Stealing's Sliding Value

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006

There are those who would argue that what Corey Patterson is doing on the base paths this season is virtually worthless in this era of giant sluggers and inflated home run totals. Stolen bases are, like, soooo 1980s.

Through Thursday, Patterson, the Baltimore Orioles' outfielder, had 26 steals this year -- more than nine entire teams, and a pace that projects to 69 for the full season, a number that, should he reach it, would represent the highest total for an American League player in nearly a decade.

Should Patterson increase his pace only slightly, to, say, 73, it would be the highest total by a player in either league this decade. And should he end up with 76 or more, one would have to go back 14 years -- to Marquis Grissom (78) of the 1992 Montreal Expos -- to find a higher total in either league.

Is Patterson a throwback player who is single-handedly reviving a dying art, or an unenlightened fool who doesn't understand the diminished importance of the stolen base in the Moneyball Era?

It's no surprise where Patterson himself falls on this debate. "It's true that all the home runs have taken away the appeal of the stolen base," he said. "But you can't always win games by playing station-to-station baseball. There are times when you have to manufacture runs."

There is a perfectly good reason stolen base numbers have diminished in the last 20 years, roughly in reverse proportion to the increase in home runs. As home runs (and offense in general) skyrocketed, the importance of manufacturing runs by such means as stealing bases diminished. When a slugger crushes another homer, it doesn't matter what base the base runner is on.

"Over here, the philosophy is, if you're going to run -- obviously you're not going to be perfect, but they want you to be very selective," said center fielder Vernon Wells of the Toronto Blue Jays, a team heavily influenced by sabermetrics. "And me, I'm hitting in front of Troy [Glaus], so you know I'm not going to try to steal very often."

In addition, sabermetricians have calculated that the benefit of a stolen base (one base gained) is minuscule compared to the risk of losing an out by getting caught. Therefore, even when Scott Podsednik stole 70 bases in 2004 -- the highest total so far this decade -- while getting caught 13 times, the net gain for his Milwaukee Brewers was only 6.4 runs for the entire year.

Base-stealers "rarely contribute to a team's offensive performance in amounts that merit the attention they receive," concluded James Click in the book, "Baseball Between the Numbers." "The stolen base is a useful weapon, but also an overrated one."

What is more important than Patterson's stolen base total is his percentage of success. Patterson's 26 steals have come in only 27 attempts. In fact, he has yet to be thrown out by a catcher; his one caught-stealing was by Seattle pitcher Jamie Moyer.

That stolen-base percentage of 96.3 currently ranks third in history among base-stealers with 25 or more attempts -- and is well above the threshold of about 73 percent for which stealing bases has a net-positive effect.

Still, by using 2006 run-expectancy data -- the number of runs an average team can expect to score subsequent to achieving specific base runners-to-outs situations -- it can be calculated that Patterson's base-stealing has netted the Orioles an additional 4.015 runs this season.

And since it is generally accepted in the sabermetric world that 10 runs is equal to win, all that work has not even translated to half a win for the Orioles.

But don't let that stop you, Corey. Every little bit helps, right?

© 2006 The Washington Post Company