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It Takes a Thief: The Case for MLB Teams Attempting More Stolen Bases

Trea Turner nabbed four bases this past weekend, and his manager wants him to go for 90 this season. With baseball games increasingly won on the margins, why shouldn’t teams make a run for it?

Trea Turner running Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Opening Day against the Mets, Nationals shortstop Trea Turner stole three bases in three attempts, and then, in Sunday’s series finale, he swiped a fourth bag. Turner’s aggressiveness isn’t tremendously surprising. He was tied for second in MLB in stolen base attempts in 2018 and third the year before that, and he combines straight-line speed and the ability to get on base like few other ballplayers can. Nationals manager Dave Martinez challenged Turner to attempt to steal 90 bases this year, which would beat his current career high by 36.

Turner is obviously a special base stealer, but teams across the league ought to use what he and his Nationals teammates did this weekend as a road map.

On Saturday, Turner didn’t steal a base, but outfielder Juan Soto did. That’s notable because the 20-year-old Soto, despite being at the age when your average American man could eat a pound of mac and cheese, down a quart of milk, and run a mile without breaking a sweat, doesn’t run that well. Soto stole just five bags as a rookie, but he took second against a Mets battery of Noah Syndergaard and Wilson Ramos.

Last year, Syndergaard allowed 32 stolen bases, the most in baseball, in just 154 innings at a 91 percent success rate. Syndergaard’s batterymate, Ramos, graded out as about average in all phases of defense last year, according to Baseball Prospectus; he’s fine, but he’s not exactly prime Iván Rodríguez in terms of controlling the running game. This battery presented an opportunity for even Soto to steal a bag.

In the NBA, teams are able to create defensive mismatches by running screens or forcing the pace in transition. Taken to an extreme, this tactic turns into “hunting” players who are in over their heads defensively, feeding the ball to a weak defender’s man over and over. Baseball, with no free substitutions and a set batting order, isn’t as conducive to exploiting defensive mismatches, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Unlike the leaguewide strikeout rate, the stolen base attempt rate is cyclical over baseball history, and we’re in a historical trough. In 2018, there were 3,432 stolen base attempts in MLB, down 29 from 2017, for an average of about 0.71 stolen base attempts per team per game. That’s the lowest in more than 50 years; as recently as 1992, the average was 1.15 attempts per game. But the change in the evaluation of catcher defense presents an opportunity to swing the pendulum in the other direction.

Back in the 20th century, there weren’t many objective statistical measures of catcher defense: Wild pitches and passed balls gave some rough measure of blocking ability, while opponent stolen base percentage illustrated a catcher’s ability to control the running game. Both gave incomplete information about a facet of the game the catcher is only partially able to control, but they were better than stats like range factor and fielding percentage, both of which are beyond useless for catchers. The rest got filled in with the eye test and heuristics, leading to Nichols’s Law of Catcher Defense: A catcher’s defensive reputation is inversely proportional to his offensive ability.

All of that changed in 2011, when Mike Fast, then of Baseball Prospectus, more recently of the Astros’ and Braves’ front offices, quantified pitch framing. How a catcher caught the ball and how that action dictated the umpire’s calls became of paramount importance: In 2011, the difference in framing between Jonathan Lucroy (best in baseball) and Carlos Santana (worst in baseball) was worth more than 70 runs.

That gap has narrowed in the past decade as coaching has improved and bad-framing catchers were moved off the position, but even in 2018, the impact of framing dwarfs all other catcher defense. Baseball Prospectus measures catcher defense. In 2018, the difference between the best-framing catcher in baseball (Yasmani Grandal) and the worst (Willson Contreras) among catchers with at least 1,000 framing chances was 33.5 runs. The difference between the best blocker (Tucker Barnhart) and worst (Omar Narváez) was 8.2 runs. The difference between the best thrower (James McCann) and worst (Robinson Chirinos) was just 1.9 runs.

