First Pitch: Stolen Bases Are a Problem, But Not the Big Problem

It’s not a surprise to me that the Pirates haven’t been placing much emphasis on the running game this year. They’ve been taking that approach in the minors the last few years, having pitchers focus on the batter at the plate, rather than holding the runner on first base. It makes sense from a development standpoint. You want a young pitcher to work on repeating his delivery and executing his pitches, not shortening his stride and missing his spots because he’s focused more on rushing the ball to the plate. But that same approach at the major league level? It’s questionable.

The problems in the majors aren’t a development issue. It’s philosophical. Tonight the Pirates gave up seven stolen bases in seven attempts. Those steals came off of two different catchers (neither of which came up through the system) and three different pitchers (with only one coming up through the system). The Pirates have taken that “focus on the batter at the plate” strategy and have brought it to the majors. And other teams are catching on.

Early in the season, teams weren’t stealing as much against the Pirates. Using a stat I just made up to illustrate how frequently teams were attempting stolen bases, here are the innings per stolen base attempts throughout the season.

April: 11.94 innings per stolen base attempt.

May: 13.11 IPSBA

June: 7.38 IPSBA

July: 8.17 IPSBA

August: 9.14 IPSBA

September: 5.09 IPSBA

The National League average is 9.98. Looking at the numbers, teams were running on the Pirates at a below average pace in the first two months of the season. Once June hit, teams started running at an above average pace, and the numbers have gotten out of control in September. Note that this doesn’t reflect how many opportunities opposing teams had to steal. The pitching was excellent in April and May, so that probably led to fewer attempts, since there were fewer runners. The pitching has struggled in September, which leads to more runners and more attempts. And that’s probably why this is such a big issue now, because it’s noticeable.

Rod Barajas mentioned something about this after the game. His quote from tonight’s notebook:

“It’s happened all season long,” catcher Rod Barajas said on the stolen bases. “The first half of the season, there weren’t too many complaints. We were able to make the pitches even if guys did steal bases. We made sure we had our focus on what we were supposed to do, the main objective, which was get the guy out [at the plate]. It’s not an easy thing to do. There’s a lot of scouting. There’s a lot of advanced work that goes into it.”

“We have some guys that like to throw off-speed pitches, who aren’t exactly fast to the plate. When you have that advantage as the opposing team, you’re going to take it. It’s something that wasn’t talked about a whole lot earlier in the season when we were playing well. Obviously we haven’t been winning so now it’s coming to the forefront.”

Barajas is somewhat correct on how the situation is perceived. There were complaints early in the season, although it wasn’t as big since the team was winning. And this issue has come to the forefront now that the team isn’t winning, mostly because it’s such a glaring problem. When a runner reaches first base, and second base is open, they’re almost always guaranteed a double.

Tonight Milwaukee had 12 situations where they had a runner on first and second base open. They stole in seven of those attempts. One attempt resulted in a runner advancing on a wild pitch. There were only four situations where a runner didn’t steal a base with second base open. Three of those were with Travis Ishikawa and Jonathan Lucroy on base. Lucroy did steal once out of three situations where he was on first with second base open.

Letting runners take second at-will looks bad. But I’m not sure it’s the main problem. Tonight that led to two extra runs. Ryan Braun probably doesn’t score in the seventh inning if he doesn’t steal second base. He probably stays at first on the Aramis Ramirez fly out, moves to third on Lucroy’s single, and the inning is over when Ishikawa strikes out. If Carlos Gomez doesn’t steal in the eighth inning it could be a different situation. Gomez probably doesn’t try for third on the grounder to Marte in shallow left-field. That puts runners at first and second with one out, rather than one run scored and a runner at second with one out.

Even without those runs, the Pirates still lose 4-0. And that’s not because of the stolen bases. The other steals didn’t hurt the Pirates. Milwaukee stole two in the first, eventually putting runners at second and third with one out. A.J. Burnett got out of it with an infield pop out and a strikeout. Ryan Braun had a two out steal in the fifth, but Burnett got Aramis Ramirez to fly out. Rickie Weeks stole in the seventh, but without the steal he scores on the combination of singles by Braun and Lucroy. Lucroy stole second that inning with two outs, but Chad Qualls got a fly out.

