Nerves of Steal
The stolen base. Arguably one of the most exciting parts of a game: The runner weighs his perceived speed against the combination of the pitcher’s concern with holding the runner and the strength of the catcher’s arm. Many MLB greats have used the stolen base as an auxiliary part of a highly successful career (Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, etc.), whereas other players lived by, died by and built a whole career around it (Vince Coleman).
Evaluating the effectiveness of a stolen base has been a growing process, from Pete Palmer’s claim about 30 years ago that a SB gave a team 0.3 runs, whereas a CS was worth -0.6 runs, to Tom Tango’s more precise 0.18/-0.43 values. The latter is what we’re using here today. These values state that, on average, a CS is 2.39 times more detrimental than a SB is helpful, meaning that a runner needs to successfully steal 70.5% of the time to merely break even.
Unfortunately for the statheads among us, Caught Stealing data was inconsistent, especially in the National League, until 1951. With apologies to Ty Cobb, Billy Hamilton and other early ballplayers, they are not included in the data in favor of robust data.
Below are the Top 10 most successful basestealers of all-time*.
However, many players considered to be high-profile basestealers, contributed little to no, and sometimes negative, value with their thefts, such as Steve Sax (3.38 Net SB Runs) or Brett Butler (-10.91). Charlie Hustle was known for his aggressiveness on the base paths, but would you have guessed he was the least efficient basestealer in our study? Would Buddy Bell be considered a borderline Hall of Fame candidate by non-saberists if he wasn’t abysmal on the basepaths?
As you can see, the bulk of the players listed in the above tables played in the 1970s and 80s, an era with more emphasis on the stolen base and “small ball” in general, coming in the wake of a pitching-dominant era where an extra base here or there was quite valuable. Also, when expanding the lists, one will note that current players are more and more successful basestealers than those of previous generations, likely due to better pre-game scouting and paying greater credence to statistics. There are 10 active players among the 40 best basestealers, but only one among the 40 worst (sorry, David DeJesus). Teams like the 2007 Phillies stole at an absurd 88 percent clip, whereas the 1977 Cardinals were successful only 54.5% of the time, poor enough to “earn” -24 runs.
One final note for this piece: The .18/-.43 run values are for the stolen base ON AVERAGE. On a case by case basis, the values will differ, but as a rule of thumb, these are the best figures to use (according to Mr. Tango).
*All-time, for my purposes today, means 1951-present.
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