How Much Has the Stolen Base Gap Actually Cost the Detroit Tigers?

June 11, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals base runner Alex Gordon (right) dives into second with a stolen base before the tag from Detroit Tigers second basemen Omar Infante (left) during the first inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been a lot of hubub recently about the Detroit Tigers’ stolen base gap – specifically that they’ve stolen only 30 bases while opponents have stolen 105 bases against them. There was an article on Mlive today regarding this very thing. This is quite obviously not a good thing, but how bad is it exactly? How many runs has this cost the Tigers this season?

That’s a question that is probably very difficult to answer specifically, but it’s quite easy to an expected runs answer in a general sense. A specific answer is better if your question is framed in a specific historical context, but a general answer is just as good (if not better) if you really want an answer in terms of “true talent” or “what can be expected going forward”. It’s usually always the latter that I prefer.

Anyway, we can use the handy-dandy glossary section from FanGraphs and use their weighted stolen base runs formula to determine how many runs the Tigers are leaving on the table by (1) not being very good at stealing bases themselves and (2) not being very good at preventing opponents from stealing bases. Here’s what I came up with

Team SB CS Success Rate wSB (runs)
Tigers 30 17 64% -5
Opponents 105 24 81% 8

First things first: it’s not the frequency with which you steal bases that determines the value, it’s the success rate with respect to the frequency of attempts. A team could steal 200 bases, but if they got caught 500 times in the process this would not be good. In the same way, a team that steals few bases could provide positive value if they were quite successful in those attempts. Neither of those scenarios describes either the Tigers or their opponents, but I wanted to put it out there.

So it’s easy to see in the numbers that the Tigers have been easy to steal upon and have been quite bad at stealing themselves. It would be better if the figures were reversed, but even though the stolen base gap (for and against) is 75, we’re really only talking a 13 run differential. Every 10 runs is roughly equivalent to a win in baseball (there’s math involved there, but that’s really how it works), so the Tigers’ lack of success on both ends of the stolen base department has cost the team 1.3 wins so far. So maybe they’d be 78 and 54 right now instead of 77 and 55.

Another point to consider is that stolen bases aren’t an end unto themselves; it’s only part of the run scoring (and prevention) equations. Detroit is quite clearly bad on both ends, yet they remain both the top scoring offense (5.1 runs per game) in the American League (all of baseball, acutally) and the top run prevention team in the American League (3.8 runs allowed per game).

We can always point out the flaws in our team or ways to improve, but I think this is a relatively small deal. The Tigers have the best run differential in all of baseball, so they’re certainly more than making up for whatever they lack in the stolen base game.

Here’s what it comes down to: Closing the stolen base gap from -13 runs to zero runs would stretch their (already) AL Leading 1.3 runs per game differential to 1.4. I don’t see that as something to get all hot and bothered about.

Topics: Detroit Tigers

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  • Terry Clees

    It isn’t just the stolen base gap, but how poor of a running team they are: station to station. Once a runner didn’t even score from second on a double. Do they even take secondary leads? Austin Jackson darts back towards first on every pitch! They may be the worst all-around base running team I’ve ever seen!

    • http://tomaroonandgold.blogspot.com Matt Snyder

      And yet they’re still tops in MLB in run scoring.

      • chrisHannum

        If you look at Fangraphs BsR, they have the Tigers worst in the majors at 12.4 runs below average. That obviously doesn’t factor in the ability to hold opposing runners, which the Tigers are also bad at. It does suggest that, based on your SB-only metric, that the Tigers’ non-steal baserunning is costing them more than the lack of steals is. But, as you say, basically what it would mean to get the Tigers baserunning up to league average or better would be to replace Prince Fielder with Don Kelly and Victor Martinez with Ramon Santiago. You don’t want to do that just to run the bases better, they add value elsewhere.

        • Terry Clees

          Right! But it is a rare team that wins a World Series with such poor base running and has to rely on the 3 run homer. If any team can it would be this one.

          • http://tomaroonandgold.blogspot.com Matt Snyder

            Giants were -16.9 in BsR when they won the WS in ’10. Cardinals were -5.0 when they won in ’11.

            We love to try to break down components (especially the “gritty” ones) when it comes to the playoffs, but it’s really still about the big picture. Better teams (run scoring and prevention) win games and it doesn’t really matter how exactly you do those things.

          • chrisHannum

            There may be at least a tiny bit of truth to this… better baserunning does help you score more runs one at a time as opposed to scoring runs in bunches. The kicker for the playoffs is how much control the runner or the team actually have over when you get that additional one run. Mostly, they can’t – it’s just luck that they’re put in a situation where their legs and instincts actually make a difference. The number of guys (not teams) that can actually steal when everyone knows they have to steal and are going to steal is small.

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