on Stolen Bases? Like Many Things, it Depends.

James Kannengieser at the excellent Amazin' Avenue is a tad bit concerned over Sandy Alderson's comment the other day that "stolen bases are a footnote" given the Mets prowess in this area.

He notes that the Mets have essentially been the best base stealing team over the past five years in terms of steals and stolen base percentage. If this is a weapon in the Mets' arsenal, why eliminate it just because the general sabermetric conclusion is that steals, on balance, may be more trouble than they are worth?

My general response is, Alderson is right. In the grand scheme of things, stolen bases are a footnote. However, that doesn't mean the Mets should abandon the tactic.

Let's assume, as linear weights suggest, that every successful steal adds a .25 to a team's run expectancy while every caught stealing decreases their run expectancy by .5. Over the course of 162 games stolen bases only create positive run value when your success rate is high enough to counteract the negative effects of being caught. 

League-wide, over the past decade, the correlation between a team's stolen bases and runs scored is .016. That means that only about .03% of the variation in runs scored can be explained by steals. For the top 50% of teams in terms of steals over the decade the relationship gets better, but it's still only .142. In terms of stolen base success, the correlation with runs scored league-wide was only .19.

That's the definition of a footnote.

The other side of the coin is that the Met's have been among the best in the league (see the chart below, stolen from James' post). Over the past decade, the number of Mets' successful steals explains about 56% of the variation in their runs scored--33% since 2006. (Grain of salt warning--n of 10 here, folks). Given that their ability to steal bases might be more important for their overall offensive success than other teams, one could argue that the Mets should still invest in steals. But this only makes sense if Jose ReyesCarlos Beltran, and David Wright are healthy in 2011 and can steal with a high rate of success.

Season # of SB NL Rank SB% NL Avg SB%
2010 130 1 74.7% 71.2%
2009 122 1 73.5% 70.7%
2008 138 2 79.3% 73.0%
2007 200 1 81.3% 75.6%
2006 146 1 80.7% 71.3%

As I said at the outset, it depends.