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The machine that goes "ping": Stolen base success rates in college baseball

The road to Omaha starts today. Beyond the Box Score takes a look at the run environment in the college game and wonders if teams are stealing too often.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Guess what? Baseball season's already underway. While everyone is counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training and we anxiously await a bulk of "best shape of my life" quotes, college baseball has already begun. Even though it's definitely not Major League Baseball, it definitely is baseball, and if we're as starved for the game as we've claimed to be, well, we really have no reason to go on starving. Baseball is available, and where there's baseball, there's analysis. In this case it's college baseball analysis, something that's mostly new to Beyond the Box Score.

If you've watched much college baseball, even if it's just the College World Series in June, you've probably noticed some not-so-subtle differences between the college and pro game. Of all the differences, perhaps the starkest is the emphasis on smallball in college, where teams often play for one run at a time. This is due to a number of factors, which include but aren't limited to decreased pop from the newest BBCOR regulations, the inability of teams to field more than one or two elite offensive players in a given season, and the lack of physical maturity (strength) among most hitters. In essence, playing for the long ball is almost completely out the window in college baseball. Coaches have chosen to manage the game in the complete opposite fashion.

A big piece of smallball, of course, is the stolen base. Teams in college steal often in an attempt to move a runner into scoring position, then play for a base hit to score the run. There are also a ton of sacrifice bunts, but we'll leave them be for now and focus on those times when a player tries to swipe a bag. Base stealing is an inherently risky maneuver given the fact that if you get thrown out trying, well, your team just lost a base runner, a valuable baseball commodity at any level. Again, this is familiar to us as baseball fans whether you watch college baseball regularly or not.

There's a proper balance to stolen bases depending on your success rate and the number of outs in the inning. As it turns out, the break-even point for how often teams should steal doesn't vary much from what we've come to expect in MLB, no matter how many outs there are in the inning. First, to establish the run environment, this chart gives the run expectancy table for the 2014 Division 1 season.

Bases 0 outs 1 out 2 outs
___ 0.5324 0.2672 0.0823
1__ 0.9460 0.5399 0.1921
_2_ 1.2246 0.7051 0.3082
12_ 1.6288 0.9587 0.4297
__3 1.5800 1.0130 0.3553
1_3 1.8846 1.2406 0.4928
_23 2.1056 1.4495 0.5727
123 2.4458 1.5959 0.7815

Now that we have the run expectancy table, we can compute the break-even point the same way we've done it for MLB. This chart shows the stolen base break-even points for stealing second with a runner on first and 0, 1, or 2 outs.

NCAA stolen base breakeven success rate

We're looking for the rate at which stealing bases becomes advantageous; the chart above shows us. With nobody out or one out in the inning, a team needs to be at least 73% successful to justify their stealing. With two outs, 74% is required. Essentially, we can read this graph the following way: if your stolen base success rate is greater than the break-even point, then you're doing a good job and should continue attempting to steal bases at at least the current rate, if not an increased one. If your success rate is below the break-even point, then you're attempting to steal too often because you're giving up base runners by getting them thrown out too frequently. Of course, this is based on a huge sample: over 8,000 games between 380 teams. A team-by-team analysis will produce somewhat different results, especially considering the unique base stealing abilities of individual teams. But the overall point remains: there's a point at which it becomes detrimental to attempt to steal, and if we've learned anything from watching the college game, it's that coaches love to attempt to steal as part of their larger smallball agenda.

When thinking about stolen base success at the college level, there are a number of things that we'd assume work in the basestealers' favor as compared to our more familiar MLB basestealing environment. First, college players are young and (for the most part) athletic. Given college players' place on the aging curve, they're essentially as fast as they're ever going be. As an added point in the runners' favor, college pitchers are young, inexperienced, and (one would assume) relatively unskilled at holding runners on base. Catchers are also usually a work in progress. With so many college baseball teams across the country, and given the relative scarcity of excellent defensive catchers, one would expect the runners to have their way on the basepaths.

The data, however, tell us something else entirely. The table below gives the stolen base success rates, the ratio of stolen bases to stolen base attempts (including pickoffs), in 2014. Keep in mind the break-even points discussed above.

SB Success Rates 0 outs 1 out 2 outs
Breakeven 70.9% 73.5% 62.3%
Actual 61.6% 59.3% 63.0%

Raise your hand if that's what you expected. If you put your hand up you've either run this data before or you're not being honest. Those stolen base success rates are really low. When compared to run expectancy-based numbers, we see a striking disparity.

What can we take away from this? Coaches are stealing way too often and giving up baserunners. Since baserunners equal runs, the small ball tactics that we're witnessing in the college game are actually costing teams runs, not generating them as intended. Sure, offense is hard to come by with the new iteration of college bats and the lack of polished hitters in the college game, so it's understandable that coaches would try to create runs. But in the battle of perception versus reality, we can see a large disconnect when it comes to swiping bags. Teams are simply not being selective enough when taking chances on the bases.

There is an alternative, a familiar one for this audience: keep players on base. An overriding takeaway from the sabermetric movement, thanks in part to the popularization of Moneyball, is that baserunners are valuable and that teams should avoid losing them unnecessarily. It would appear that college teams are doing just that, sacrificing baserunners by attempting to steal far too often. Take note, we're not talking about a one or two percent margin of inefficiency; we're looking at over 10 percent in some instances. That margin is costing teams runs in a big way.

That isn't to say that teams shouldn't be trying to steal. It's just that they need to become far more efficient at doing so. That likely means cutting down the number of total attempts somewhat drastically and picking spots wisely, specifically choosing only their best runners to swipe bags. They should strongly consider the battery in play and run only when confident that the advantage is in their favor. For more runs, teams should be running less, or at least running into fewer outs, because even if the long ball isn't coming, baserunners are still valuable.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of NCAA. These statistics are freely available in MySQL-compatible format through Bryan's GitHub page. Special thanks to Christopher D. Long and Meredith Wills for their web scraping code.

Jeff Wiser is an editor emeritus at Beyond the Box Score and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, an analytical look at the Arizona Diamondbacks. He and Ryan Morrison are the hosts of The Pool Shot Podcast and you can find his work on craft beer at BeerGraphs. Follow him on Twitter @OutfieldGrass24.

Bryan Cole is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score and a Tulane Green Wave fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @Doctor_Bryan.