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Grand Theft Home Plate: Stats And The Future Of Stealing Home

July 8, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; USA player Billy Hamilton heads to third base on his two-run triple during the third inning of the 2012 All Star Futures Game at Kauffman Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE
July 8, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; USA player Billy Hamilton heads to third base on his two-run triple during the third inning of the 2012 All Star Futures Game at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

Who doesn't love a steal of home? Well, most managers, it seems. In my previous article (check it out here), I wrote a bit about how many times a steal of home has been attempted this season. As far as I can tell, there have really only been three. With that in mind, I'd like to open for discussion how the steal of home is used in the current game, and what a particular statistical article says about how it could or should be used in the future.

At any rate, in my previous post, I mentioned that a particular article set me off on my inquiry about stealing home. That article was published by Josh Goldman over at FanGraphs in November. First, and most importantly, I totally recommend reading the whole article. It's interesting, there's some great info about stolen bases and their associated break even points and the graphs are pretty telling, in my opinion. But here's the part of the article that particularly jumped out at me (bolded emphasis mine):

What some dub as the most exciting play in baseball sees an even bigger split based on the number of outs in the inning. With zero outs in the inning, an 87% success rate is required. With one out, a 70% success rate is required. Finally, with two outs only a 34% success rate is required. The qualitative explanation for why a runner shouldn't make the first or third out at third base can be applied here, with the difference that if the runner is successful, a run does actually score. This causes the required success rate for stealing home with two outs to drop significantly. Does anyone else think Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner or Michael Bourn can steal home at a greater than 34% clip?

I'm left with the following immediate takeaways:

Wait, what? Only a 34% success rate is needed to steal home with two outs? Really?

This is stunning to me, simply because it seems so counter-intuitive. But win expectancy is pretty reliable, so far as I know. So if a third of the time its worth it, why aren't plenty more teams running with a runner at third? Is it because of the remarkably small historical sample regarding steals of home? Is it because it is so rare to have the player on third be someone fast enough to steal home? I doubt that last question is valid, as speedy players do hit triples. It seems as if, given the statistics, maybe teams should be giving the green light a bit more often.

Don't try to steal home with no outs. Also, don't try to steal home with one out.

Seriously, guys. Even with a slight tactical advantage (element of surprise, the right runner at third or a misstep by the pitcher), the odds aren't in your favor, it seems. The straight steal of home probably isn't a reliable steal to try to make, and the stolen base success percentage across MLB for 2012 is 73% overall. It's just too risky.

Who's Next?

Thinking about this article makes me curious about the minor league stolen base leader, Billy Hamilton. If you've been out of the loop, Hamilton stole 103 bases in 123 attempts during the 2011 season in the Reds' system. In 2012, he's been even more prolific, stealing 113 bases, already, in 138 attempts. As any scout, talent evaluator, or person with eyes will tell you, Hamilton is alarmingly fast. He's fast like whoa.

Hamilton also has the rare ability to move himself over to third base, either through the triple (he's already hit 33 in the minors) or through his solid OBP (over .400 for this season in High-A and Double-A) and ability to steal second and third or move up on hits. If you had to choose an ideal human being to try and steal home, Billy Hamilton would probably be that person.

But there are two questions that would determine Hamilton's efficacy as a major league home plate thief. The first is if Hamilton can take advantage of things such as the pickoff to first base (that Bryce Harper used to steal home this season) or a momentary lapse in pitcher concentration (that Everth Cabrera used in his theft), to compliment his ridiculous physical gifts.

Would it behoove the team with the best record in the majors, the Cincinnati Reds, to use Hamilton as a pinch-running specialist as the season comes to the close, or into the playoffs. In the post-season, a single run means a bit more than it might in regular time. Is it worth bringing up a player who, at this moment, might only add value with his legs?

Open Questions

At this point, I'd like to open this up for discussion with our community and with the other brilliant minds at the site. Here's a couple of potential discussion questions, in case you need something to contemplate on a slow Sunday night (or slow first week of August).

  • Do you think that the straight steal of home should be used more often? Less often? Is it used at the right frequency?
  • How fast does the player at third need to be to make a steal of home workable?
  • Does the steal of home really need to be based on observational data (slow pickoff / pitcher indifference) for the play to work properly on a regular basis?
  • If teams tried to steal home more often, would success rates diminish?

It'd be great to hear from the community if there are any good answers to these questions, or if anyone has any other comments or questions that arise from these past two articles on stealing home. Where's the next place we can take this line of analysis?