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Stolen Bases: Again, That's Not the Problem

The Trib today:

As baseball's amazing home run era draws to a close, speed is playing a larger role in the game. It's a factor the Pirates must utilize better than they did last season.

"Ever since all these steroid allegations came up, I think it's going to bring speed back," center fielder Nyjer Morgan said. "Everyone won't be bopping the ball out of the ballpark like crazy. Speed is going to be an advantage, now that they're cleaning up the game."

Tampa Bay racked up 142 stolen bases last year, tops in the majors. The Philadelphia Phillies ranked fourth with 136 steals. The Pirates stole 57 bases, which was the second-lowest total in the majors...

The two key players will be Morgan and Nate McLouth.

Yes, the Rays stole lots of bases last year, mostly because they had a young team and young players steal more bases than old ones. They finished 13th in baseball in runs scored. The secret to their success was a massive improvement in team defense (which does have something to do with speed, especially in the outfield, but really isn't the same thing), not basestealing.

Second in the majors in stolen bases were the Rockies, who finished 18th in baseball in runs scored despite playing half their games in Coors Field, and won 74 games in baseball's weakest division.

In 2007, the Orioles finished second in baseball in stolen bases and won 69 games. The Rays finished sixth and won 66. Meanwhile, the Indians finished 22nd and won 96.

In 2006, the Rays finished fourth in steals and won 61 games. The A's finished 23rd and won 93. The two World Series teams from that year, the Cardinals and Tigers, finished 24th and 25th in the majors in steals.

When it comes to stolen bases and their correlation with wins, you can make the numbers say whatever you want them to, because the correlation just isn't very strong. I imagine there probably is a slight one, not because stolen bases themselves are inherently all that valuable, but because good defensive players tend to be faster than bad ones, because athletic players tend to age more gracefully than unathletic ones, and because teams who get on base more get more chances to steal. But there are much better ways to understand these factors than looking at stolen bases. 

As for speed playing a "larger role in the game," well, I'm not sure what measurement the Trib is using there. It's true that there has been an overall increase in stolen bases since the early part of the decade, but stolen bases in both leagues actually declined in 2008.

If the Pirates value stolen bases at the expense of other skills, they'll be shooting themselves in the (ahem) foot. And if they don't distinguish between players who rack up stolen bases in a way that helps the team and those who steal bases in a way that doesn't help, they'll be shooting themselves in both feet. Nate McLouth is a good basestealer. Nyjer Morgan, bless him and I don't mean to pick on him, is not, and it's an incredibly bad idea to think his basestealing the prescription for what ails this team.

According to the book Baseball Between the Numbers, the break-even point for stealing bases in 2005 was 73%. According to Baseball Reference, teams scored almost exactly the same number of runs in 2008 that they scored in 2005: AL teams scored 4.78 runs per game in 2008 versus 4.76 in 2005, and NL teams scored 4.54 in 2008 versus 4.45 in 2005. So a basestealer today needs to steal bases at slightly under a 75% rate to help his team. 

Morgan has stolen 16 bases in the majors against eight caught stealings, which is a 67% rate. That's a small sample size, it's true. In the minors, he stole bases at a 74% rate against pitchers who couldn't throw strikes, catchers who don't have major league arms, and middle infielders who don't have major league gloves. To his credit, his stolen base percentage did improve as he moved through the minors, but he was facing prospects who were several years younger than him at every stop.

To interpret all this information generously, there's about a 50/50 shot that Morgan's basestealing will not hurt the team. It is far from clear that his basestealing is an asset in any way. 

In other words, I have no idea what the Trib is talking about. The Pirates don't need to improve the number of bases they steal. They do need to improve at hitting, pitching and playing defense. The hitting and pitching problems are obvious, but it would be great if the next writer who needed to fill column inches would write about defense rather than speed. The Pirates' defense was awful last year and it had an enormous impact on the team. Even if it's a requirement to write about everybody's favorite player Nyjer Morgan, one could say nice things about him in that article too because, as many issues as I have with his defense, he'll plainly be a better defensive outfielder than Jason Bay was.