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Should Teams Be Stealing More?

Otto Greule Jr

Before last year, young, speedy, athletic players were generally valued more by the traditional baseball crowd than the saber-leaning crowd. Saber-types realized that what really mattered was getting on base and hitting for power - stealing bases, being gritty offensively and defensively, and being an "electric" player really wasn't all that important. Then Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera came along and all of a sudden, saber-leaning fans were defending the guy who had speed and defense over the guy who got on base and hit for power.

But, of course, we didn't care about Trout's raw stolen base total, though that was nice for his fantasy baseball owners. No, what was really impressive about Trout's baserunning was that he got caught so infrequently. In 54 attempts, Trout stole 49 bases and only got caught 5 times.

The reason those stolen bases were valuable is because Trout's stolen base success rate was far above the "break-even" rate - that is, the rate of success in which the harm from getting caught stealing is in equalibrium with the benefit of stealing the base successfully.

The tricky thing is that this break-even point is not static. The harm of getting caught stealing depends on the offensive skill and makeup of the team. Bradley Woodrum of Fangraphs looked at one aspect of offense that has a particularly strong influence on the break-even point for stolen bases: the home run.

Before we expand that concept, we must understand why the run values for CS and SB have changed. In the height of the Steroid Era, home runs came in discount baskets. In the aforementioned 2000 seasons, the HR/PA rate nearly hit 3%. Compared to the 2.68% of 2012. That comes to a difference of almost a whole home run per five or six games.

The higher home run rate meant getting on base ended more often with a tater trot than in present seasons. Now, more teams are sliding across home plate as singles, doubles, and the odd triple must replace the extra weekly dinger.

Bradley does a great job of illustrating the effect of the home run on the break-even point, suggesting that teams that hit fewer home runs should be taking advantage of the lower threshold for stolen bases to be effective.

A couple thoughts came to mind when I was reading this piece. Firstly, it seems to me that there would be a relationship between home run hitting skill as a team and stolen base skill as a team. Presumably, power hitters are, in general, slower than the average player - consequently, teams with players that steal a lot of bases may be teams that also hit fewer home runs. I'm not sure what this means, but it's something to consider.

On a somewhat similar note, home runs and stolen bases are not distributed evenly across a team. Some players hit a lot of home runs and some don't. So, when considering the cost and benefit of attempting to steal a base, we cannot simply look at the power of the team as a whole, but the power of the hitters that are up to bat or soon to be up to bat. When Albert Pujols is up to bat, Trout should probably be more conservative, but when Peter Bourjos is up, the cost of getting caught is much lower.

Questions for the community:

1) What else do you think affects the break-even point for stolen bases?

2) Should teams have a different strategy when it comes to stolen bases? Which teams specifically?