First Pitch: Why Do the Pirates Give Up So Many Stolen Bases?

The Pirates gave up five stolen bases tonight to the Chicago Cubs in five attempts. Most of the attempts went uncontested, with the Pirates showing little regard for the runners on base. That shouldn’t be surprising, since they have taken this approach for the last few years at the MLB level, and have used this approach for longer in the minors. The focus in most situations is on the batter at the plate and executing the pitches, rather than the guy on the bases.

I say most situations because the Pirates do have certain times where they show concern for base runners. This was shown tonight with a comparison between the tenth inning and the 12th inning.

In the tenth inning, Tony Watson had two outs and a runner at first base. Kris Bryant took off for second, and was half way down the line by the time the ball left Watson’s hand. There was no throw to second, although any throw would have been pointless, as Watson was very slow to the plate and gave no chance for an out.

Then, in the 12th inning, Vance Worley had a runner on first base with no outs. Before throwing a pitch, he made two pickoff attempts. His first pitch was a pitch out. His next pitch was quick to the plate, but the ball was bunted foul. He threw a wild pitch with his next offering, which put the runner on second anyway. But the difference was clear. With two outs and a runner on first, there was no concern with the runner. With no outs and a runner on first, there was clear concern with the runner.

This has been clear in the results this season, as shown in the chart below.


With no outs, the Pirates have a good caught stealing rate. That drops with one out, and sinks down to horrible levels with two outs. Digging a little deeper into the numbers, they’ve got a 14% caught stealing rate in 50 attempts with a runner on first base, two outs, and second base open. That includes a zero percent success rate with runners on first and third and two outs.

The success rate also changes depending on the situation with one out. They have a 27.5% caught stealing rate with a runner on first and one out. But in any situation where a runner is in scoring position with one out, they are 1-for-17. By comparison, they’re 3-for-6 with no outs and a runner in scoring position.

Then there are other trends. When there are two strikes, they have a 14.3% caught stealing rate. They do better in high leverage situations (33%), but struggle in low and medium leverage situations (18%).

The overall trend here is that the Pirates seem to do better in situations where they only need to focus on the batter, and they seem to do worse in situations where it would really hurt for a runner to advance. And that lines up with what you see on the field, where their pitchers are slow to the plate with two outs, but actively try to hold the runners on first with no outs.

As long as they’re successful getting the batters out, then this approach makes total sense. Watson was able to get Starlin Castro to fly out to center field following his stolen base allowed. And none of the other stolen bases tonight led to runs, as the one runner who scored would have scored anyway after back-to-back hits. The Pirates have also given up the third fewest runs in baseball, so if this approach was leading to extra runs, then it’s really difficult to see in the overall results.

It can be frustrating to watch the stolen bases pile up, as that’s something which stands out. But when you start focusing on when those stolen bases are happening, why they’re happening, and whether they lead to runs, it makes the entire approach much more clear.

**A.J. Burnett Provides Bright Spot in Pirates’ Disappointing 3-2 Loss to Cubs. Pete Ellis with the live report from PNC Park, pointing out that Burnett looks like a solid playoff starter, but that the Pirates still need to get past Arrieta in order to give him a shot in the post-season.

**Prospect Watch: Indianapolis Loses Again, Errors Play Big Part. Tyler Glasnow takes the mound tomorrow to try and prevent the Indians from being eliminated.

**Pirates Notebook: Clint Hurdle Defends Last Night’s Lineup. Comments from Hurdle on the lineups in Wednesday’s double-header.

**Chad Kuhl is the Pirates Prospects 2015 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. This was a difficult decision, with a lot of strong pitching performances this year.

**Josh Bell is the Pirates Prospects 2015 Minor League Player of the Year. This one was easier, as Bell finished strong with Indianapolis, showing off some power after adjustments to his leg kick.

  • Better yet. Can someone explain why our starters give up so many first inning runs. Haven’t check the stats, but we have to be close to the league lead in runs given up in the 1st.

    And, we just gave up another today!

  • Why are holding down the running game and focusing on the batter mutually exclusive? This is the major leagues, we should be able to do both. The Cardinals certainly do both. I think the fact that it hasn’t hurt us much is a credit to our pitching but also is some luck. The more times you let another team turn a single into a double (or worse, infield single into a triple like last night) has to mean more runs for the opposition in the long haul. Two singles now equals a run. This is even more dangerous for our ground ball pitchers because 1) sometimes this ground balls just find a hole 2) it takes away the double play. In these 1 run do or die games we have to get better because other teams like the Cardinals are. Can’t we just have major league pitchers that do both?