Blocking, and especially throwing, have been deemphasized for catchers because there isn’t as much to gain by excelling at those aspects of the game as framing, or offense, it should be said. On Baseball Savant’s 2018 leaderboard for catcher pop time (time from the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt to hitting the fielder’s glove on a stolen base attempt), the bottom two—Tyler Flowers and Max Stassi—were two of the three best framers in baseball, and the third- and fourth-best defensive catchers overall. Throwing should be devalued relative to framing, at least as far as we understand catcher defense today.

That goes doubly for pitchers. Steve Carlton was one of the best ever at controlling the running game, but that’s incidental to his being one of the best ever at getting hitters out. San Diego lefty Eric Lauer picked runners off at a historic rate in 2018 (10 in just 112 innings pitched) but posted an ERA+ of just 89; nobody in their right mind would trade Syndergaard for Lauer just because Lauer controls the running game better.

Kyrie Irving is going to play no matter how much he gets hunted on defense because his offensive output outweighs his defensive deficiencies. He might be a net positive if he gets picked on defensively, but his opponent should still pick on him if the opportunity presents itself. It’s the same for catchers or pitchers who can’t control the running game. Syndergaard’s long limbs and deliberate delivery are the reason he’s Noah Goddamn Syndergaard in the first place—who cares if they also allow base runners to swipe eight extra bags a year?

There are dangers to stealing bases; the quick acceleration and deceleration involved are a magnet for injury; we’ve seen stars like Mike Trout and Carlos Correa suffer hand injuries while sliding headfirst in the past two years. And the downside to getting caught is greater than the upside of stealing a bag successfully; if Jean Segura got caught stealing with Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins coming up behind him, he’d get fined in kangaroo court for sure.

But so much of good baserunning is knowing when to pick your spots: Albert Pujols, who couldn’t outrun the tide, went 16-for-18 on stolen base attempts in 2005, 16-for-20 in 2009, and 17-for-19 over 2011 and 2012. And as a whole, the league is so conservative in terms of basestealing that there have to be more good spots to pick that go unexploited.

The ultimate best-case scenario is illustrated in the 2014 AL wild-card game, when the Royals, a team built around speed, stole seven bases—one each by seven players—off A’s catcher Derek Norris. The seventh and last stolen base, by Christian Colon, put Colon in position to score the winning run on Salvador Pérez’s single later that at-bat.

But there are lesser examples; on Saturday, the Rays stole three bases off Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos, who is a better hitter than framer, but like his teammate Stassi, is a below-average thrower. One stolen base attempt resulted in a throwing error, and in the eighth, Tampa Bay pulled off a double steal with Tommy Pham (who’s fast) and Ji-Man Choi (who isn’t) on the battery of Chirinos and Chris Devenski, a right-handed reliever against whom opposing base stealers are 30-for-36 lifetime.

The boundaries can be pressed even further. Since the 1994 strike, the league average for stolen base attempts per team game topped out at 1.08 in 1997, which is 52 percent higher than it was in 2018. That’s a big improvement on today’s historically low stolen base attempt levels, but it’s not an ill-considered first-pitch dash for any open bag. Getting back to the stolen base levels of 20 years ago would mean each team attempting one more stolen base every three games.

That they can do without taking too many unnecessary risks. Since 1995, the league-average success rate has gone from a low of 67.9 percent, also in 1997, to a high of 74.4 percent in 2007, when there were 0.81 stolen base attempts per team game; that’s less than a 10 percent fluctuation in success rate. Last year Turner led the NL with 43 stolen bases at an 82.7 percent success rate; since 1980, 27 players have attempted 90 steals in a season; 26 of them beat last year’s league-average success rate of 72.1 percent, and 12 of those succeeded at a higher rate than Turner in 2018.

Baseball is a game of fine margins. Consider the spatial and temporal boundaries of a good framing job, in which the catcher is fighting for an inch or two of the plate for a fraction of a second. One base here or there isn’t guaranteed to swing a pennant race or even necessarily a single game. But a base or two in the right spot could make all the difference.