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Breaking Down the Top Major League Baseball Teams in Stolen Bases

Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury
Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury

Jul 2, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (2) steals second base before San Diego Padres second baseman Logan Forsythe (11) even gets the throw during the third inning at Fenway Park. Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

We have already looked at the top 10 most efficient offenses, in terms of runs per game, in Major League Baseball. We found plenty of common ground among those 10 teams. Now we look at run production from a different angle as we see if a high yield in stolen bases correlates to more runs scored. Other arguments I have heard from proponents of the stolen base is that if a team isn’t talented enough to drive in runs via players who can get high volume of extra base-hits, then aggressive base running that leads to a high volume of steals is a good alternative to manufacture runs. But as we learned in our study of run producing teams, even “slow” teams can still score plenty of runs—a perfect example of this are the Oakland A’s. Even the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim proved to score plenty of runs despite having a bad stolen base percentage—and Mike Trout accounts for almost half of the Angels’ stolen bases. So it is with this backdrop that we now look at the top 10 teams in the stolen bases’ category:

TOP BASE STEALING TEAMS IN MLB

Team

SB

SB%

R/S

UBR

wSB

Milwaukee

98

75.0%

3.93

-6.1

4.1

Boston

83

83.0%

5.00

3.0

6.4

San Diego

82

80.0%

3.98

1.5

5.0

Kansas City

81

82.0%

3.94

2.9

6.1

Colorado

80

78.0%

4.39

3.1

4.2

Cleveland

78

77.0%

4.79

3.6

3.3

Toronto

78

77.0%

4.62

2.0

3.4

Pittsburgh

75

74.0%

3.93

3.4

1.5

Yankees

70

78.0%

3.85

-4.8

3.2

Texas

70

71.0%

4.22

-9.1

-0.6

White Sox

68

72.0%

3.71

-7.5

0.1

Houston

68

67.0%

3.82

-1.7

-2.4

League Avg

58

73.0%

4.20

0.0

0.0

1987 St. Louis

248

78.0%

4.93

N/A

16.2

The ultimate benchmark in stolen bases correlating with high run production is best personified by the 1987 St. Louis Cardinals. We mentioned in Part I of our “Tortoises vs. Hares” series that the last time there was a player that stole more than 100 stolen bases in one season happened to be the in the same year The Simpsons made their television debut. Vince Coleman of these same Cardinals’ teams led the League in stolen bases with 109 (interestingly enough, Tony Gwynn was a distant second with 56 stolen bases). That year, the Cards had a total of six players who posted double digits in that category, with Ozzie Smith stealing 43 bases and even Terry Pendleton chipped in with 19 base swipes of his own.

TOP BASE STEALING TEAMS IN MLB

Team

BB%

K%

OBP

SLG

wRAA

Milwaukee

6.3%

19.6%

0.310

0.404

-6.5

Boston

9.1%

20.4%

0.344

0.438

89.8

San Diego

7.7%

20.6%

0.310

0.380

-33.6

Kansas City

6.9%

17.1%

0.312

0.374

-37.6

Colorado

7.3%

19.8%

0.321

0.422

31.1

Cleveland

9.2%

21.1%

0.331

0.417

47.1

Toronto

8.5%

18.4%

0.320

0.422

35.5

Pittsburgh

7.5%

22.6%

0.311

0.391

-20.6

Yankees

7.5%

19.3%

0.304

0.368

-55.7

Texas

7.5%

17.0%

0.321

0.415

28.9

White Sox

6.6%

19.8%

0.301

0.379

-49.5

Houston

7.0%

25.5%

0.295

0.377

-55.7

League Avg

7.8%

19.7%

0.317

0.398

-45.5

1987 St. Louis

10.2%

14.8%

0.340

0.378

-46.7

However, if you see the ’87 team’s wRAA, you will see, despite all of those runs scored off the stolen bases, they proved to be one of the most inefficient teams in terms of run production, finishing in the bottom five of that category. As a matter of fact, between the 1987 through the 1990 season, the Cardinals lead the league in wSB during that timespan, but still finished as the third worst team in wRAA. They were a fun team to watch, but not a very efficient baseball team.

The bottom line is that in that era, the Cards had no choice but to run, so for those traditionalists who want to cite that running rampant around the bases and stealing bags like armed pirates as an alternative to score runs, congratulations! You have the ’87 Cardinals to go to as proof that the strategy can actually work. The catch? Look at how many stolen bases the Cardinals had to steal in order for them to average 4.93 runs per game. They led the league in ’87 and coming in a distant second was the San Diego Padres (led by Gwynn).

