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To Steal or Not To Steal?

The stolen base is one of those quirky plays in baseball that in my mind really crystallizes the debate between traditional baseball strategies and those promulgated by sabermetrics.  Advocates on both sides agree that there’s nothing worse than an out.  Outs are the fundamental timekeepers of the game and are in limited supply (27).  So is it worth risking a baserunner when an out could occur?  Some would argue that stealing third or even home may be more worth the risk since it’s more likely that player will score.  Of course, there are situational factors at play as well – the batter, the score, the inning, other baserunners, the pitcher, etc.  Similarly, many managers and players keep Earl Weaver‘s maxim of “stolen bases are only beneficial if they’re successful at least 75% of the time” in the back of their heads.  For this reason, the strategy behind stolen bases intrigues me and I wanted to take a deeper look at the Phillies strategy in recent history.

I charted the Phillies stolen bases over the past 20 years and there are a few observations that can made. 

Phillies Stolen Bases 1996-2015

As we know, the 2007 and 2008 Phillies were great teams and it’s no wonder they excelled in the stolen base department.  Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth all raced around the bases with great success.  This was also the time of Chase Utley‘s heyday on the basepaths and he continues to hold the All-Time MLB record for stolen base percentage at 88.6%.  Werth is third  at 87.2% and Victornio, Rollins and Doug Glanville all reside in the top 30.  Glanville  (along with Rollins and Bobby Abreu) was a big contributor to the 2001 team that swiped 153 bags that season. (For more on Phillies all-time basestealers check out Ian’s article from last season.)

Now we can’t say for certain that an increase in stolen bases guarantees success in the standing or playoffs, but there is certainly some correlation.  It was no coincidence last year’s Royals finished with 153 swipes and an 81% success rate.   On the flip side, the 2015 Phillies are projected for a dismal 74 stolen bases this season in addition to 100 losses.  Unfortunately, the triple-headed monster of Odubel Herrera, Ben Revere and Freddy Galvis isn’t exactly giving opposing teams nightmares.

Still, I think we all know there are many more factors at play than the Phillies lack of stolen bases; otherwise that 2001 team would have a flag flying in centerfield.  To quote Earl Weaver again, “the key to winning baseball games is pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers.”  Home run production is certainly an area where the current Phillies team sorely lacks.  This season the Phillies are last in the majors with just 26 HRs, while Houston leads the league with 66.

So what’s the point here?  We already know the 2015 Phillies are a bad team – they can’t hit and they can’t steal bases.  I guess then the question is, what would you rather have a team built around speed or a team full of mashers?  Both would be exciting to watch, but which one would win more games?  I’ll have to do some more research and get back to you.

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