Is Billy Hamilton bringing back the stolen base?

Apr 23, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton (6) gets ready to bat in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 23, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton (6) gets ready to bat in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

Is the Cincinnati Reds’ Billy Hamilton going to bring the stolen base back to baseball?

September 30, 2014.

If your memory doesn’t immediately serve to you the relevance of that date, here’s a reminder: AL Wild Card game. The Kansas City Royals were hosting the Oakland A’s in their first playoff game in 29 seasons.

In an odd twist of fate, the Oakland A’s–the architect of the most popular strategy in baseball over the past decade-plus: “Moneyball”–were playing the Royals, a team seemingly devoid of any fancy numbers or new school tactics.

If anything, the plan of attack and attitude of the Royals was quite old-school. Ned Yost’s team was the type former St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog would have been proud of–a team radically aggressive on the base paths with little regard for getting on-base or hitting for power.

On that most compelling evening, the Royals bunted, A LOT, something A’s general manager Billy Beane detests and would not allow his squad do with only the rarest exception. That was one part of small ball. Another was stealing bases, something the Royals did all night, even when it made little sense.

They eventually won that game 9-8 in 12 innings and the hearts of baseball fans everywhere. They became everyone’s favorite team for the remainder of the postseason.

Fast forward to this year’s regular season.

Cincinnati Reds leadoff hitter, and centerfielder, Billy Hamilton already has 13 successful stolen base attempts in just 17 games (entering Tuesday night the Reds had played 19 games as a team).

He’s been thrown out just once in 2015 thus far.

Interestingly those numbers are remarkably similar to Hamilton’s first few weeks in the big leagues at the end of the 2013 season when he also stole 13 bases against one caught stealing in just 13 games.

But in his first go-round through the big leagues, much of his success came as a pinch-runner (he only got on base nine times as a hitter in those 13 games). Clearly, though, just about every time he got on first base, he was headed for second after a pitch or two.

In Hamilton’s first full season in the majors last year, he attempted to steal 79 times–being called safe 56 times, out 23 times (70.9 percent success rate). He got on base safely himself 175 times, but certainly not all his stolen base attempts came as a starter or from him being the one to get on base himself.

Let’s take a conservative estimate that he pinch-ran 10 times, and attempted a steal five of those times. Assuming that’s even within the ballpark of truth, then that means he attempted a stolen base approximately 45 percent of the time that he reached base safely (this does not account for times he may have tried multiple stolen bases in the same inning).

This season he’s been on base just 23 times, attempting to steal 14 times, meaning his attempts per time on base is going up.

That leads to the question: Is attempting a steal that often wise?

For that we turn to this article from Baseball Prospectus which handled that question–though with a bit different premise–last season in relation to Hamilton.

Their conclusion was that having a player on a roster just to steal bases was ultimately unwise. And frankly, with Hamilton and his atrocious .229 on-base percentage entering Tuesday night’s games, that’s essentially the role Hamilton has on the current Reds roster, despite his being the starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter.

What does this mean for the rest of baseball?

Looking at teams in baseball this season (in an admittedly small sample size), only four have more than 1.0 successful stolen bases per game through the season’s first eighth of the season: the Reds, Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers. The Royals, not surprisingly come in fifth, with 0.95 stolen bases per contest.

It should be noted that Houston, Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City are all playing better than .500 baseball so far this season. All five of those teams rank in the top 12 in stolen base percentage (successful stolen base attempts against total attempts).

It seems there is a correlation between percentage of successful attempts and success, though some of the league’s best offenses are low in successful attempts and total attempts.

In other words, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

The stolen base may be making a reappearance in the game, but its effects are not so great as to assume that the stolen base is back for good.