I’ve heard it said that sabremetrics biggest contribution is to validate common sense. There is some truth to that. For instance, last night, with runners on 1st and 2nd and nobody out, Michael Cuddyer was thrown out stealing third base. There is no question that is a boneheaded play. Cuddyer can already score without the team getting a base hit, just by advancing on balls in play. And getting to third base doesn’t increase his chances of scoring that much considering there are no outs. That’s common sense.
When it happened, rather than launch into a “What is in that young man’s head?” rant, announcer Bert Blyleven said something to the affect of “If you’re going to try to steal that base in that situation, you had better make it.” He’s right, and if you want to confirm how dunderheaded that steal was, that’s exactly how you do it – by measuring just how often it needs to pay off to make it worthwhile.
You do that with something called the Run Expectancy Matrix. It is what it says it is: a table that shows how many runs can be expected to score in an inning, based on historical data. For instance, for the years 1993-2010, the table on the right shows the average runs that scored in an inning for every combination of outs and baserunners:
So, when an inning begins without any runners on base and 0 outs, the matrix says an average of .544 runs were scored. But if the leadoff batter gets on first, an average of .941 runs are scored. By getting on base, the leadoff batter did his part to add 4/10 of a run to his team.
Using a table like this, you can validate that Cuddyer had to be very sure to steal that base. Stealing it would have increased the teams run expectancy from 1.556 to 1.853, or about 3/10 of a run. But getting caught cut the run expectancy from 1.556 to .562, almost a full run. With those numbers, if he doesn’t make it 77% of the time, it’s a bad play. That’s a high percentage when it comes to stealing bases.
It made me wonder what the stats would say about some baserunning earlier in the game. The inning before, Ben Revere had got on base and stole second with one out. Batting behind him were Rene Rivera and Matt Tolbert.
To me, the obvious move is to try and steal third base. With one out, that really increases the chance of him getting home, especially with two guys batting their weight behind him. I might even go so far as to say that it is even more important than stealing second base to put himself into “scoring position.”
But that is definitely not common sense. I’ve been told by people I respect that I’m an idiot for even suggesting Revere attempt that steal. Why lose a guy in scoring position, just to get him a little further into scoring position? So let’s evaluate that statistically using the same matrix.
First, I’ll point out that stealing second base increased the run expectancy by .16 runs. But if he steals third base, he increases the run expectancy by .26. So it is definitely valuable for him to steal that base, more so than stealing second.
But it’s also true that getting caught is a lot worse. If you crunch the numbers, one needs to be slightly more certain of stealing third base – 69% versus 67% for stealing second base. And, of course, it is usually harder to steal third base. Still, I would argue that the historically inept batters behind Revere balance some of that out. For the record, Revere didn’t score.
So in this case, statistics lend a little nuance to the debate that common sense might not have. Stealing third with one out is quite valuable valuable, and even though one needs to be a little more confident, it’s not crazy.