See Tribe Run

KipnisSBI can always count on John Bryndal — a loyal reader and Twitter follower — to send me a question that inevitably leads to a couple hours of research and writing. Today, I opened my Indians’ Inbox account (IndiansInbox@gmail.com) to see if there were any thought-provoking inquiries from the Tribe faithful, and John (@jjsnowcat on Twitter) sent me this one:

Around the halfway point of the season last year, I asked you about stolen bases leading to runs, and you calculated that a surprising 47 percent (if memory serves) had led to runs being scored. So… two questions: did you ever follow up and work out the final stat on that at the end of the season? And, is Terry Francona more or less of a proponent of the stolen base than Manny Acta was? My thinking is maybe Acta’s light was little greener with his National League background. What do you think?
–John in Japan (originally Willoughby, Ohio)

Well, John, the answer is no, I did not work out that stat through the end of the season. Until this morning, that is. Thanks for the reminder, because I was definitely interested in seeing how that percentage turned out in the end. I got out my handy-dandy scorebook and found my most recent notation appeared on June 6 (likely around the time you first asked) and, indeed, the percentage of stolen bases that eventually turned into runs was 47 percent (22-of-47). You have excellent memory.

I went through the remainder of the games today and found that only 33 percent of Cleveland’s stolen bases (21-of-62) were converted into runs over the rest of the schedule. There is a slight asterisk involved, because on Aug. 5, Asdrubal Cabrera swiped two bags on the same trip around the bases and eventually scored. So, I counted that as “two runs” since both stolen bases led to a run. If you want to say that only counts for one, then the rate drops to 20 converted in 62 thefts.

Why the dramatic drop-off over the final 107 games? Well, obviously this statistic is extremely dependent on the success or failings of the hitters who are being asked to bring the runner home. Over the first 55 games, the Indians hit .265 (127-for-479) with runners in scoring position, helping to take advantage of the steady stream of stolen bases. Over the final 107 games, Cleveland hit just .226 (202-for-895) with RISP. As the team slumped, the rate of stolen bases also decreased in step with the success rate. Over that 107-game sample, the Tribe averaged one stolen base ever 1.7 games. In the first 55 games, the team swiped one bag every 1.2 games on average.

Overall, the Indians turned 39 percent of their stolen bases into runs (43-of-110). I don’t know how that compares to the rest of the league — I only did this for the Tribe — but it seems fairly solid in light of the offense’s struggles with situational hitting last season. Stolen bases were essential in creating runs for the offense, which was under an increasing amount of pressure late in the season when the starting pitching staff began to crumble.

It is also worth noting that the Indians’ runners began taking more risks on the bases as the season wore on. Consider that the Tribe had a 75.3 percent success rate on stolen bases between April-June, but had just a 67.9 percent success rate over the rest of the season. During one particular stretch between Aug. 2-Sept. 7, the Indians had 10 games with two or more stolen bases, but the team was only able to convert 26 percent of the stolen bases (31) into runs (8) in that stretch. During that period, the Indians went 9-25 as a team, falling out of contention.

Now, I’ll do my best to address the Francona vs. Acta element of your question.

Any manager will tell you that their opinion on using stolen bases is directly related to the roster in hand. If you have players who have the ability to steal 30-plus bags, you’re not going to tell them to stop running. That’s a weapon any manager would want to utilize. Beyond those clear basestealers, though, there will be a difference of opinion from manager to manager on whether to ask the mid-tier runners to try to maximize their running game.

Over the 20010-12 seasons, when Acta was at the helm, the Indians ranked 11th in stolen bases (290) and 12th in stolen-base percentage (70.9) in the American League. Cleveland topped 89 swipes in each season. Last year, the Indians stole 110 bases, which marked the most for the ballclub since 2000. Acta had a bonafide basestealer in Jason Kipnis (31 thefts) leading the charge. I’d say Acta’s use of the stolen base was mostly out of necessity, given the state of the Tribe offense between 2010-12. Creativity was required, and last year Acta had a few runners (Kipnis, Shin-Soo Choo and Michael Brantley) capable of stealing some bags. In Washington, Acta’s teams (2007-09) never topped 81 stolen bases in a season. So he actually ran more in the American League than in the NL.

If we look at Francona’s managerial career, what stands out to me is the success rate he had with having players steal. His Phillies teams (1997-2000) ranked 17th in baseball in stolen bases (416) during his time there, but their 71.5 percent success rate ranked fourth in the NL over that span. In Boston (2004-11), the Reds Sox ranked 22nd in baseball in stolen bases (676) under Francona’s watch, but 2nd in the AL and 4th in the Majors in success rate (75.3 percent).

It’s also worth noting that in 12 seasons with Francona as manager, his teams have topped 90 stolen bases eight times, 100 stolen bases five times and 120 stolen base attempts eight times.

What this all says to me is that, if Francona has the right players in place he’s going to utilize the stolen base. More importantly, though, he wants his players to be smart on the bases. If you’re going to run, you better make sure it’s the right situation, and you better make it.

In 2013, it seems a safe bet than the Indians will have the players in place to make stolen bases an important part of the offense. Kipnis — a threat to swipe 30-plus bases — will be back. Cleveland also acquired speedy outfielder Drew Stubbs — another 30-plus stolen base threat — this winter. Cleveland hasn’t had two players steal 30-plus in a season since 2000, when second baseman Roberto Alomar and outfielder Kenny Lofton accomplished the feat.

Cleveland also added utility man Mike Aviles this winter. Over the past three seasons, Aviles has had a rate of 21 stolen bases per 162 games, with a success rate of 74 percent over that span, and in his career. Stubbs has an 162-game stolen base rate of 37 thefts, and he brings an 80 percent success rate for his career. Add that to Kipnis, who has an 84 percent success rate in his two seasons in the big leagues, and the Indians look like a team that will be on the run.

Cabrera also has the potential to steal 10-20 bases, and the shortstop has a 72 percent success rate over his career. Another intriguing option will be outfielder Ezequiel Carrera, who is out of options and a front-runner to break camp as the Tribe’s fourth outfielder. In the big leagues, Carrera has had a 75 percent success rate, and he has posted a rate of 26 stolen bases over an 162-game sample. Brantley could be a 15-20 stolen base threat as well, but his career success rate of 66 percent needs improvement.

In my recent post projecting the offense for 2013, I had the Indians stealing 141 bases in the coming season. Cleveland hasn’t swiped that many bags since 1999, when they had 147. From 1996-2000, the Indians ranked second in the AL with 681 stolen bases and had the best success rate (72.9 percent). That said, those clubs could also mash the ball, put up runs in bunches and were yearly contenders for the postseason. Stolen bases back then were a part of a balanced, potent offense. Right now, it’s a necessary element to help generate runs, regardless of who is occupying the manager’s office.

–JB

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