The Ill Advised Stolen Base

I did not get the chance to watch much of the game this past Friday night.  I was supposed to pick my parents up from the airport around 3 pm, but a girl on their plane had a seizure, forcing an emergency landing in Newfoundland.  So I set out to pick my parents up shortly after the first pitch of the Twins contest with the Tribe.  After bringing my parents home, I listened to the game on the way back to my place and listened as Nick Punto was caught trying to steal third base to end the inning and kill a threat the Twins had mounted.

I acknowledge from the first that I did not and have not seen the play.  Obviously, it had to have been close, or Punto and manager Ron Gardenhire would not have argued so vociferously so as to be ejected from the game.  Dan Gladden put it perfectly in the top half of the ninth, however, when he exclaimed that Punto should not have been running in that situation (I believe the Twins batter, Michael Cuddyer, was ahead in the count).

There are very few cardinal sins of baseball, but one of the most important is that a player should never make the first or third out of an inning at third base or home.  Such outs are particularly damaging because they hurt a teams chance to rally.  The fact that Punto disobeyed this rule was infuriating enough—at the time the game was tied and his failed attempt could easily have cost the Twins the game—but the fact that he broke this rule while attempting to steal a base is, in my mind, unacceptable.

The Twins, in general, do not attempt many stolen bases.  They are seventh in the American League this year with fifty swiped bags.  The problem is that the Twins are not particularly efficient when they do try to steal either.  The Twins are successful in only 69.4% of their steal attempts, which is ninth in the league.  This is not a very good number.

The remainder of this blog entry is basically going to be me discussing why stolen bases are generally overrated and ill-advised.  If you have read this argument a dozen times, I will not fault you for clicking the “Back” button now.

I’ve read at a web page organized by people who are smarter than me that stolen bases only yield a statistical advantage if you can be 73% sure you are going to be successful in your attempt.  There is one obvious benefit to stealing a base, you can move a player ninety feet closer to home plate and, if you’re successful, you’ve increased your team’s chances of scoring a run that inning.  The problem with stolen bases is that a team only gets 27 outs a game, and throwing them away on the base paths just seems like a bad idea to me.

Whenever I discuss this topic with him, my roommate is quick to point out that there are some intangible effects of stolen bases, or at least of being considered a stolen base threat.  A runner on first base who is known to steal tons of bases and to do so efficiently can completely change a pitcher’s game.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons Paul Lo Duca is having such a good season (never mind that he always has a good first half and generally tanks in the dog days). Jose Reyes, who bats before Lo Duca, has been getting on base at a pretty good clip this year, and is leading the Majors in stolen bases.  When he gets on first, he changes a pitcher’s game in two ways.  First, a pitcher might throw over to first a number of times.  While those pick off attempts may not be as draining as real pitches, they will have some effect on the pitchers stamina.  Second, a pitcher with a good, slow breaking ball or changeup isn’t going to risk throwing such a slow pitch with good speed on first base.  Thus, Lo Duca knows he’ll see lots of fastballs if Reyes is on first.  However, these benefits are born not from actually stealing  bases, but rather from being a stolen base threat.  I recognize that one can’t be a stolen base threat without ever stealing bases and kindly remind you to shut up and let me finish my entry.  Nick Punto has not established himself as a stolen base threat.

Also troubling about Punto’s stolen base attempt is that, even had it been successful, it would have taken the bat out of Cuddyer’s hands.  Whoever was behind Punto on base was stealing as well.  Had the double-steal been successful, it would have left first base open.  Suddenly, Cuddyer, who was in a good hitters count, it likely to be walked, having the bat taken out of his hand.

Of course, my point is moot.  Jason Tyner, who I hope continues to do what he’s doing so we never see Lew Ford again, pulled through for the Twins and helped them clinch a win.  Go Twins!  Only 6-and-a-half games behind those South Siders.

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