RotoWire Partners

The Saber's Edge: Red Light, Green Light

Jeff Zimmerman

Zimmerman writes analytics-focused baseball and football articles for RotoWire. He also handles scouting and reporting for and contributes to, and Jeff is also a two time FSWA award winner, including the 2016 Football Writer of the Year award.

Today, I am going to look at the changing stolen-base environment. Stolen bases are one of the hardest stats to accurately predict. Several factors are at work, such as leg speed, getting on base, and having a manager willing to give the player a green light. Here is a look at some early season factors that can change a player's stolen-base potential.

NL #8 Hitters

National League batters who hit eighth basically get a fantasy death sentence because the pitcher hits after them. A while back, I looked at the effects on hitters moving out of the #8 position and came to the following conclusion:

A player put in the eighth hole will have their stats affected when compared to other positions in the lineup. By moving out of the eighth spot, they should expect their runs and stolen bases to increase. Their average, walks and RBI may go down with home runs remaining relatively constant.

A hitter moving from the eighth to the first position in a lineup can expect to see a three times as many stolen bases per plate appearance. The reason behind the jump is that teams don't want a hitter getting out attempting a steal when the pitcher is hitting with two outs. If there are fewer than two outs, the pitcher will probably just be sacrificing the runner over a base so no stolen base is need.

I looked at every NL team to see who was hitting eighth to find players who may be getting the red light. I ignored players with no stolen-base potential (the Nats' Jose Lobaton) or the teams who really haven't settled on a particular player (Brewers with nine players hitting eighth).

Andrelton Simmons has hit eighth in 14 of the games this season and has only attempted one stolen base there this season. Over his career he has about the same number PA batting 1st (307) and batting eighth (304) and has attempted twice as many steals from the lead off spot (6) as from the eighth spot (3). While Simmons has not stolen a ton of bases in the big leagues, he did average 18 per season in the minors. If he moves up in the batting order, he may see a nice jump in stolen bases.

If Cody Asche quits striking out and moves up in the Phillies' lineup, he has some stolen base potential.

Adeiny Hechavarria's potential 10 to 15 steals are likely cut in half as long as he stays hitting eighth for Miami.

When he plays, Peter Bourjos (Cardinals).

Brandon Hicks (Giants).

DJ LeMahieu (Colorado) has the potential for 20 steals, but not when he hits eighth as he has in 21 of his 24 games so far this season.

A.J. Pollock has the most instances of batting eighth for the Diamondbacks. Over the last three games, Chris Owings has hit eighth. Owings has 15-25 stolen-base potential, but not down in the eighth spot.

New Managers

Continuing the look for players who may see an increase or decrease in stolen bases, it is time to look at the league's five new managers. Each may or may not allow their players to have more freedom on the basepaths than their predecessors. For this exercise, I am going to look at the number of stolen-base attempts (CS+SB) per opportunity (1B+BB+HBP).

Mariners (Lloyd McClendon)
2013: 5.1% SBA/Opp
2014: 7.0% SBA/Opp
Difference: +1.9%

Thoughts: This team just doesn't have a ton of speed to exploit as seen by their league-low six steals on 13 attempts. The low value should not be a surprise after the Mariners ranked 28th in stolen bases last season. The team's big biggest stolen-base threats, Michael Saunders and Abraham Almonte, aren't acting as threats. Both are hitting under .205 while going a combined 3-for-6 in stolen bases.

Cubs (Rick Renteria)
2013: 7.2% SBA/Opp
2014: 10.4%
Difference: +3.3%

Thoughts: The jump can be entirely attributed to Emilio Bonifacio (9-for-11), who has half of the team's attempts. Looking at the Cubs, I don't see Renteria leaning one way or the other so far. One player who intrigues me is Starlin Castro with only one unsuccessful attempt. He had over 20 steals in 2011 and 2012, but finished with just nine last season in 15 attempts. More on him later.

Nationals (Matt Williams)
2013: 8.2% SBA/Opp
2014: 5.3% SBA/Opp
Difference: -2.9%

Thoughts: The Nationals seem pretty conservative on the basepaths with only 13 attempts (83% success rate). The two players with 20+ stolen bases each, Ian Desmond and Denard Span, only have four attempts this season. The biggest cause for their lack of attempts is a lack of opportunities with each one seeing at least a 45-point drop in their OBP. Right now, I see Williams being generally neutral.

Reds (Bryan Price)
2013: 6.4% SBA/Opp
2014: 14.8% SBA/Opp
Difference: +8.3 SBA/Opp

Thoughts: First, Billy Hamilton's numbers need to be removed. Even with his subpar hitting this season, he still has as many or more stolen bases than six teams. Removing Hamilton, the SBA/Opp jumps from 5.6% in 2013 to 10% in 2014. Price has really opened things up for the Reds on the basepaths. Jay Bruce has four stolen bases already after having only seven last season. Chris Heisey has the same total (three) in 1/8th the plate appearances. Even Brayan Pena has two so far. Needless to say, the Reds seem to a little more aggressive this season beyond having Hamilton atop their lineup.

Tigers (Brad Ausmus)
2013: 3.2% SBA/Opp
2014: 13.4% SBA/Opp
Difference: +10.2

Thoughts: The Tigers are way up and their jump can be attributed to Rajai Davis (10 attempts) playing every day. Additionally, the trade of Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder has added a few more attempts. The person who should be a good team gauge is Austin Jackon, who has only three attempts. This number may seem low, but it is on par with his attempts during last few Aprils (2011: 4, 2012: 3, 2013: 5). Right now, it looks like owners shouldn't expect any Tiger to see much of an increase or decrease in their stolen-base numbers.

Previous Season Success Rate

With so many sabermetric advances, teams know they need a certain stolen-base success rate (~75% to 80%) or there is little reason to steal. An example of a team limiting the stolen-base attempts are the Cubs with the aforementioned Castro. In 2011, he had a 71% success rate in 31 attempts. The next season, the attempts jumped to 38, but the success rate dropped to 66%. Last season, he only attempted 15 steals, but was only successful 60% of the time. This season, he has only one unsuccessful attempt. If a player makes too many outs on the basepaths, expect the player's stolen-base attempts to decline.

Next, I am going to look at players with over 20 stolen bases and a success rate below 70% to see if their respective teams are limiting their running attempts in 2014.

Michael Bourn's success rate has been in a steady downward trend, going from 81% to 76% to 66% to finally 40% this season. Then Indians will put the brakes on Bourn before he costs them many more runs.

Norichika Aoki could not have moved to a better team to keep up his unsuccessful running ways. Ned Yost loves to run. The Royals led the league in stolen bases in 2013 and are 15th(T) in 2014. So far Aoki hasn't been able to get his 2012 speed back and is 3-for-6 in stolen-base attempts. The Yost-led Royals may care less about success rate than most clubs, but Aoki will need to do better than 50%

As the Reds' leadoff hitter last season, Shin-Soo Choo made an effort to continue stealing bases in 2013. He was only successful less than 67% of the time, and this season with the Rangers he's gone 1-for-3.