Cardinals' catchers did not throw out a potential base stealer until June 8, the team's 61st game of the season. I know that Yadier Molina did miss a month of the season but he also played 35 of the 1st 31 games (or so it seemed). Molina, Carson Kelly, Francisco Peña, and Steve Baron were 0 for their 1st 21 attempts to throw runners out and Cards' broadcasters seemingly let viewers hear about it every night. So what gives? Yadi has always been one of the league's best at throwing base runners out.
Now, it was also true that, even though the team hadn’t thrown out any base runners, the Cardinals had also given up the fewest stolen bases in the majors so it’s not like teams were running wild against us. It’s so odd (as Dan McLauglin pointed out many times) to be the worst team in the majors in throwing potential base stealers out and yet also the best at preventing the stolen base due to a lack of opposing stolen base attempts. What, in the name of Ted Simmons, is going on? And so my quest began…and here’s what I learned:
It all began on opening day when Molina couldn’t throw out Jay Bruce – yes, that Jay Bruce, he of the 64 career stolen bases. He’s 2 for 3 this season on the base paths. Molina conceded the first 7 attempts of the season against him until he got injured. While he was out, Kelly, Peña, and Baron conceded the next 13 stolen base attempts. I suppose that’s not all that surprising, considering none of those 3 catchers have anywhere near Yadi’s defensive reputation. Since Molina has returned, he’s thrown out 2 out of 3 attempted base stealers. Weird.
Yadi has thrown out just 2 of the 10 players to attempt a stolen base against him (B-R and other stats pages have him at 3 CS but, as far as I can figure, they’re giving him credit for being the catcher on the field during Brett Cecil’s successful pickoff of Adam Duvall just a couple of days ago and haven’t gotten around to fixing that error just yet) but he’s conceded just the 8 steals in 307.1 innings behind the dish. Twenty percent is not really what we’ve come to expect out of Yadi.
So maybe the team is “suffering” from a selection bias when it comes to stolen base attempts. In other words, perhaps only the best base stealers are attempting to steal bases against the Cardinals because of Yadi’s reputation. Maybe Jay Bruce is the exception. To some extent, we see that that’s the case. For example, even though the list of successful base stealers includes Bruce, Scooter Gennett, and Matt Szczur (I chose him because I just h8 typng vwls.) it also includes Jonathan Villar (9 SB’s), Cesar Hernandez (10), and Tim Anderson (13). In fact, opposing base stealers are 97 of 117 in stolen base attempts on the season for an 83% success rate, well above the MLB success rate of 71%.
Still, it’s sort of a weird group. Both Scooter Gennett and Eric Sogard have recorded their only stolen bases of the season against the Cardinals. The Pirates’ Austin Meadows has 2 stolen bases against the Cardinals but only 1 against everyone else in baseball. Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun have combined for 13 stolen bases on the season and combined for 3 in 1 INNING against the battery of Peña and Brett Cecil. Jon Jay has stolen a base against the Cardinals. Trayce Thompson (brother of Golden St. Warriors’ star Klay) has stolen a base against the Cardinals. Even someone called Franchy Cordero, who I’m pretty sure was the name of one of the Pink Ladies in “Grease,” has stolen a base against the Cardinals. Hernandez, Meadows, and Yelich all have 2 stolen bases against the Cardinals so far in 2018.
What’s also a little strange is that, despite the fact that base runners have been incredibly successful against the Cardinals this season and despite the fact that we’ve played the Reds 10 times already this season, Billy Hamilton has exactly 0 stolen bases against Cardinals’ catchers. Yes, the Reds’ Scooter Gennett has more stolen bases against the Cardinals than Billy Hamilton does. Go figure.
The bottom line is that I don’t really know what’s going on. In the month that Yadi was out, teams were 13-13 against the Cardinals in attempting to steal bases. That makes some sense except for the fact that both Kelly and Peña come with solid defensive reputations. In his major league career Peña has thrown out 26% of potential base stealers and has thrown out 32% of potential base stealers in the minors. For his part, Kelly has thrown out 33% of potential major league base stealers (including the 4 who have been successful against him this season) and 31% of potential base stealers in the minors.
All 3 Cardinals catchers have had better than average pop times for the 3 years in which Statcast has been recording pop times. The only exception was that on the 1 measured pop time for Peña for the Orioles in 2017 recorded him at 2.02 seconds, .01 seconds above the major league average of 2.01. It just seems like the Cardinals would’ve been more successful than 2 out of 23 this season. Even if these above average base stealers were as successful against the Cardinals as they have been against the rest of baseball, we would’ve thrown out 4 of the 23 base stealers.
Maybe it’s not the fault of the catchers at all, but rather it goes to the pitchers’ inability to hold runners on. Traditionally, Cards’ pitchers have been known as controlling the running game very well but maybe that’s not happening this season. Michael Wacha has conceded 4-4 on stolen base attempts. Brebbia, Mikolas, Martinez, and Gant are all 0-2 but none of that seems to hint at them being bad at holding runners on. Even Wacha hasn’t been awful historically – and let’s be honest, 4 stolen bases in 76 innings bad at all – as he’s helped hold potential base stealers to a 75% success rate for his career.
But then there’s Cecil, as if Cards’ fans needed another reason to be pissed at him. Cecil has pitched 13 innings so far this season and base runners have stolen 5 bases in 5 attempts against him. (He has picked one runner off, as mentioned earlier.) Obviously, this is awful, and a bit strange considering the fact that he’s a lefty. (Traditionally, lefties are harder to run against.) Interestingly, Cecil has never really been that vulnerable to the stolen base (except for conceding 11 out of 11 attempts in 2014) and only conceded 5 out of 7 all of last season. Yet he’s given up 5 in the 1st 2 months of the 2018 season. In fairness, 3 of those came in 1 inning against the Brewers – 1 on the back end of a double steal – but 5 SB’s in 13 innings is a lot. I just don’t know what to make of it.
I never went into this exercise expecting to come to some sort of conclusion. If I were to hazard a guess as to why the team has been so unsuccessful so far this season I would guess that the cause is just randomness. It’s true that teams tried to, and were successful in, taking advantage of the fact that Yadi was hurt for a month, as evidenced by the fact that they were 13 for 13 while he was out but, overall, teams still aren’t really challenging the Cardinals on the bases and probably won’t as long as Yadi remains in the lineup, as I would expect him to 7 out of 6 games a week.
Thanks to baseball-reference, baseball savant, and fangraphs as always for the help and thanks to all for reading.