by Daniel Gettinger
The San Diego Padres have supposedly made it a priority to run the bases more aggressively this season. The theory is the team has more athletes than in previous seasons, guys who can use their legs to take that extra base and score from first on a double. What seems to have excited fans is the prospect of the Padres stealing more bases.
Although stolen bases are exciting, I do not believe the Padres should be stealing a lot more this season than last season.
In 2009, the Padres stole 82 bases, and were caught stealing 29 times, for a success rate just under 74 percent. To offset the risk of making an out, a team must steal successfully between 65 percent and 70 percent of the time. In expectation, the Padres gained about 1 run by stealing bases in 2009.
It is possible that the Padres might be have a higher SB percentage in 2010, but I would not bet on it. This season, the team’s greatest threats to steal are Everth Cabrera, Tony Gwynn, and Will Venable. Chase Headley steals, but he is more of a situational base stealer than frequent threats to run. David Eckstein, Adrian Gonzalez, Kyle Blanks, and Nick Hundley rarely attempt to steal. There is not a noticeable difference in speed on this season’s team compared to last season’s.
For his career, Gwynn is a 71 percent base stealer, Venable is at 77 percent, and Cabrera is at 74 percent. There is no reason to believe that more stolen base attempts will improve the SB percentage for the guys who will probably have the most attempts. In fact, if we assume that players choose their attempts optimally, more attempts are likely to decrease their stolen base percentage once we control for differences in times on-base.
Lets however be generous and assume the Padres can steal at a 74 percent level no matter how many steals they attempt. Even if the Padres doubled their stolen bases attempted to 222, the Padres would only be expected to gain about 2.5 runs over not stealing at all.
If the Padres both doubled their stolen bases and increased their SB percentage to 80 percent, the team could gain an additional 8.5 runs (11 in total). However, given only one major league team attempted more than 222 stolen bases last season (the Rays with 255) and only two teams exceeded an 80 percent success rate (the Rangers at 80.5 percent and the Phillies at 80.9 percent), I find it unlikely that the Padres could achieve such a feat.
Good base running, what the team seems to be stressing, is an easy way to maximize talent. However, attempting more stolen bases, which the fans seem to be stressing, is unlikely to have much of an effect on wins/losses. Last season’s worst stolen base team, the Rockies cost themselves approximately 7 runs by poor base stealing. The best team, the Rangers gained 10 runs. The difference from worst to first was less than 2 wins. The difference between the Padres and the Rangers was less than 1 win. Stolen bases are exciting, but there’s no need to cry for more of them. It just won’t matter that much.