The stolen bases are a problem, and they’ve been a problem all year. The Pirates have caught less than 10% of base runners stealing. As I mentioned, that’s something that is system wide. Eric Fryer has a laser arm, and only caught 10% in Indianapolis this year. Carlos Paulino has the best arm in the system, and makes accurate throws, and he only caught 22%. Tony Sanchez improved his numbers this year, catching 27% in Altoona and 31% in Indianapolis after 22% last year in Altoona. Some of the lower level catchers had success, such as Jacob Stallings, who excels at throwing out runners, and did so at a 36% rate this year.

The numbers are down throughout the system because the Pirates don’t prioritize the running game. That leads to free bases, which is a problem, but I don’t think it’s a major problem. If you go by stolen base runs, the impact of stealing a base is minimal. A successful stolen base adds 0.3 runs to a game. A caught stealing results in -0.6 runs. For that reason, runners need to steal at a 70% rate or higher to provide positive value on the bases.

Using those numbers, the Pirates have given up 32.7 runs through stolen bases this year. At ten runs per win, that’s three extra wins. But that’s not simply an addition of three wins for the other teams. If the Pirates were catching runners at a 23% rate (which is still low, but better than below 10%), they’d be giving up 14.7 runs, which is one win. If they paid attention to the running game, they could easily hit that 23% mark, and save two wins. But that’s hardly the biggest issue with this team.

The big issue lately is that the entire team has been inconsistent. When the pitching shows up, the offense doesn’t. When the offense shows up, the pitching doesn’t. Some nights the starters and offense do well and the bullpen struggles. In tonight’s case, the offense didn’t show up, which means the Brewers were winning even with zero stolen bases. Earlier in the season the Pirates didn’t have that problem. They were getting good pitching from their starters and the bullpen. When they got the hitting, they were on fire. The stolen bases came, but their minimal impact wasn’t enough to over-turn the team performing like they were supposed to. Right now the team isn’t losing because of stolen bases. The steals are just piling on to the damage, which is coming mostly from the all-around poor play.

It’s not conventional to say that runners taking extra bases at-will isn’t a big issue. But the numbers show that it isn’t a big issue. The big issue is that the team isn’t performing. When you get out-hit 13-3 in a game, you’re going to lose, and that’s going to happen whether you give up seven stolen bases, or no stolen bases. When your team scores nine runs through six innings, like the Pirates did on Sunday, then your bullpen gives up eight runs, you’re going to lose regardless of stolen bases. If your pitching staff puts up an ERA close to 5.00 in the month of September, then you’re going to lose without the stolen bases. The stolen bases are just a minor problem. The team can win or lose with the stolen bases. It’s an obvious problem, but it doesn’t carry the same impact that the other obvious problem carries: the team as a whole is playing horrible baseball right now.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost to the Brewers 6-0.

**Pirates Notebook: Brewers Swipe Seven Bases.

**Pirates Sign Two Year Deal With Jamestown.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • http://twitter.com/pirateswfc Brian

    Giving up three wins to stolen bases is a big issue when it’s the difference between 0.5 back and 3.5 back.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      That’s not how wins work in the standings. It would only take the Pirates from 3.5 to 2.0 games back.

      • salempirate

        3.5 to 2.0 does not equal 3.5 to 0.5 if you take away 3 wins? Math! Beats me.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

          I don’t know what I was thinking. I typed that at 4:30 in the morning, right before going to bed.

          But I would point out that it’s not three full wins. If they caught 23%, that’s two wins. Three wins would be if they caught around 30% of runners.
          Either way it’s a small amount. You lose more wins from your pitching staff putting up an ERA near 5.00 for a month than you do with these stolen base results over the course of a season.