We now take a look at some trends and patterns from the current teams listed on the table:

  • Three out of the 12 teams have a below league average stolen base rate. The rest of the clubs listed pass the mandatory test of possessing a minimum SB% for them to justify their attempts to steal bases.
  • Of the nine teams with acceptable stolen base rates, only four teams are above league average in runs per game: Boston, Colorado, Cleveland and Toronto.
  • Of the nine teams with acceptable stolen base rates, those same four clubs listed are the only ones with positive wRAA marks.
  • Overall, of the 12 total teams listed, seven are below league average in runs per game.
  • All seven of those teams have posted negative marks in wRAA: Milwaukee, San Diego, Kansas City, Pittsburgh (I’ve mentioned how important Jason Grilli was to the Pirates because of their difficulty to score runs), New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, and Houston.
  • Despite these teams having enough speed to rack up the stolen bases, there are five teams that have negative UBR: Milwaukee (proving once again that you don’t need speed to be considered a good base running team), Yankees, Texas, White Sox (#TWTW–not really), and Houston.
  • The two teams that should probably just stop aggressively running the bases reside in Texas. The Rangers and Astros are the only teams that have negative points in UBR and wSB.
  • The club with the highest UBR is Cleveland—a team that was listed in our Top 10 Run Producing Teams’ Breakdown. Another team that has a UBR above 3.0 and was featured in that same article with Cleveland: Boston Red Sox.
  • The Pirates are also a good base running team, but their lack of skills and approach at the plate has resulted in them being an unproductive team on offense. A bad sign for a team that has recent history of second half meltdowns.
  • As a fan of the White Sox, I can vouch for their -7.5 UBR. They look a lot worse in live action and constantly confused on the base paths.
  • The Royals assertiveness on the basepaths have resulted in a lot of stolen bases and a high wSB. Unfortunately, it has not created many runs and they have a negative wRAA for utilizing this strategy.
  • The Rockies are another team that looks like they’re using aggressive base running to score lots of runs, but they also have the third highest OBP on this table and and are tied for second in Slugging percentage. Not as efficient as the Red Sox, but certainly a well-balanced club in their own right.
  • Eight of the 12 teams have a wSB of 3.0 or higher. So to their credit, these teams see run production off the stolen bases. Unfortunately for them, they don’t see a lot of runs because of stolen bases either.
  • Interestingly enough, Cleveland, and not Boston, have the highest walk rate on this list. Somewhere out there, Manager Terry Francona is full of glee. Regardless, both teams rank first and second in runs per game on this list.
  • Houston has the worst K% in this group, but would you expect anything less from a team that features Chris Carter, Jason Castro, and Carlos Pena in their lineup?
  • Of the six teams that have an above, league average in K%, four of those teams are below league average in runs per game. That’s why I’m always preaching patience at the plate.
  • Only 5 of 12 teams have an above, league average on base percentage. “Coincidentally” enough, they’re also the only teams in this group that are above league average in runs per game.
  • The same five teams are also in the top tier in slugging percentage. There are six clubs that have slugged above league average this season. The Milwaukee Brewers are the sixth team.
  • The Yankees and Astros are in a race toward futility in terms of wRAA. It’s understandable why the Astros are subpar on the offensive end, but it’s comical to see the Yankees having something in common with the lowly Astros.
  • As bad as the White Sox have been on the basepaths, they’ve been just as bad, if not worse, in every offensive metric, best personified by their -49.5 wRAA.
  • In 1987, the St. Louis Cardinals slugged .378, but managed to average a lot of runs per game, most notably because of their extreme utilization of stolen base attempts. Nowadays, even with the relatively high stolen bases, the San Diego Padres have a similar SLG% of .380, but can only average 3.98 runs per game.
  • Along with the Red Sox, the Padres and Royals are the only teams with SB% of over 80%. While Boston has enjoyed plenty of offensive success, the Royals aren’t as successful at drawing walks while the Padres strike out a lot. Both Royals and Padres average an OPS of .698 and have a combined wRAA of -71.2. But at least they’re trying to score by stealing all of those bases so “good for them.”

So what did we learn today? Having good plate discipline, a high OBP and OPS is a lot more important than being able to steal a lot of bases, especially in today’s baseball. Now if only real MLB front offices could actually use this knowledge to acquire better ball players for their respective teams.

Stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com and are good through July 31, 2013.

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