Productive Base Stealing And The Mets

In the recent Athletics Nation interview with A's GM Billy Beane, interviewer Tyler Bleszinski asked about an often divisive topic in the realm of baseball discussion, the stolen base:

Blez:  Do you think that the stolen base has become a bit of an unvalued commodity in baseball considering how few there are now, especially in the American League, compared to years past?

Beane:  What I think I've noticed more than anything is that a lot of the teams that are running have sophisticated coaching staffs and sophisticated ways to apply the running game, and I might not be accurate and this is just my impression, but those teams seem to be successful more often.  The percentage at which they are stealing bases just seems to be higher.

Blez:  The Rays are a good example from last year.

Beane:  The Red Sox, who historically haven't been a running team the last few years, specifically with (Jacoby) Ellsbury at the top of their lineup.  Yet they also seem to steal at a very high rate too.  I think everyone is just trying to take advantage by making a percentage play as well.  That's why the success rate seems higher.  It just seems very much a part of the strategy as opposed to just indiscriminate running for the sake of doing it.

Emphasis mine. It was Michael Lewis's book Moneyball, centered on Beane and his front office, that led to the creation of a stolen base straw man by the anti-saber and anti-Beane crowd to tear down. The argument is usually along these lines:

Sabermetric people only care about walks and home runs - they can't understand that stealing bases is a major part of manufacturing runs, a skill all winning teams possess.

Beane never said that stolen bases themselves are bad or undesirable. Rather, as he stated in the interview with Blez, poor stolen base percentages and running for the sake of running are not recipes for success. Just because 9 out of 10 announcers say that getting caught stealing is acceptable since it displays aggressiveness doesn't mean it's true. A caught stealing costs a team a precious commodity: an out. An illustrative example is the Angels this season. They finished 3rd in the league in stolen bases, which looks nice on the surface. But their success rate was just 70%, and according to Baseball Prospectus's EqSBR stat the they were 6.98 runs below average due to the stolen base, worst in the American League. A success rate of at least ~73% is required to improve a team's chances of scoring runs.

This takes us to the Mets. During the Omar Minaya era (2005-present) the Mets have been one of the best baserunning teams in the game, especially when it comes to stealing bases. Here are their stolen bases, stolen base % and EqSBR, as well as their league rank, since 2005:

Year SB Rank SB% Rank EqSBR Rank
2005 153 1 79% 2 5.19 1
2006 146 1 81% 1 2.32 2
2007 200 1 81% 3 7.79 2
2008 138 2 79% 2 4.49 2
2009 122 1 73% 5 2.81 1

This is about as good as it gets. Large quantities of stolen bases combined with high success rates. Anecdotally, the Mets have made some memorable base stealing gaffes. Jose Reyes getting thrown out at 3rd with 2 outs in a September 2007 game comes to mind immediately. But as we all know, the Mets are not the only team that makes such mistakes and their are no "perfect" players who are never caught stealing. Who deserves credit for the great base stealing numbers? The players, mostly. It's hard to laud to a coaching staff that has experienced so much turnover in such a brief period. Carlos Beltran's 86% success rate as a Met is crazy. David Wright is at a commendable 79% success rate. Reyes's 80% rate is especially outstanding, considering he is always among the leaders in stolen bases.

Unfortunately, stolen base success is not enough to make up for a lack of good hitting, evidenced by the 2009 Mets. A team of Juan Pierres might steal a ton of bases but won't score many runs. The Mets offense from 2006-2008 boasted a potent all-around attack: OBP, SLG, and valuable baserunning. It's fair to imagine that the OBP and baserunning portions of the offense will have continued success in 2010, given the (expected) returning players' skill sets. Let's hope the SLG portion picks up the slack.

Lastly, it's worth noting another outstanding team as far as stealing bases: the Philadelphia Phillies. It is possible for a team to kill its opponents with both speed and power. The two are not mutually exclusive and the latter is certainly more important.

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