    • Lee Young

      but at least we’d be 77-70 and .500 would be almost a sure thing! Right now, we’re gonna be lucky to win 4 or 5 more games!

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    But Barmes played, and even got a hit, so the Pirates should have won. HIm and Barajas, what a force! So, hitting doesn’t matter, letting everyone run wild doesn’t matter. I wonder why all the other teams bother to even take stolen bases, since they don’t matter. Silly teams, if they’d only study the numbers more, they’d learn.

    • salempirate

      Charlie at BucsDugout had a line a couple of weeks ago that went something like…player x stole a base, which is a Pirate courtesy to the runner.
      One thing not mentioned is the pysche to the pitcher. One stolen base a game wouldn’t be too upsetting.

    • F Lang

      Blaming Barmes for all our issues is like blaming Obama for all our problems…there are plenty more people to blame than just one or two guys. More people still complain about Barmes who has played good baseball during this entire slide than blame J-Mac who has taken a dirt nap since the ASB. When you play this badly everyone is to blame, including Cutch who is striking out every 4.4 AB’s since the break. That is 137 K’s per 600 AB. Too many of them have come with runners on too….I liked it better when everyone just blamed NH for everything! But right now I think people are seeing it is the players, managers, everyone doing a bad job. Other teams are improving, H3ll, even the Cubs, and two straight years we have fallen apart. Unfortunately it is time to assess the players and coaches, and the approaches that have caused it. I am not an axe everyone type….but some changes have to be made.

      • F Lang

        I get five vote downs. Was that for mentioning Obama or Barmes?

        • Rob

          Probably both!!!!!

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease
    • Lee Young

      he blamed everyone but dan rooney. a little over the top, if you ask me.

  • RandyLinville

    Tim – what do you think is the source of the inconsistency? Are these guys worn out? Is it poor fundamentals? A lack of talent?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I said this a few weeks ago, and I still believe it. I don’t think the team was as good as their June/July performance. They over-achieved during that stretch, and got everyone thinking they were a 90 win team. Now they’re under-achieving, as I don’t think they’re this bad. They’re looking more like a team that will finish around .500.

      They’re just a streaky team. The offense relies too much on home runs. I’m not sure what the deal is with the pitching. There were hints of regression, but even if the numbers regressed the pitchers would have still had good overall results. And I think the pitching is a bigger issue than the hitting being streaky.

      • F Lang

        Over the course of the season we are -10 in run differential which shows we are close to dead average team if you look at it on the most basic level. If you break it down to just one game we are getting outscored by 6/100 of a run. That is as average as you get. Some teams like Baltimore who is -12 is winning way beyond their ability and the Cardinals are underachieving. Some teams don’t have a good 5th starter and get shelled a lot but play good otherwise and some teams win 11-5 once or twice a week and then battle it out the rest of the games. But the Pirates neither score a lot or give up a lot and everyone in their rotation and lineup (other than Cutch) are not spectacular…so we have to scratch, claw, and most importantly execute to win. i think we are seeing what happens when the pitching and hitting slumps a little, a few injuries occur, and we don’t execute…we fall apart. The most worrisome thing to me is it happened two years in a row. We need to figure out is it our players, our trainers, our coaches, our instructors, our depth, or just all of it combined.

  • Lee Young

    I am as frustrated as anyone. But, if on April 1, you’d have told me that we’d be 74-73 on April 19th, I would’ve taken it!!!!

    And look at what has happened to our pitching:
    Our ‘stopper’ has lost 6 in a row.
    Our other 1st half ace is out of the rotation.
    Our “Number 3″ starter (Karstens) is hurt.
    Our best pitchers are Wandy and KC.
    We’re starting two AAA pitchers.
    Our bullpen, once our strength, is no longer our strength.

    • heyheywhattyasay

      The problem for me isn’t so much the record of the team right now. It is simply that our expectations were so low coming into the fifth year of Huntingdon. We’ve been conditioned to expect bad teams. And this one is still pretty bad.

