The Cardinals should stop trying to steal bases



In the bottom of the 2nd inning during Tuesday's uninspiring loss to the Twins, Greg Garcia drew a walk and moments later was thrown out trying to steal second with Francisco Peña at the plate. It ended the inning and whatever credible threat existed. The score was knotted at 1 when this happened and the Cardinals ended up losing 7-1 so in the grand scheme it probably did not matter. Although who really knows. It is sort of like that "If I walked out of my house ten seconds later for work would my day be entirely different?" thing that I consider from time to time.


You can see the strategy here, too. Peña is not a good hitter, rarely hits for extra bases (he has never hit a double or a triple), and if he could have snuck a ball into the outfield then Garcia would have had a decent chance to score from second. I don't know the exact figures in the current fly ball/run scoring environment, but from 1957-2015 the chances of scoring a run with a runner on second and two outs increased to about 15 percent, from six percent with two outs and a runner on first. Obviously this is context driven so who knows what the numbers would say with a batter like Peña.


So the strategy in a vacuum is defensible for sure, but we do not have to operate in a vacuum and the overall numbers suggest that the Cardinals should not attempt to steal as many bases because they are not good at it. Following Garcia's attempt, the Cardinals have now attempted to steal 29 bases and have only been successful 17 times. Their 17 swipes is ninth best in the National League; the 12 times they have been gunned down is the worst. Their 59 percent success rate is the worst in baseball for teams who have attempted to steal at least 20 bases.


The conventional wisdom (although this might fluctuate from era to era) if I recall when it comes to stealing bases is that 75 percent is the dividing line. Around and above that number means you are good at stealing bases, below that number means you are bad. The Cardinals' 59 percent success rate is rather self-explanatory here. But there are other numbers worth looking at as well.


The Cardinals currently have a 10.2 percent walk rate which is fifth best in all of baseball. FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards, which is a wonderful resource, does not allow a breakdown of runners on a specific base, but it does tell us that the Cardinals' walk rate with runners on base - any number of runners and any base - increases to 11.1 percent, which is also the fifth best in baseball in that situation.


To put it another way, even when a Cardinal successfully steals second, the reward might not be worth the risk when considering there is a decent chance the runner could have gotten that bag for free by being forced there with a walk, the chances of which slightly increase with a runner on. This is true for teams who are good at stealing bases let alone those who are bad. (Also, this doesn't even take into account the risk of injury when sliding head-first into a bag which isn't exactly common but isn't unheard of either.)


Another point: Home runs are flying out of the park like never before. We all know this. In that situation, a runner on first is just as valuable as a runner on second, and significantly more valuable than a runner currently sitting in the dugout after being caught trying to steal. Again, maybe the equation changes with Peña at the plate (although all three of his career extra base hits are home runs), but probably not when you are a bad base stealing team. And the Cardinals have hit the fifth most home runs in the NL and are third in home runs per fly ball.


Also, with the increase in home runs comes a decrease of balls in play. This is another thing we all know. It was famously noted that there were more strikeouts in April than base hits for the first time ever. And another strategy of swiping second, I surmise, is limiting the chances of a double play. But fewer balls in play means fewer ground balls which means fewer, well, you probably get the idea.


To be clear, I was raised on Whiteyball. I love stolen bases. Vince Coleman could have tried to swipe home every chance he got and I probably would have supported it. I certainly would have been entertained by it. But the Whiteyball days are gone, and with it the Astro-turf and the plethora of players who weighed less than 160 lbs. Stolen bases are great when you are good at it and the time is right, but these current Cardinals are not good at it, the time is rarely right, and they should try to steal less often.