A lot of people want Andrew McCutchen to run more, including McCutchen, but how much would that matter?
In our minds, we might see him scoring from second after every stolen bag, but baseball doesn’t work that way.
McCutchen scored 107 runs last year, one behind league leader Ryan Braun. McCutchen managed this despite a sub-par success rate in stolen bases. The league average was 73 percent, but the Pirates center fielder, with 20 stolen bases in 32 attempts, checked in at 63 percent.
His career rate coming into last season was 76 percent, so he could easily bounce back. Had he stolen at that rate last year, can you imagine how many more steals he would have had over the course of the six-month season?
Yeah. This isn’t a particularly high-impact change we’re talking about. Sure, had McCutchen been more successful, he might have made more attempts. Maybe he’d have 33 stolen bases, matching his career high in 2010. Maybe that would have led to a few more runs. But it’s hard to find conclusive evidence that prolific base stealing is crucial to run production.
McCutchen hit the ground running in his major league debut on June 4, 2009. He had a couple of singles, a walk, a stolen base, and he scored three runs. In his career, he’s stolen 98 bases and scored 362 runs.
In that same time frame, 13 men have stolen more bases. Michael Bourn has twice as many steals, with 198. But get this: None of those speedsters has scored more runs than McCutchen.
Only six men have scored more than McCutchen since his debut. They are perennial All-Stars Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter, all of whom played in stronger lineups.
The runs leader, Braun, is 34 ahead of the Pirate. That’s all about Braun’s power, not his speed. He’s hit 39 more home runs, 121 to McCutchen’s 82. In stolen bases, they’re nearly even, with McCutchen having four more than Braun’s 94. (McCutchen’s played in nine more games, if you’re wondering.)
So, even in this era of diminished run scoring, stolen bases may be overrated.
Not everyone agrees. Bradley Woodrum wrote an intriguing piece for FanGraphs called “The Changing Caught-Stealing Calculus,’’ that argues that stolen bases are again as important as they were in the late 1980s. In this era of diminished power, a runner is less likely to get knocked in with a home run, so he ought to try moving up 90 feet to score on a bloop or a couple of productive outs.
Run expectancy charts tell us, based on previous history, the likelihood of a team scoring with a man on second with one out, or nobody on and two outs, and so on. Woodrum says the break-even stolen base rate in baseball — for a net gain in overall run expectancy — has dropped to around 66 percent, though that varies from team to team.
The Pirates, above average in hitting home runs last year, needed to succeed 68 percent of the time. Alas, they made it only 58 percent of the time. That was the worst percentage in baseball, even as Pirates’ opponents were successful 89 percent of the time, the highest percentage in baseball.
That kind of differential won’t do, but it would be hard to imagine it being that bad again. If new catcher Russell Martin does just an average job in cutting down would-be base stealers, he’ll look like Yadier Molina.
On the offensive side, it would seem a reachable goal to get from six successes in every 10 attempts to seven — but that’s just about breaking even. You’d prefer all that running to mean more. So maybe it isn’t as important as we think it is.
I wrote about this topic last year and was misunderstood. Teams should use whatever edges they have, and I like a successful steal (for my team) as much as the next fan. Ball games are won on small advantages, and a guy is more likely to score from second than from first. That’s a fact. But run yourself into an out and it will take at least two steals to make up for that.
So, getting back to McCutchen, here’s all I’d like to see from him this season: Score more than 100 runs again, and help the Pirates score more than 651.
Some extra steals would be fine, but let’s be more interested in the ends than the means. If McCutchen again leads the league in hits and offensive Wins Above Replacement, and finishes in the top five in batting, on-base average, slugging, OPS, singles and total bases, and the top 10 in triples, homers and extra-base hits, don’t sweat the stolen bases. He’s going to score and drive in piles of runs.
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