Is there a correlation between stolen bases and team success?

Sep 6, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds base runner Billy Hamilton (6) slides as he steals 2nd base during the bottom of the 8th inning of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

The stolen base: a hot topic for debate among so called old and new-school baseball minds. Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” (published in 2003) famously discusses Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta, and the Oakland Athletics’ front office disdain for making outs, and in turn their supposed hatred of the evil stolen base attempt. Detractors (the “old school”) love the stolen base, and wholeheartedly reject the less is more philosophy when it comes to base-stealing.

Truthfully, the stolen base itself isn’t necessarily taboo in sabermetric circles. Sure, the 2002 Oakland Athletics, the club that was detailed in Lewis’ best-seller, finished dead last in the majors in steals with just 46, but more important is the beautifully simplistic idea that outs are a precious commodity, one in which each team is only given 27 of per contest. Why squander them? Willingly handing over an out via a bunt or any other method is frowned upon, and the avoidance of an out (the now-common on-base percentage stat) is celebrated above all else, short of runs and wins.

Of course, avoiding outs directly leads to runs, and thus, wins. So in the same vein as a bunt is seen as a poor decision nearly every time, getting thrown out attempting to advance from first to second base on a steal is even worse. Not only is the offensive club incurring an unnecessary out, but the base runner is erased entirely, rather than sacrificing an out to advance one base.

A successful stolen base, on the other hand, is wonderful; a successful sacrifice bunt without the actual sacrifice. There remains such a wide chasm in results between successful and unsuccessful stolen base attempts that it remains a polarizing topic. Some of the progressive, forward-thinking front offices, like Tampa Bay, are routinely near the top of the league in stolen bases. Others, such as St. Louis, usually rank near the bottom.

Is there a pattern over recent seasons that might show us how the stolen base has (or has not) been used as a tool for successful organizations? For the purpose of this piece, “successful” means any team that has reached the postseason. In baseball, more than in any other sport, reaching the postseason is (or at least, should be) the primary goal of each season. With the rounds of the playoffs representing anywhere from a microscopic .006% of the regular season (the one-game Wild Card Round) to a mere .04% (the seven-game league championships and World Series), we should all be able to agree that the playoffs are simply a crapshoot. Once a team gets there, anything can happen.

We’ll study the past five seasons, from the 2008 regular season through last year. I won’t include this year in the chart, since the data isn’t quite complete. Here is what the past five seasons have looked like, with the overall MLB rank in stolen bases next to the team name, and the average rank of the playoff teams below each season.

2012

2011

2010

2009

2008

BAL (30) DET (30) SF (30) STL (24) CHW (25)
DET (29) STL (29) ATL (27) MIN (18) CHC (15)
CIN (26) MIL (21) MIN (26) COL (12) MIL (10)
TEX (25) PHI (19) CIN (15) NYY (11) BOS (7)
STL (24) ARI (7) NYY (12) LAD (8) LAD (6)
NYY (23) TEX (5) PHI (10) PHI (7) LAA (5)
ATL (18) NYY (4) TEX (7) BOS (5) PHI (4)
WSN (15) TBR (2) TBR (1) LAA (3) TBR (1)
SFG (10)
OAK (9)

20.9

14.6

16

11

9.1

 

Kind of an odd mix of teams. Just last year, 8 of the 10 playoff teams were in the bottom half of Major League Baseball in stolen bases, and 6 of those teams were in the bottom 8. In the past three seasons, the team that was dead last in the majors in steals made the playoffs. Reaching back to 2008 and 2009, the average rank of playoff teams in stolen bases was right around 10th. Quite the contrast.

For the most part, this year’s likely playoff teams are following the apparent trend towards less stolen bases. Detroit and St. Louis are have the least amount of steals in the majors, and teams like Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Oakland are all in the bottom third as well. Even Tampa Bay, which finished in the top six in steals in each of the past five seasons, including first in 2008, 2009, 2010 and second in 2011, is currently just 19th in baseball in stolen bases.

So…is there a correlation? It’s nearly impossible to say, short of the obvious statement that advancing on the basepaths is a benefit to a team’s offensive attack. The tough part is the risk. Is it worth it? There have been a number of fantastic studies done on this important questions, but the consensus is this: the break-even point where a stolen base attempt is beneficial varies based on game situation, but most numbers suggest that the break-even point is somewhere between 68% and 75%.

