There’s been some debate as of late to whether or not the stolen base is worth the risk. Anyone who isn’t sure needs to check in with the Red Sox and Yankees after last night’s game. Both teams stole key bases in the 9th inning against the opponent’s closer and star hitting catcher. It’s important to note that Posada or Martinez probably had no chance to throw out a runner in those situations as Papelbon and Rivera became completely oblivious to anything going on around them. But we both know that Jorge and Victor are not known for their throwing skills anymore.
The argument is that you have to be successful 70% of the time for a stolen base to make a difference in runs scored. Through different formulas, Sabermetricians have shown that the chances of scoring a run through the stolen base are not as low risk as one would imagine. The coach has to know the data and understand how to use the data. It’s not as easy to explain as I thought it would be when I started this, but when a runner stays at first he has a better chance of scoring than a runner who attempts to steal second base and is unsuccessful more than 30% of the time. Of course, if a runner makes it to second base, his chances of scoring increase. And if he doesn’t, the chances of scoring that runner go to 0% dramatically killing morale and the teams chance to score in that inning. This leaves coaches and fans to ponder if the risk is worth the reward.
Obviously last night the Red Sox thought the risk was worth it. Ryan Kalish stole second on the first pitch thrown to Bill Hall after mustering a single off the hard throwing cutter machine known as Mariano Rivera. The Red Sox were down by 1 run at this point with one out so putting the tying run into scoring position was a big deal. But then for the Red Sox and Kalish to gamble again moving the tying run to third on a straight steal is almost unheard of in baseball. But with Rivera on the mound taking well over 1.3 seconds to deliver his pitch, the risk was worth the reward in the mind of Terry Francona.
With Kalish on third base, Bill Hall hits a one-hop rope to Alex Rodriguez who does his best bull fighting impression and whiffs it. One thing Sabermetricians cannot take into account is how the stolen base changed this game. A fast runner takes the pitchers mind off of a hitter and allows a hitter to see better pitches. This isn’t just a theory, it happens. But in this circumstance, the runner on third base with the defending team up by one brings the infield into run-killing depth. This just means the infielders play closer so that there is less of a chance of a runner scoring from third when they field the ball because they are not as deep. If Rodriguez is back at normal depth, he fields the ball easily and still probably throws Kalish out at home. Or he freezes Kalish, and throws the ball to first to retire Hall and record that second precious out. But Alex’s reaction time is shortened on a wet field where the ball tends to skip, and he whiffs on the ball allowing Hall to reach first, Kalish to score, and tying the game. Most managers would be content with tying the game in New York against Mariano Rivera but in baseball you always play for the win if you are the visiting team. Bill Hall runs on the second pitch stealing second and then the fourth pitch stealing third. This puts the go-ahead run on third with 1 out. A Mike Lowell sacrifice fly to deep center and the Red Sox have the lead. Remember this was all put into motion by the stolen base.
But the Yankees strike back with their own stolen base. It doesn’t end up changing the game in the long run, but it was big at the time. With Alex Rodriguez batting and one out in the bottom of the 9th, pinch runner Eduardo Nunez steals third base. The Yankees attempt to give the Red Sox a dose of their own medicine and move the tying run onto third base. A walk and a hit later, the game is tied and going to extra innings.
Speed changes the game. Whether it is because the infielders take a step or two in shortening angles but increasing batting averages or pitchers losing their focus for one pitch, the game has been affected. To me the stolen base is more valuable even though a runner may get thrown out because it changes the other team’s perception. There is that chance that a runner may steal and that puts you on edge. I may become distracted for just a split second, but that could be all it takes to cause me to hurry a throw and bounce it up the line. Sabermetricians are great for the game, but they can’t take everything into account using their stats. Sometimes the changes between the lines are subtle enough that not even the Sabermetrician notices them.