Dodger Thoughts

Jon Weisman's outlet for dealing psychologically with the Los Angeles Dodgers, baseball and life

Sliding into the Dodgers’ baserunning issues

Los Angeles Dodgers vs Arizona Diamondbacks

By Robert Tagorda

If every team has a weakness, then the Achilles’ heel for the Dodgers can be found in their legs. Halfway through the season, they rank last in the majors with 14 stolen bases — three times fewer than the average team and over five times below the league-leading Reds. They’ve also been caught stealing more often than they’ve succeeded. In fact, they’re the only team with a stolen base percentage under 50 percent.

These statistics seem damning, especially when compared to last year’s results, which saw the Dodgers atop the majors with 138 steals. But we need to frame the issue in the proper context before searching for solutions.

First, steals have relatively limited impact within a team’s overall offense. This concept makes intuitive sense, as a running attack is entirely dependent on hitters’ ability to get on base — but we also have data to support it.

Each year, Baseball Prospectus calculates the number of extra runs generated by steals. If we look at the top 20 basestealing teams between 2000 and 2014, we find that their exploits contributed an additional 6.5 runs on average. That amounted to just two-thirds of a win, given the standard conversion of 10 runs per victory.

Even if a team wants to gain an edge with its legs, stolen bases might not necessarily be the best path forward. Baseball Prospectus tracks other baserunning metrics, including the ability to advance on groundouts, air outs, hits and other situations (such as wild pitches). The following chart (click to enlarge) shows which of these components had the biggest impact on a team’s overall baserunning score:

Which Baserunning Component Had the Biggest Impact on an MLB Team- (2000 - 2014) (3)

For approximately three out of every four teams, ground or hit advancement proved to be the most critical baserunning component. It’s not hard to see why. In a typical year, teams have more than a thousand opportunities to advance on ground outs or hits. An emphasis on maximizing these opportunities might reap greater benefits than the pursuit of stolen bases, which creates about nine times fewer chances. Yet even the right strategy is bound to have limited value: a top-five team averages about 12 extra runs across all baserunning categories, or just a little more than a win.

Now, let’s apply these insights to the current Dodger club.

With an overall baserunning score of -8.5, the Dodgers rank 25th in the majors. The following chart breaks down this total by the five Baseball Prospectus categories:

Dodgers Baserunning through July 1, 2015

The stolen-base result is unsurprisingly low, but it’s worth noting that ground advancement is around the same level. So even while the Dodgers have significantly trailed the rest of the league in steals, their struggles have only cost them a third of a win, which is comparable to what has occurred on the basepaths during ground outs.

In light of these numbers, some might suggest that the Dodgers should turn their attention to ground advancement. It’s a reasonable suggestion, but the sample size is too small for any meaningful analysis. Furthermore, the results tend to jump from year to year. Because the Baseball Prospectus statistics account for the specific situations in which baserunning occurs, they do a good job of describing past events, but they’re unreliable for forecasting purposes.

Bottom line: It might not be worthwhile for a first-place team with good offense, defense and pitching to go out on a limb for a fraction of a win.

In the end, the Dodgers’ best course of action might be the conservative one. When asked about the running game, Don Mattingly told Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles: “It’s not so much that (the front office is) against stolen bases — and I’m not against stolen bases — but you’re definitely against giving up outs.”

In other words, if your team is already giving itself many chances to win, you should be cautious about risking these advantages. As physicians like to say, “First, do no harm.”

Robert Tagorda writes about baseball and basketball from Los Angeles. Follow him at @presidual.


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  1. Just one reason we shouldn’t have traded Dee Gordon.

  2. This is garbage. The Dodgers don’t run because they traded their only real threat. L.A. is only 14 for 35 (per the team’s own stats) and 0 for the last 6 (stat from Wednesday night’s broadcast); Dee Gordon, meanwhile, is 26 for 37, a 70% success. I’ve been a dyed-in-the-wool Dodgers fans since my first game on April 18, 1958 (Dodgers 6, Giants 5) and this article is one of the biggest pieces of b.s. I’ve ever read. Handy Andy needs to work harder at improving the club instead of management defending it’s failures.

    • Any thoughts on the ’65 season?

    • Jon Weisman

      No one’s suggesting that Dee Gordon’s departure hasn’t reduced their stolen-base totals. And this article has nothing to do with management defending its failures (of, um, a first-place team). What specifically about the article are you disputing?

  3. Like a lot of the new metrics, these fail to capture very important but admittedly hard to measure impacts upon the game. With respect to stolen bases, tell me Jackie Robinson or even better Maury Wills didn’t have profound positive impact upon games though the threat of stealing a base: it moves infielders into less opportune positions, changes the focus of pitchers, changes the pitches that are made and changes momentum. The Maury Wills years featured an offense driven by ‘the mouse that roared’. Talk to those who played the game and find out how it affected their decisions and forced them into mistakes. Then tell me stolen bases don’t matter. There are real people playing this game and real people in the stands responding. Baseball momentum is highly emotional and isn’t going to measured in the new analytics. Yes, just walk and hit home runs. That is all you need!

    • Jon Weisman

      Without diminishing Maury Wills and Jackie Robinson, wouldn’t the fact that the Dodgers are sub-negative at stolen bases indicate the possibility that yes, in fact, walks and power (and pitching and defense) are all you need? In other words, yes, having a real stolen-base threat would be good, but not necessarily as impactful as leading the league in homers.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I certainly like leading the league in homers. What I am alluding to is the fascination with home runs and walks to the exclusion of other offensive factors that new analytics folks preach. I grew up watching the power of the stolen base in the 1960’s. Your article suggests that stolen bases aren’t important at all. I would have loved the 60’s Dodgers to have the home runs of the Giants of that same era, as well. They didn’t yet were the dominant National League team of the era (that is until O”Malley decided Wills was his servant and traded him away because he wouldn’t go to Japan. Opting instead to fulfill his contract as a banjo player – that is another sad story).

        The Dodgers may be in first place in their division right now and they may fix some of their woes. But it certainly appears to me they are the very poor base running team that your numbers show. What that produces is what we have seen – a poor record in one run games, a poor record in extra inning games, a poor record against strong teams. The West Division doesn’t look very strong this year. The Giants starting pitching is pretty bad and we may be seeing the impact of that upon an otherwise excellent but already overworked relief group. The Padres starting pitching has been weak, also. D-backs need all pitching and then there is Colorado – nothing much to add there. I feel confident the Dodgers will make the playoffs again but I expect another meltdown. When they get base runners on, those runners go nowhere unless lightning strikes. In my observation, that is a result of many issues: not being able to hit behind runners, being overly aggressive at the plate with runners on base, being unable to produce fly balls with runners at third and a lack of team speed. To top it off, there have been an surprising number of base running gaffes and they also don’t bunt well. I believe some stolen bases would be quite welcome script especially in the late innings of close games.

  4. What they need to get better at is just running the bases not stealing them. Too many times have they got picked off, or thrown out trying to advance. TOOTBANS” I believe is the industry term.
    Also, to reference that Gordon is 70% successful, how many times in the 30% he was unsuccessful could he have scored if not getting thrown out? How many times would he have still scored when he was successful? I don’t know since I don’t watch all his games, but last year, with my eyes he cost the teams more runs getting thrown out than gaining an extra base. So I more than happy the Dodgers don’t try to steal more. But better base running I would like to see.

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