In other words, if you’re really, really good at swiping bases, well, feel free and take as many bags as you want. Reds’ speedster Billy Hamilton, for instance, stole bases at an 83.33% clip this year in Triple-A, finishing the year 75-for-90. Rickey Henderson, baseball’s all-time stolen base leader, finished his career at 80.76% (an astonishing 1406-for-1741). There’s simply no denying that guys like that absolutely add value on the base paths.

This is precisely why savvy, “new-age” front offices allow stolen bases, provided that the situations in which they are attempted and the success rate at which they’re completed is satisfactory. In finishing in the top-two in the MLB from 2008-2011, the Rays stole bases at right around 75%. As a team, that’s pretty incredible. Tampa’s percentage has slipped to just 66% in 2013, and the league average has risen to 72.5%.

As a whole, stolen base attempts are becoming more intelligent as teams have begun to pick their spots more carefully. As always, there is a human element and a near-immeasurable piece to wreaking havoc on the basepaths, but the better the quantifiable numbers look, the more room there is to play around with.

The answer to the title question? To an extent, yes. And unlike the simple equation [more runs = more wins], which is as true as it is crude, there is no way to equate [stolen bases = "x" amount of wins]. While the ability to create and accumulate runs can be measured in a variety of ways, most medievally by batting average and more accurately with on-base percentage and any number of newer, weighted statistics, the ability to steal bases and the ultimate effect that said stolen bases have on runs and in turn, wins, is much more difficult to quantify.

So while stolen bases and “speed” are often lumped into the same category as something that winning teams possess, let’s not forget that they aren’t necessarily one and the same. The stolen base remains a viable weapon in today’s MLB, but the smartest and most successful teams have learned to use it sparingly and in certain situations in order to maximize the overall return.

We could certainly see another team with a below league-average number of stolen bases win the World Series, like the Cardinals in 2011 and the Giants in 2010. Or we could see a team of thieves, such as the 2012 Giants, 2009 Yankees, or 2008 Phillies. The Red Sox are really the only current contender with stolen base numbers easily above the league average, save for a September miracle from the stolen-base-leader Kansas City Royals. Looking at the recent past, it’s difficult to see any kind of a clear pattern. The stolen base will remain a weapon, but it’s frequency and success rate will morph with other tendencies throughout the game itself.

At the same time, it’s extremely difficult to find a conclusive trend or correlation in either direction. Every team is built differently, and it’s often the teams that understand the best way to use their roster as constructed that find the most consistent success. Sometimes, that club happens to swipe a lot of bases. And sometimes, it doesn’t.

 

Topics: Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals, MLB, Oakland Athletics, Rickey Henderson, St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays

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  • Lee Stitzel

    This is beyond atrocious empirical work. First, correlation has a real scientific meaning. You can very simply find whether there is a correlation between a team’s steals and its wins. Run on over to excel. It has a function for it. Saying here’s a table of teams and their steal totals is not informative. Oh look I don’t see a trend. Nonsense.

    Second, whether steals and wins are correlated isn’t interesting. Of course many of the teams who made the playoffs have low team steals. Team home runs and team steals are likely to negatively correlated. If you don’t account for other team statistics you can’t say anything about the value of a steal.

    Third, sabermetrics does deal with steals and their value, usually their value in relations to runs.

    Is your idea good? Yes, but this isn’t the right approach. If this article stopped about five paragraphs in it would have been just fine. I’m not saying the steal is good or isn’t good but this article doesn’t do anything to answer that question.

    • Ben

      I appreciate the comments. I understand the scientific meaning of correlation. Sure, this wasn’t an all-encompassing study. I understand that. But I wouldn’t say that it simply “is not informative” to look at steal totals from playoff teams. It’s absolutely crude, but it was also a quick and dirty way of demonstrating that not all playoff teams are built equally, and just because a team is “old and slow” doesn’t mean they can’t win.

      Also, I did touch on sabermetrics dealing with steals and their value in relation to runs. I didn’t go into it in detail, as this was not necessarily the piece for that. I will admit to the analysis being very simplistic, but I’m not sure that’s always a bad thing.

      • Lee Stitzel

        Ben, I stand by the content of my comments but I let the tone get well out of hand. It was unprofessional and unnecessary. I did point out the positive part of your article and truly believe it is an interesting question. I won’t back away from my claim that this is unimformative but it is entertaining. I applaud you for responding with class.

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