Thursday, June 02, 2011

On Runs, Common Sense & Baserunning

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.


A few questions that I wondered about and looked up recently…

1. So, who hit for the Twins in May?

Top of the OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) list? Alexi Casilla with a .281/.351/.424 line. Then came Denard Span (.762), Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer (.746), Justin Morneau (.723) and Trevor Plouffe (.715). Nobody had an 800 OPS.

The bottom of the list should be of no surprise to Twins fans. Delmon Young, in 66 AB, had a line of .197/.206/.242 – and still wasn’t the lowest regular. Drew Butera’s 346 OPS (.137/.170/.176) beat him out in a (sigh) not especially close race.

2. Am I right in thinking that Span’s defense has improved?

The defensive metrics imply that he’s getting to more hits. Span’s UZR this year in center field is +10, meaning he’s saved 10 runs over an average center fielder. That puts him on pace to save something like 30 runs over the course of the season, which is Gomezian or even Hunterrific.

Carlos Gomez, by the way, is about six runs better than average. And his on-base percentage has actually dipped this year, to .280. But that may represent progress, as he’s on pace for a career record number of walks with 13 so far. His career high is 25.

3. How soon before I watch a shortstop routinely make routine plays look routine?

This one struck me on Tuesday night at the exact moment that Matt Tolbert’s bone-headed throw to third base sailed over Danny Valencia’s confused head. I consider myself a pretty calm, analytical and detached guy – but that was the straw-brained play that broke this camel’s back. Why could he not make that throw? Why would he try that throw before looking to see if Valencia is on third? Why try that throw at all considering the easy play was at first and it would be the second out? The questions came in waves – and so did the rage.

The answer – and maybe my salve – is that Tsuyoshi Nishioka made it into a rehab game on Monday and Wednesday and will again today. He’ll likely begin a rehab assignment no later than Saturday, the 4th. Which means that barring any injuries (knock, knock) I’ll be seeing him no later than the 25th, if not earlier.

Believe me, I remember how overmatched he looked that first week. But he didn’t look blatantly stupid. And I’ve seen way too much stupid at that position the last couple of weeks. Let the countdown begin.

4. What is it that misery loves again?

Answer: Company. Or alcohol. Fortunately, we can provide you both.

On Friday night, the Twins face the Royals at 7:10 PM. They’ll play in Kansas City, which has a beautiful stadium and fantastic BBQ, but is eight hours (and a whole Iowa) away. So what to do?

Join myself and the rest of the TwinsCentric guys at Smalley’s near Target Field. They’re giving us appetizer specials and (more importantly for people watching the game) drink specials. We’ll have some kind of raffle for some front row Twins tickets and other stuff where the money will go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. We’ll watch the game, bitch about Casilla, Hoey, Delmon, etc., and you can tell me, Nick, Seth and Parker exactly how stupid we really are. Sounds like a pretty solid Friday night to me.

We’ll see you there. If you have any questions, post ‘em in the comments below.