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Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Uncommon Thievery: Changing stolen-base philosophies

By Brian McKitish
Special to ESPN.com

For the greater part of this decade, the Boston Red Sox were one of the league's least active teams on the base paths. In fact, since 2000, while the rest of the league was stealing an average of 92.5 bases a year, the Sox stole just 64.6 bases. And that number would be a lot worse if it weren't for a couple of years with the semi run-friendly Grady Little at the helm. Granted, the Sox didn't have a ton of speed during this time, but they didn't run much even when they had the wheels. The Sox's overall lack of thefts was more philosophical than anything else. The organization's Moneyball undertones were in full force. Remember, most baseball statheads will agree that the stolen base only becomes valuable when success rates break the 70-percent threshold, and the power-oriented Red Sox would not risk outs in order to advance one base. But the game has evolved in recent years, and so too has the philosophy regarding the stolen base.

As has been discussed multiple times in this space, in 2007, stolen base success rates were at an unofficial all-time high 74.4 percent (unofficial only because accurate caught-stealing statistics were not kept in the National League for many seasons). One would be a fool not to take advantage of such a favorable success percentage, especially when the league's best base stealers are successful 80-90 percent of the time. While many organizations have taken more chances on the bases in 2007 and 2008, the Red Sox are the best example of a team adapting to the changing times, as they rank fourth in the majors with 71 thefts thus far this season. The Sox haven't attempted as many steals as their counterparts, but their stolen-base totals are high due to an impressive 84-percent success rate. Let's take a look at Boston's top speed threats:

Player SB CS ATT SB% ATT%
Jacoby Ellsbury 34.00 4 38 89.5% 47.8%
Coco Crisp 12.00 3 15 80.0% 34.1%
Julio Lugo 9.00 3 12 75.0% 15.6%
Dustin Pedroia 8.00 0 8 100.0% 8.9%

Jacoby Ellsbury is a stud. We know this, and truthfully, he's the biggest factor in the Red Sox's increased stolen base numbers. He ranks third in the league in attempt percentage (which is stolen base attempts divided by the sum of singles, walks and hit by pitches) behind only Willy Taveras (54.4 percent) and Michael Bourn (47.2 percent) and rightfully so. As we discussed last month, Ellsbury is already an elite base stealer, and with his career 92-percent success rate, he should be off and running as often as possible. The Red Sox know this, and they've given him the greenest of green lights. Kudos to them.

But Ellsbury isn't the only Boston speedster that's taking off. In fact, the Sox are well on their way to having four players reach double digits in steals for the first time since 1995. This is very un-Sox-like, but when they are given an opportunity against pitchers with slow deliveries or weak-armed catchers, they are taking advantage. This would not have happened in the past, at least not to this extent.

Jacoby Ellsbury
Jacoby Ellsbury has helped the Red Sox rethink their philosophy of stealing bases.
Skeptics will say that Boston is only running because they have more speed at their disposal than other years. But the Red Sox imported Coco Crisp and Julio Lugo, and they drafted the speedy Jacoby Ellsbury with the 23rd overall pick in the 2005 draft. Doesn't that play into their organizational philosophy? And how does one explain Dustin Pedroia's sudden emergence as a speed threat?

With eight steals in as many attempts, Pedroia is on pace to nab a whopping 17 bags this season, a feat not even his biggest fans would have predicted at the start of the season. To give you an idea of Pedroia's speed prowess (or lack thereof), he stole just 11 bases at a dismal 55-percent success rate in 270 minor league games. He did steal seven bases in eight attempts in 2007, but that's nothing to write home about either. In previous years, I would say that these numbers support the theory that Pedroia will fall off pace. But this is a different time period for base runners, and I have a favorable outlook on just about anyone who has been given an opportunity to run. Pedroia doesn't have an all-out green light like Ellsbury, but he has what I like to call a modified green light. He'll get the go-ahead when facing specific pitchers or catchers, and it's been working so far. Look for Pedroia to continue his slow but steady pace on the bases and finish the season with around 15 steals, which is outstanding given that he'll probably hit near .300 with 12 home runs and nearly 100 runs scored.

