Say you’ve inherited the job of operating your grandfather’s professional sports franchise. It’s losing more than winning so you need a new blueprint for success. There a healthy sized stack of plans from which to choose and they vary quite a bit. The challenge is deciding which one to implement.
You’re relatively new at this so you seek out advice from the people on your staff. But like you, they haven’t worked for a pro sports organization other than your grandfather’s. That’s a big limitation. You could ask the old guy who’s leaving for advice, but you want to be different from him for a variety of good reasons.
Out of all the possible templates to consider for your team, one in particular was visible right in front of you. As you’ve been groomed the past two seasons for new responsibilities, you watched it succeed on the biggest stage.
And that model was affordable, shiny and new.
The Kansas City Royals are defending World Series champions and were one game – one run – away from being back-to-back winners.
According to a certain conventional wisdom the Royals ran their way to victory.
They led baseball in stolen bases in 2014 and were fifth in 2015. They also had the top contact rate in 2015, swinging early and often. According to this narrative, the Royals tossed aside the lessons of Moneyball and won with a club based on speed and slap hitters. They ran before they walked, shunning power and plate discipline. The Kansas City Royals used a new blueprint for winning professional baseball games.
And they did it just as the Reds new front office was paying attention.
In one sense, the Royals are an odd organization to copy. They had losing seasons from 1995-2012. During that stretch, they didn’t finish as high as second in their division. In 2014, they won 89 games; but only once, in 2015, have they won their division. This year, the Royals are three games below .500, 11 out of first place. The currency of successful baseball organizations is regular season championships. The postseason is a well littered crapshoot.
While the Royals were among the leaders in stolen bases, their overall base running number was negative in 2015 and only mildly positive in 2014. And speedy base running is not reason the Royals won. Their main strengths, the ones that translated into winning, were a spectacular defense and a strong bullpen. They Royals ranked first in defense in the major leagues both seasons. Their bullpen was notorious for stifling opponents from the 7th inning on.
For decades, baseball experts have debated the strategic value of stolen bases. Managers like Hall of Famer Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles emphasized power, rarely calling for a steal. Others view the stolen base threat as a valuable way to apply pressure to the opposing team.
The cost and benefit tradeoff is simple. A successful steal gains a base but risks a base runner and an out.
As baseball made the turn toward rigor, analysts put a number on Earl Weaver’s strategic intuition. Research on run expectancy shows that stolen base attempts need a 70-75 percent success rate to be worth the risk at the Major League level. Outs and base runners are much more valuable than 90 feet in almost every instance.
Run expectancy tables aren’t theoretical or hypothetical. They are based on what has actually taken place in every major league game that season. In 2016, with a runner at first base and no one out, the team has a run expectancy of 0.87 runs. A successful steal of second base raises run expectancy to 1.09, a gain of .22 runs.
But if the runner is thrown out, the team’s run expectancy drops to 0.27, a loss of .59 runs. The loss is more than twice the gain. The out and base runner are more than twice as valuable than what the extra base is worth. The downside is even worse for stealing third because the team loses a runner at second base if it fails.
There are specific situations when a stolen base is quite valuable. But those are rare. The Brewers stole four bases in one inning against Cody Reed yesterday, but none of them mattered for the runs scored.
Do base stealing threats offer more benefits than just extra bases? Research shows that’s not the case.
The vaunted secondary effects of stealing bases–distracting the pitcher, putting pressure on the defense–do not appear to exist. In fact, most secondary effects argue in favor of keeping the runner on first base. A runner on first is more disruptive to a defense, with the first baseman holding and the second baseman cheating towards second for a double play, than a runner on second. Additionally, studies show that stolen-base attempts negatively impact the performance of the batter at the plate, presumably due to hitters getting themselves into negative counts by taking pitches or swinging at bad balls to protect the runner. (Joe Sheehan)
Over time, most major league organizations have recognized the limited benefits of stealing bases. Since the high point of 1987, the number has declined. The stolen base total in 2015 was the lowest since 1974.