    • F Lang

      I know. We can’t even make a run at .500 for the first time in 20 years the right way.

  • F Lang

    Great article Tim. You hit right on my complaint all season that it is philosophical. I can forgive a player for not making plays, it is not Rod Barajas’ fault that the Pirates want a 36 year old catcher as their starter…I have a problem with us conceding so many steals without effort. I don’t understand why it took so long for teams to start burning us on this because it was obvious in May…it was obvious last year even. You can’t run a franchise where you give up an entire major part of the game…and our baserunning woes compound other teams incredible success even more. As a fan you feel helpless and embarrassed watching teams run at will. I hope the fo is embarrassed too.

    • yoyomafan#1

      I agree with F Lang. This is a great article. Having teams run wild against us is not the problem.
      I also agree with a previous post – Why do bad Pirate hitters become all-stars elswhere? In that post you noted ‘this is possibly the most important question facing the Pirates.’ I agree 100% with that sentiment. You continue to cut right to the heart of the matter. Well done.

  • F Lang

    Also, basestealing may not be a big problem if you can keep another team honest by throwing out 20-25%. Sub 10% will get you abused like we saw last night. When you put our low percentages stealing on offense with our basestealing defense and then add how many runs that will cost us as teams steal even more going forward, it is a pretty big problem when you have a team that doesn’t score consistently with an offense based almost entirely on the HR with a poor obp. …and i keep bringing up the morale factor…I guarantee you that the players standing out there on defense aren’t buying in that steals aren’t that important. They have to feel like they are getting whipped out there.

  • ecbucs

    is this a sign that the Bucs don’t do the little things well? The Bucs don’t help their players stop the other team from stealing. The Bucs don’t teach their own players how to steal when they get on base (relatively high % caught stealing). Do the players hit the cut off man? Bunting – seems like the Bucs are bad at this.

    Can the team be successful by not being good at the little things? Can it be successful without being able to afford superstar players (more than 1 or 2)?

    • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

      Of course it’s the Pirates fault when everyone who comes out of their system can’t bunt, or hold runners, or steal effectively. They can’t ALL be slow, and anyone can learn to shorten their time to the plate, very their rhythm, etc. But the Pirates don’t BELIEVE it matters, or not much, so they don’t teach. They do obsess over fastball command though. They got a bit too much ridicule for that and quit being overly ridiculous about it. Just like you’ll be sure to see next year they’ll start trying to teach guys the slide step. Pirate management always thinks it’s smarter then everyone else, yet the reverse is true. Number of wins don’t lie.

  • piratemike

    Please Mr. Nutting clean out the Front Office and hire a knowledgable staff no matter what the cost…in the long run you will save money. If you keep FC & NH you will keep throwing good money after bad and you will end up with a 70 something win team the same thing the Pirates have had for 20 yrs now.

  • heyheywhattyasay

    Bundy is up with Baltimore. Any chance Cole comes up? Wouldn’t he be better than getting a bullpen arm from Boston?

    • F Lang

      Cole gave up 8 or 9 runs his last start at Indy so I don’t know if that is a good idea. I am excited about McPhersons stuff and command and am looking forward to see what he can do. Even Locke has not pitched poorly other than all the HR’s he gave up. 15K’s and 2 BB in just under 20ip is a nice ratio. 5 HR is terrible though.

    • Smrtbusnisman04

      Cole despite being taken #1, is not ready just yet. McPherson has great stuff and I’m excited to see him finally get a start. Why Hurdle was resistant and put him in the bullpen is stupid.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/William-Pearce/100001552434410 William Pearce

    20 YEARS…WHO CARES ANYMORE???

  • Smrtbusnisman04

    Preventing stolen bases is a big need to improve for Pirates pitching. I hope Tony Sanchez has a strong arm.
    Note: Barmes should go back to being used as a bench player. He doesn’t hit consistently enoughto start and should only be a late inning replacement.
    Barajas should not be brought back next season.