Monday, April 02, 2007

Stealing for no gain

In the eighth inning of Opening Night, Aaron Miles is sitting on first base with the Cardinals down four runs and none out. David Eckstein fouled a ball that bounced up and hit Paul Lo Duca on his throwing hand. After Lo Duca collected himself, Miles took off for second on the next pitch.

Setting ethics aside because they don't exist in baseball and Lo Duca deserves some karmic justice for his game-winning phantom tag on Opening Day 2006, I don't like this decision at all. Sabermetrics preaches the notion of a break-even stolen base percentage. It's a value representing the lowest percentage of success under which a steal should be attempted, typically fluctuating between 50 and 100 percent during the course of a game. Dave Roberts' steal in the 2004 ALCS represents the low point, while a runner advancing due to defensive indifference in the ninth inning of a 10-run game is typical of the apex.

What about this situation? The Cardinals are down four runs with six outs to go. Put simply, they are in a situation where outs are much more precious than extra bases. Mathematically speaking, here are their chances of winning courtesy of WalkOffBalk.com:

No steal attempt: 8.4%
Steal successful: 8.9%
Caught stealing: 2.7%

A caught stealing costs the Cardinals roughly 11 times as much as a stolen base gains them. Lo Duca is by no means a great thrower, and his hand may have been shaken up, but Miles is no great shakes as a basestealer, and there's no way this steal is successful 92% of the time.

Combining this with the earlier decision to send Eckstein home that I covered in my last post, we see that even an intelligent organization like the Cardinals is ignoring one of the most important rules in baseball: When you need a lot of runs, don't waste outs. To do so is the baseball equivalent of letting the shot clock run down before making an attempt when your team is down 8 in the last minute.

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