November 4, 2015 was the date Dick Williams was promoted to senior vice president and general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. That’s also when he was tapped to take over for Walt Jocketty. Since then, the Reds have traded Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman and Jay Bruce. They made two first round draft picks in June 2016 and finalized a $7 million international signing.
The significant non-pitching returns from those moves are Jose Peraza, Dilson Herrera, Nick Senzel, Taylor Trammel and Alfredo Rodriguez.
The common thread there is speed, base-running speed. Peraza, Herrera, Trammel and Senzel aren’t known for their defense. Peraza and Trammel are zero-power guys. Peraza, Herrera, Trammel and Rodriguez have below-average walk-rates. But what they all excel at is stealing bases. Herrera stole 23 in 2014. Senzel stole 25 in his last year at Tennessee and has 12 already in 39 games in Dayton. Rodriguez was a plus runner in Cuba, finishing third in stolen bases in his league.
That’s not to say there aren’t things to like about those individual players. But as a group, it isn’t power, plate discipline or defense that stands out.
The Reds did acquire Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler. Of the two, Duvall has a chance of making it as a starter for a few years, but that’s no sure thing.
The successful pitching element of Rebuild is pure Walt Jocketty. He’s worn out the “can’t have too much pitching” cliché. Progress there has been hard to discern amid the Year of Worst Ever Pitching™ and Cody Reed’s struggles. But the organization has indeed loaded up on promising arms. Likely more than they’ll need.
But building teams on base running has never been Jocketty’s move. His Cardinals teams were anchored by the likes of Albert Pujols, Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds. The leading base stealer on his 2006 World Series championship team was So Taguchi with 11. Jocketty’s 2010-13 Reds featured Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, defense and pitching.
It’s the new front office leadership that chose the blueprint to emphasize speed and stolen bases. They borrowed it straight from the Kansas City Royals playbook, at least one characterization of it. Like the Royals, the Reds didn’t put a priority on power or plate discipline with their recent acquisitions.
But unlike the Royals, the Reds haven’t invested in plus defense around the field. Of the new guys, only Alfredo Rodriguez is considered an elite defender. It’s unclear if Rodriguez, who has the lightest bat in that group, will beat out Jose Peraza or Dilson Herrera for playing time.
The Reds learned the wrong lesson from the most recent world champion. Yes, stolen bases are exciting plays. Timelines explode whenever Billy Hamilton steals a base (whether he ends up scoring or not). Twitter itself may not survive an entire team comprised of Billy Hamilton’s, which is what the Reds new front office seems to have in mind.
But the bottom line for offense is runs scored, not raw excitement. And what creates runs?
If you look at the ten major league teams that have scored the most runs this year, nine of them are top-ten in power (ISO), seven are top-ten in getting on base (OBP) and only three are top-ten in stolen base success (wSB). The SB correlation is what you’d expect if that variable was randomly associated with run scoring. You see similar results for 2015. In 2014, OBP switched places with power, but stolen bases was still last of the three. In 2016, the average home run creates more than ten times the runs (2.017) than the average stolen base (0.200). The average walk (.690), more than three times.
Like the crowd looking for lost car keys under the streetlamp because that’s where the light is, choosing to model the Kansas City Royals because that’s what was on television is understandable. But there were other blueprints for success to choose.
The 2004 and 2007 Red Sox were built with on-base percentage, power and pitching. The 1996, 1998-2000 Yankees were at the top in pitching and on-base percentage. The 2008-10 Phillies won with power and defense. The 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays were among leaders in power, pitching and on-base percentage. The Big Red Machine led MLB in on-base percentage in 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1976. They were top five in power and defense each of those years.
And boy, Earl Weaver’s Orioles. They hit with power, got on base, pitched and played defense, winning six division championships in 14 seasons. If only the new guys in the front office had seen those Orioles that beat grandfather’s team in the 1970 World Series.
Soon the Reds will have the uncommitted payroll and depth in pitching and middle infielders to deal for valuable power and on-base skills. That’s the big move they have left to make. It’s too late to throw out the binder, tear up the master plan and start over. But there’s still time to make crucial mid-course corrections.