ST. LOUIS — As the dawn of the 2015 season broke, St. Louis found itself waking with a new identity in mind. 2014’s station-to-station offense had been a gruesome slog through 162 games, and the speed-laden club was looking for a change.
“This spring training we kind of talked with Mike (Manager Mike Matheny), the guys who are kind of quick, and were like, ‘we want to be aggressive this year,’” Kolten Wong said. “Mike, as soon as we said it was like, ‘I want you guys to be aggressive this year.’ I think after kind of getting that out of the way, Mike started giving us a little more freedom on the bases. Allowing us to kind of test the water a little bit.
Matheny has repeatedly reinforced the team’s commitment to aggressive baserunning, and the evidence is in the numbers. The Cardinals have attempted 32 steals in 2015, more than a third of the way to their 2014 total of 89.
The debate has grown louder in recent years about whether the steal is a worthwhile risk in terms of increasing run expectancy. In 2011, Fangraphs calculated the break even point for stealing second base to be between roughly 70-75 percent regardless of the number of outs. Succinctly, this means that if a team’s success percentage falls below that mark, the failed attempts are actually canceling out the benefits from the successful attempts in the long run.
It’s a simple barometer of risk versus reward for a club, telling them that unless you can achieve a certain level of success, it’s better not to try.
So far this season, the Cardinals are sitting at a rate of just 59 percent. Peter Bourjos, the fastest runner on the team and one of the fastest in the game, is shooting 50 percent. Wong, the speedy second baseman who currently inhabits the leadoff spot, is 3-for-7.
To understand why their raw speed is not directly translating to success, one must first understand the complexity of the moving parts. The decision to try swiping bases in the majors is a composite of cold reading, timing, pitcher tendencies and razor-thin margins.
“It really depends on how quick the pitcher is to the plate. You know, when he’s in the 1.2s it’s really tough to steal,” Bourjos said. (1.2 denotes the seconds between a pitcher’s first movement and the arrival of the ball in the catcher’s mitt). “A lot of guys, especially lately, have dropped down in the 1.2s. If you can get the guy in a 1.3 you have a pretty good shot of stealing it. Even if they make a perfect throw you probably have a good chance of beating it. Once they drop into 1.2, 1.25 or 1.28, it starts becoming where you almost have to look for a breaking ball. Even then, there’s a chance they throw it right on the money and still might get you.”
Bourjos grades out at 80 speed (the highest possible scouting rating), and even his window of opportunity comes down to a blink of an eye. Even the fastest runners in the game have to make decisions based on fractions of seconds.
Because of this, base stealers turn to the mountains of data available on pitcher’s patterns to give themselves an edge.
“I definitely look into pitcher’s tendencies and how they attack every hitter, and different hitters in the lineup. That’s how I base what would be a good time to go and what wouldn’t be,” Wong said, explaining how he revisits the information to probe for potential opportunities to advance his position.
Certain pitchers will have radically different times to the plate when throwing different pitches, affording runners the precious milliseconds they need. “Just seeing the pitcher falling into any kind of tendencies. Whether it’s high leg kick, or they might look over the same amount of times every time. It’s hard, because at this level, guys don’t really have any tendencies. So it’s more about anticipating and hoping that in certain counts they throw a certain pitch. You’re gambling.”
Wong robbed the casino blind in 2014, posting an 83 percent success rate in 24 attempts. In the minors his percentage was 76 percent, comfortably above the break even point.
But gambling carries inherent risk, so why put your money in at all?
In 2015, if a team has a runner on first with no outs, their run expectancy (number of runs expected in that inning) is .836. If he moves to second successfully on a steal, it jumps to 1.07. If he stays on first and there’s an out, the number drops to .49 versus a .64 if he’s on second. But the cascading nature of consequences in baseball means the benefits to a successful steal could be even greater.
For instance if a runner stole second, and the first out was ground ball to the right side or a fly ball he could tag on, he would occupy third with one out. At that point, the run expectancy rises to .90, a vast improvement over him being on first with one out (.49) or the dreaded double play leaving no one on with two out (.096).
“Obviously it’s all calculated, you know? You have to be running in the right situations,” Bourjos said, outlining times he eyes to nab an extra bag. “If you’re just blatantly running into outs when there’s no outs in an inning or one out, and you’re over there that’s stupid. I think if there’s two outs and you’re trying to get into scoring position, that’s the time to take your opportunity.”
The numbers say he’s right. Moving from first to second with two outs raises run expectancy a tenth of a point, and for a player with his speed, a single is enough to score from 180 feet away.
St. Louis hasn’t hid their dedication to confrontation on the basepaths this season. Matheny believes teams are beginning to adjust, and while it may produce ugly stealing percentages, there are hidden benefits to be had.
“Teams have changed this year on us. Where they’ve been a little longer, they’re quicker now. We think that in the long run that will pay off. Maybe with pitches guys are getting at the plate, but we’re going to stay aggressive,” he said.
“I think if you can get a guy down to 1.1 and he starts elevating pitches, you’ve kind of done your job and you’ve given that guy (at the plate) an opportunity to go ahead and smack one in the gap and you can score from first,” Bourjos added.
Wong echoed the sentiment, noting his role as leadoff man is to divide a pitcher’s attention once he reaches base.
“Right now guys understand when I get on base I’m not trying to stay at first base. When pitchers understand that, they tend to focus on you a little more. My job as the leadoff batter, that’s what I want to do. Open up the guys to leave a ball in the middle for Matt [Carpenter] or Holly (Matt Holliday) or other guys to drive something,” he said.
While that disruption has understandable (if unquantifiable) value, the fact remains the Cardinals are giving away outs on the basepaths when they get caught stealing. For a team ranked 23rd in the league in home runs, each runner is a treasured asset. The impact of a downed runner is jarring, dropping the run expectancy from .83 with a runner on first and no outs to .24 with empty bases and one out. For St. Louis to keep running at the rate they are, success must come in greater numbers. Bourjos and Wong believe with continued attacks, their numbers will normalize.
“I’ve been looking a lot at my videos of me getting caught and it’s just, for me, bad luck. Four of the times I’ve been caught so far were pitches that were basically pitch-outs. Guys are getting me out by maybe like a foot or so. It’s one of those things. People go in slumps with hitting, I’m in a slump with stealing. I’m getting good jumps, but just not on the right pitches,” Wong said, taking the counter position to the old baseball adage ‘speed never slumps.’ “It’s just a little harder right now. I’m trying to figure out when is a good time to steal. It’ll start coming around, just now I’m stealing at the wrong time I guess. Guys are coming up with the right pitches to throw me out on.”
“I got picked one time, and then there’s been a lot throws right on the money, right on top of the bag. It was a situation where it was time to take a chance and the guy was quick,” Bourjos added. “The other day, pitcher was really quick and we were banking on a breaking ball. He threw a breaking ball and [the catcher] threw it right on the money, made a perfect throw.”
It’s clear the Cardinals will continue to force perfection from defenses, content in the belief that failure, in a game defined by it, will ultimately win out in the long run.
The early St. Louis slogan of 2015 is “speed kills.” It won’t be until the smoke clears that we know which side suffers the most painful death.