Is the Stolen Base the Orioles’ New Offensive Weapon?
The Orioles’ offense has been described a number of ways recently – boom-or-bust, stars-and-scrubs, home run leaders – and none of these phrases imply a team that can manufacture runs1 on the base path. Baltimore actually ranked 16th in stolen bases last season, swiping 79 bags in 2013, despite my recollection that nobody on the team besides Nate McLouth was running. In the teams’ offseason additions, at least prior to Nelson Cruz, it appears that the Orioles were making a play for more speed.
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Not to get ahead of myself, the three new players with the greatest stolen base potential on the 2014 Orioles were unheralded acquisitions that may not even see significant playing time in the coming months. This strategy will not change the face of the team or even its primary offensive strategy. It might, however, add a dimension, likely from the bench, that the Orioles have either been missing or underutilized over the last few years. In 2013, Nate McLouth was the team’s stolen base leader, snagging a total of 30 bases. If memory serves, something like 22 or 24 of those steals were before the All Star break, and McLouth was close to Jacoby Ellsbury for the league lead. In the second half of the season, he nearly stopped running.
The Orioles’ new left fielder, David Lough, hasn’t been a stolen base machine in a short career, but certainly has the speed to be a threat on the basepaths. The same can be said for Jemile Weeks, who converted 16 of 21 stolen base attempts during his last significant stint in the majors. The most impressive base stealer that the Orioles have added is outfielder Quintin Berry, who is 29-for-29 in stolen base attempts (including the playoffs) over two years of occasional Major League play. Among these three, David Lough has the best chance to make an impact at the Major League level. He plays very good defense and has shown the ability to hit well, while Weeks has struggled at the plate since his rookie campaign. Berry was a .258 hitter for Detroit in 2012 in 330 plate attempts, but was only good enough to crack the lineup for 9 plate attempts with the Red Sox in 2013. The Sox knew Berry’s value was in pinch running and added him to the roster when it expanded in September and kept him on the playoff roster in October.
The Orioles’ other stolen bases will come primarily from Adam Jones and Alexi Casilla (assuming Berry or Weeks doesn’t replace him on the Major League roster, which is unlikely, as all three are unremarkable infielders with an ability to pinch run). And don’t forget that Chris Davis stole 4 of 5 attempts in 2013, with Matt Wieters going 2-for-2!
Over the last few years, it is true that the Orioles have lived and died by the offensive outburst. If the team wasn’t getting extra base hits, nobody was moving around the bases. They just didn’t string together singles the way some teams could to extend innings and slowly rack up runs. I am undecided on how much of this was due to team philosophy and how much was due to team ability. Adding more speed to the team, however it manifests on the roster, may well lead to a positive gain for the 2014 Orioles.
The biggest sticking point here, and why I think the team grabbed Quintin Berry specifically, is that stolen bases are a gamble that need to be considered mathematically. In the micro, a single stolen base is a low-risk/high-reward proposition. The runner gets 1 total base, not even one run, and risks losing 1 of his teams’ 27 total outs. A successful steal is great, but what if the next few batters strike out and the stolen base amounts to nothing? Was the risk worth it in that one game, at that one point in time?
Fortunately, baseball has 162 games in a season and events like stolen bases, whether from the team or an individual, can be graded as a unit in macro. Since a stolen base is worth less than a run (in the most basic sense, a run = 4 total bases and a stolen base = 1 total base), stolen base attempts have to be successfully completed more than half of the time to be a net positive contributor to win total. Moneyball gives the success rate required to break even on stolen bases to be 77%, although this figure is dependent on league tendencies. If a high run-scoring environment, the success rate required drops slightly. This FanGraphs post gives the break-even success rate for each base and number of outs, nearly all of which fall in the mid 70% range.
In 2013, the Orioles converted 73% of stolen base attempts, just below the standard break-even points. Even if they don’t run more often, Weeks, Berry, and Lough may be slightly more efficient than the base stealers the team employed in years past, and that would be enough to push the Orioles’ baserunning to a net positive. Whether they get the opportunity to do that remains to be seen.
1. Full disclosure, and feel free to ignore this rant, I hate this phrase. It’s typically associated with bunting guys around to reach scoring position, or as I like to call it, “trading outs to move a runner into scoring position because a statistic indicates that a certain player may be better with a runner on second or third despite that actually having no effect on an at-bat and that statistic being a product of a small sample size.” The first rule of econometrics is that the theory has to make sense, and this one doesn’t. I’m using the phrase here to differentiate the contribution of stolen bases to run production from hits, because the baseball community considers one method “earning a run” and the other “manufacturing a run,” as if it’s somehow valued differently.