    • Exactly. The fact that you “got away” with runners getting free bases doesn’t mean it’s because you have some special skill in stranding them. It is essentially luck(I think league average strand rate is 72% or thereabouts) and the more you hold yourself hostage to basic luck the worse your results will be over time. Letting runners get free bases at an 82-83% clip when there is 1 out or more is a problem no matter how one spins it.

  • Screw that approach. As a team you can not give away a base because you have to concentrate on the batter. The pirates seem prone to walking pitchers and hitters that can not really hit, then they throw a wild pitch or have a passed ball then an infield hit and they are down a run, without any input from the opposing team. In order to win like the Cards are able to, you must stop the steal, wild pitches and passed balls, field what is hit and make the routine play, routinely. I can not condone this approach. To me its an idea that makes no sense. Stop the stolen bases and free passes.

  • I’m very torn on this subject. My gut definitely tells me that practically giving up 2nd base at any time is absolutely wrong and a horrible oversight. And it’s something I’ve complained about on a system wide level on this forum multiple times. And yet…this is not the first thing I’ve read stating that the numbers don’t really support that theory as much as you’d think. There was a lot of things written about Lester’s lack of holding ability early in the year and those all seemed to conclude it’s not as big of a deal as it would first appear either. I just can’t get it out of my head that it’s a mistake though.

    • These numbers don’t mean a whole lot to me without context. I would like to see what league average is for 0,1 and 2 outs and also where Pirates were in 2013-14 with SB attempts for 0,1 and 2 outs.

      • In the NL this year, the averages are:

        0 outs: 30.7%
        1 out: 29.7%
        2 outs: 24.5%

        So the Pirates are above average with zero outs. They’re well below average in the other two areas.

        The splits in 2014 are roughly the same for the Pirates, except they did a much better job with one out, and slightly better (but still below average) with two outs.

  • The fact remains the running game is a huge mess and seems to be getting worse as year progresses(though I don’t have splits). The fact that in the last 2 days we have seen multiple balls go into centerfield with a runner on 3rd base with 1 out is just one example. The fact that Blanton was able to wiggle out last night with a K doesn’t make it OK. You put yourself in that spot you are going to get burned more often than not.

  • So the Pirates had the same approach in the last 2 years controlling the running game? Other teams must not have received that memo as they didn’t try to run nearly as much. Wonder why? There has already been 170 stolen base attempts this year with 17 games remaining in season. We should be looking at over 190 attempts by end of year or more. In 2014 there were 156 attempts and 148 attempts in 2013. There was 173 attempts in 2012. And while we haven’t reached the track meet standards of 2012 the running game has been very ugly lately and seems to be getting worse.

    Also could you break down stolen base attempts with 0,1 and 2 outs in 2013-14 to see what the success rates were?

    • The number of attempts are not only dictated by the reputation/tendency of Pirate pitchers to not keep runners on, but also by the skills of the catcher to throw them out. Russell Martin threw out 40% of his runners, undoubtedly leading to reduced attempts over the course of the season. Cervelli is throwing out 22% of runners this year.

      • Certainly. However, my larger opinion is the ability to control the running game is a serious problem. Russell Martin sort of let them “mask” that problem because he was so elite. Cervelli and Stew are very ordinary in that regard and it has brought the problem back into the spotlight. I don’t want to go into a one game wildcard with runs at a premium thinking, “hey it’s not that big of a deal if this guy steals 2nd base because there is already one out”. It’s a problem and can easily bite us in the ass in a big game.

  • wasn’t one of the reasons for not bringing up Glasnow was that he needed to work on holding on runners? apparently that’s been shot down

    • Right, because Tim’s article clearly stated that the Pittsburgh Pirates do not hold runners on at all regardless of situation.

    • That wasn’t what we reported at all. We reported that he’s not even to the point where he can focus on the running game because the only thing he’s focused on is mechanics. It’s not that he needed to improve holding runners. It’s that he wasn’t even to a point with his pitching that he could focus on other things, such as the running game. And even if you totally disregard the running game (which the Pirates don’t do), then it still leaves the problem that he’s got work to do with his mechanics.

  • Tim: Excellent piece and proof positive that with use of the proper numbers, just about any outcome can be justified. The fact is that the Pirates do not include holding the runner as a major part of pitcher development, and when Burnett and Morton walk out to the mound, you have to hope they do not put anyone on 1B. because they are so god-awful slow from the stretch to the plate.

    Allowing a runner to get into scoring position, with little or no concern, when the game is on the line, is just unacceptable. That’s my “old school” take – holding a runner is just another of those skills that must be developed. And, wild pitching a guy into scoring position while trying to hold the runner? Worley is the goat, but once again, the underlying cause was the lack of hitting.