Stolen Bases: Not the Pirates' Problem

This almost offends me, it's so silly:

One of the glaring statistics that jumped out at me with the two teams in the World Series this year was their ability to steal bases. With Andrew McCutchen coming up and Nyjer Morgan's speed, is there going to be pressure from management on the coaches to steal more bases this year?
-- Matt G., Clarion, Pa.

The Pirates ranked 15th out of 16 NL teams last season in stolen bases with just 57, a total that most certainly should be improved. It's no secret that, aside from center fielder Nate McLouth, the '08 Pirates lacked speed.

Yes, stolen bases were what caused the 2008 Pirates' downfall. That's why they're not in the World Series. Never mind that teams make or win the World Series despite low stolen-base totals all the time. The 2006 Cardinals and Tigers finished 25th and 24th in the majors in stolen bases, respectively; the 2004 Red Sox finished 21st; the 2002 Giants finished 22nd; the 2001 Diamondbacks finished 23rd; the 2000 Mets finished 27th.

Stolen bases, in and of themselves, are almost irrelevant to the Pirates' chances in any given year. There isn't much of a correlation between stealing bases and scoring runs, because a lot of stolen bases are effectively canceled out by caught stealings and because the distraction of a fast runner on first doesn't seem to have much impact on the pitcher (or maybe it does, but that effect is largely canceled because the hitter gets distracted, too).

This is not to say that a hitter like Nate McLouth who steals bases very effectively does not contribute to his team, or that he should stop doing it. And the Pirates' lack of stolen bases does indicate a problem, just not the one MLB.com suggests it does. Lots of baseball's stolen base leaders are the sorts of young, athletic players who could help turn the Pirates' fortunes around--Jose Reyes, Grady Sizemore, B.J. Upton, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp. Young players with a broad base of skills, including speed, often age very nicely. The Pirates don't have many of those sorts of players; in fact, the only hitter they have with a conventionally broad base of skills is McLouth.

(Sidenote: where in the world does MLB.com get the idea that McLouth should shoot for 40 steals in 2009? He's never had more than 23, and he isn't getting younger. McLouth isn't slow, but he's not as fast as lots of stolen base leaders. The reason he steals so well is that he picks his spots well. If he tried to run more frequently, his stolen base percentage would probably decline.)

It does not follow that the 2009 Pirates need to worry much about stealing bases, though. Reyes, Sizemore and Upton, for example, were not added to their teams' lineups to provide stolen bases; they were added because they were top prospects. The goal here needs to be to acquire top young players. At that point, the stolen bases will probably increase.

In the meantime, though, there are only a few options that would clearly increase the Pirates' stolen base totals in 2009. One is to promote Andrew McCutchen, but clearly, promoting him just so he can provide speed would be the wrong thing to do. Another is to acquire a hitter or two from outside the organization, but this would almost certainly be a failure: players who have speed plus other strong characteristics would be too costly, and players who provide little on offense other than speed have been the targets in some of the worst transactions of the past several years (think of Juan Pierre's free agent contract, or the Brad Lidge-for-Michael Bourn deal).

Other options to increase stolen bases all involve letting Nyjer Morgan get lots of playing time. Morgan is a lot like Bourn or Willy Taveras but without the sound defense or good (as opposed to merely fast) baserunning, but Bourn and Taveras were both more promising hitters in the minors. The price  in offense the Pirates would pay to have Morgan in their lineup would likely be very steep.

Actively encouraging Morgan to steal bases might actually make the Pirates worse. Morgan has done a nice job increasing his stolen base percentage in the minors the past couple of years but, from watching him in the majors the past two years, his eight caught stealings (against 16 steals) and multiple baserunning blunders are telling, I think. If Morgan had specific instructions to try to run up his stolen base totals, my guess is that the gaffes would increase.

We should not let the fact that the two World Series teams happened to steal lots of bases distract us. Stolen base totals by themselves are not the Pirates' problem.

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