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.