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Stolen Base Isn't Such a Big Deal

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
July 3, 1988

In 1985, his rookie year, Vince Coleman electrified the baseball world by stealing 110 bases and helping the St. Louis Cardinals sprint to the National League championship.

Coleman and his teammates stole a near-record 314 bases while being nabbed just 96 times, and the Cards became a "model" of how to build a team around speed. It was assumed that their major weapon, the stolen base, was critical to their league-leading 747 runs scored and their success.

It wasn't.

They were mostly successful by doing what most winning teams do; they put men on base. They not only led the league in batting average, they walked more than any other team. And their slugging percentage was solidly above average. All the emotional accolades and hype, including loose talk about Coleman as MVP, helped obscure the truly negligible contribution stolen bases make to an offense.

Seeing as this is a baseball column concerned mostly with the statistical nature of the game, let's for the moment can the armchair psychology about what humiliating effect the stolen base has on opponents and instead look at the numbers.

Using a simplified version of Bill James' Runs Created formula, one would expect the Cardinals to score 717 runs based on the number of hits, walks, stolen bases, extra-base hits, etc. That's 30 off the actual number of runs scored and is pretty typical of the formula's accuracy, about 96 percent. But when you leave stolen bases and caught stealing out of the equation the formula predicts only 694 runs. That means those 314 stolen bases produced around 23 runs.

That's not many runs when you consider the Cardinals scored 41 more times than their nearest competition. As for MVP candidate Coleman, his personal Runs Created contribution was 78 with stolen bases and 68 without. Based on his Runs Created total, if you had a lineup of nine Vince Colemans they would score 4.1 runs per game; pretty puny when you consider the Cards as a team scored 4.6 runs per game.

Coleman not only had a crummy year with the bat, his stolen bases (the third all-time highest total) were hardly a significant factor in the team's offense.

Casey Stengel wouldn't have been surprised. Over 20 years ago, he noted that "a base stealer is a valuable man for the club only when he makes it almost every time." Casey's teams didn't run much back in the '50s and '60s, but then no one's team ran much then. Babe Ruth had bashed it into their heads in the '20s that advantages of the long ball and disadvantages of being caught in the act far outweighed the stolen base's guerrilla element of surprise.

In 1913, there were 2.56 stolen bases per National League game. By the dawn of the live-ball era in 1921 that number was down to 1.30 and in 1939 it hit .60. Admittedly, base stealers were far less successful as the dead-ball era dragged to a close than they are now (in 1921 NL runners stole 803 bases but were caught 771 times), but regardless of the success ratio, it had become all-too-apparent that the ability to score runs in bunches negated much of the stolen base's value. The National League thought so little of the stolen base, it quit keeping track of Caught Stealing for a quarter century after 1925.






* Only players since 1951, when NL began counting Caught Stealing, are included.
* Runs = (Stolen Bases x .3) - (Caught Stealing x .6)

And that's the way it stayed until the '60s, when Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio convinced a justifiably skeptical public that there was a pressing need for speed. In 1962, when Wills stole 104 bases, the National League swiped .97 bases per game, nearly twice the 1954 NL rate. By 1987 that number had doubled again and fans were ready to clear a spot in Cooperstown for Coleman.

Coleman has elevated his game the last couple of years (5.1 Runs Per Game in '87) by drawing more walks and raising his batting average, thereby allowing stolen bases to push him over the edge into the competent-ball-player range. Stolen bases play a large part in a ballplayer's life when he has little other offense to begin with.

But Rickey Henderson isn't the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time because of his fabled head-first slide. It's because he's among the leaders, year after year, in both on-base and slugging percentage.

Statistician Pete Palmer has made it easy to gauge the relative value of a player's running game. Using a 1978 computer simulation of every game played until then, Palmer found that the number of runs stolen bases theoretically contribute to a team follows this formula: .3 x Stolen Bases - .6 x Caught Stealing. Using the formula, Coleman's 110 stolen bases in '85 were worth about 18 runs, the ninth-best mark since 1951 when the NL resumed keeping track of Caught Stealing. (See chart.)

Those among you whose eyes have not glazed over by now may have noticed that James' formula says Coleman's '85 stolen bases were worth 10 runs to the team, but Palmer's formula says they were worth 18. James acknowledges the discrepancy, and has various technical versions of Runs Created that factor in things like Double Plays Grounded Into that brings his numbers into agreement with Palmer's.

Needless to say, not all stolen bases are created equal. Steve Sax getting thrown out in the ninth inning of a close game probably does more damage to a team's chance of winning than a busted hit-and-run play in the first inning that wipes out a runner. But Palmer's formula takes that into consideration and over the long haul, these numbers don't lie.

So if you feel compelled to extol the virtues of Sax's running game, at least take a look at how often he hits the wall. You might be surprised to find that his 228 career stolen bases are virtually negated by his 107 failed attempts.

As for the psychological advantage of this fearsome weapon, I suppose it helps to keep the opposition laughing, but it doesn't win many ballgames.