On May 1st, the Orioles had attempted only 6 stolen bases. At that point they were on pace for ~40 attempts for a full season. The last time a team was even close to so few attempts was 2008, when the Padres attempted only 53 steals. In May the O’s have been stealing bases at a more regular rate, stealing twice as many bases (12) in the last two weeks as they did in the first four (6)! To put this pace in perspective, pro-rating the O’s recent two week pace for a full season would yield 130 stolen bases. That would have been good for 5th in the AL and 6th in MLB in 2010.
But has this new approach on the base paths helped the team? In the first month of the season, when the O’s were treating stealing bases like trips to the dentist, the team was 12-13. Since then, the team is 7-8. So, if an advantage has been gained with the new approach it has not been reflected in the team’s record. However, I’ll argue that the Orioles need to maintain their base stealing ways.
A stolen base percentage less than ~ 70% damages a team’s chances of scoring runs. Additionally, the intangible effects of base stealing, such as getting in the pitcher’s head, are marginal. The only Oriole with a 2011 stolen base percentage below the 70% line is Luke Scott who – I think we can all agree – should not be stealing. There are three Orioles – Felix Pie, Adam Jones and Brian Roberts – with elite (top 33% of MLB) career speed scores. Speed score is a statistic developed by Bill James that rates a player on speed and baserunning ability. Given their elite speed, these three Orioles should have the ‘green light’ every time they are on the base paths. Furthermore, Nick Markakis and Mark Reynolds have average career speed scores along with career stolen base percentages > 70%, making them reasonable base stealing candidates. This gives the Orioles four everyday players who are capable of improving the team’s chances to score runs when they attempt to steal.
Going forward the team needs to deploy these threats at a regular rate, not the historically low rate they chose to in April. Furthermore, the team needs to acquire more free agents and prospects who are capable base stealers. As the graph shows, power is not as prevalent as it was ten years ago but speed is. While players with power will continue to demand some of the largest salaries in the free agent market, players with above average speed can improve the team’s offense and defense and can be had at a more affordable price, Carl Crawford notwithstanding. Of the three AL division champions in 2010, two (Rays and Rangers) were in the top five in stolen bases in the AL. The Orioles finished in the bottom five. Hopefully, the base stealing trend over the past two weeks reflects an organizational focus on improving the team’s overall speed and thus their base-stealing capabilities, however, only time will tell.
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