So, how does all this Red Sox talk affect us as fantasy owners? First off, Boston is no longer a dead zone for stolen bases. Remember when Edgar Renteria came to Beantown in 2005? Everyone knew he would suffer on the SB front despite swiping 17 bags in 2004 with the Cardinals. Sure enough, he managed just nine during his one-year stint with Boston. But he nabbed 17 bases with the Braves in 2006, suggesting that he still had enough wheels to be a 15-steal player in Boston. The Sox just had no interest in sending him. But now it's a different story and we can finally rely on speedsters in Boston, at least until pitchers and catchers learn how to limit the running game. Of even more importance, however, is that Boston is a perfect example of just how important organization and managerial philosophies can play in a player's stolen base total. It's a fitting topic given the recent managerial changes around the league. A manager's philosophy may not seem like a big deal, but it can be the difference between a guy like Edgar Renteria stealing 17 bases or nine, and a guy like Pedroia stealing seven bases or 15. And that, my friends, can make a huge difference in the fantasy game.

Managerial Change Impact

Before we examine the new managers in New York, Seattle and Toronto, it's worth noting that, to some extent, a manager is at the disposal of his front office. He can only play with the cards he is dealt, so while some managers may want to run, the team may not have the proper players to execute the game plan. On the flip side, most managers who are not particularly fond of the stolen base will still give their elite speedsters the green light. A manager's philosophy should only have a minor affect on the elites like Jose Reyes, Juan Pierre and Ichiro Suzuki. It's the players with mediocre or above-average speed who will be impacted the most.

New York Mets: Fans of the stolen base will be sorry to see Willie Randolph go. Granted, Randolph was blessed with an obscene amount of speed during his stint with the Mets, but one has to credit him for using that speed to the absolute max. Randolph's replacement, Jerry Manuel, isn't a stranger to the stolen base, either, but he's nowhere near the run-friendly manager Randolph was. Let's take a look at the managerial stats side by side:

Manager Average SB Average CS Average ATT SB%
Willie Randolph 166.30 40.3 206.6 80.5%
Jerry Manuel 105.10 42.8 147.9 71.1%

One might look at these numbers and immediately assume that the Mets will run a lot less now that Randolph is gone. I'm not so sure about that. Manuel's White Sox ran a bunch early in his tenure, and he has a history of letting his power/speed threats loose on the bases. Remember, Magglio Ordonez stole a career-high 25 bases in 2001 with Manuel at the helm. Meanwhile, Randolph's numbers are slightly inflated simply because he had some seriously successful base stealers on his roster. Yes, his Mets stole a lot of bases, but when your guys are successful 80 percent of the time, it's not all that hard to give your runners 200-plus attempts per year. Despite the large gap in average attempts per year, Manuel should still be considered a favorable manager for stolen bases. He sent his runners despite the poor success rates, and that earns him some bonus points in the fantasy world. Still, we should expect a modest decline in attempts -- and thus steals -- now that Randolph has been sent packing.

The Mets will still run, and run plenty under Manuel's tutelage, but to expect another year of 200-plus stolen base attempts may be pushing it a little. Jose Reyes shouldn't suffer the effects much (he's the kind of player than any manager will let loose), but we may want to temper our expectations -- but only slightly -- for Luis Castillo, Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Endy Chavez.

Toronto Blue Jays: John Gibbons did not have much to work with in terms of speed, but then again, he also didn't attempt to put his runners in motion all that much either. The Blue Jays sat near the bottom of the league in both stolen bases and attempts during much of Gibbons' tenure. Cito Gaston, on the other hand, is an old school manager with an impressive track record of sending his runners:

Manager Average SB Average CS Average ATT SB%
John Gibbons 63.00 30.1 93.1 67.7%
Cito Gaston 122.90 42.3 165.2 74.4%

I don't fault Gibbons too much for not being aggressive on the base paths; he simply didn't have the horses. Still, I can't help but think that both Alex Rios and Vernon Wells could have been bigger threats. I thought Wells had the potential to steal 20-plus bases, but he's never been given the opportunity to showcase his speed. He did steal a career-high 17 bases in 2006 under Gibbons, but it would have been nice to see at least one 20/20 season from Wells, considering he owns a career success rate of 76 percent.

Rios has the wheels to take 20-30 bags on a regular basis, but Gibbons' conservative approach limited him to stealing 15-17 bases per year. To Gibbons' credit, Rios has been given more opportunities this season, and it's paying off as he is well on his way to setting a new career high with 15 swipes in 20 attempts.

Cito Gaston's return to Toronto presents fantasy owners with a solid buying opportunity for some of the Jays' struggling offensive options. As his managerial numbers suggest, Gaston is not afraid to be aggressive on the base paths, though one has to keep in mind that Gaston did have some real base-stealing threats in Devon White, Otis Nixon and Roberto Alomar at his disposal. Even so, Gaston is clearly a step up from Gibbons on the stolen base front, and don't think for a second that he won't try to put his runners in motion in order to create run-scoring opportunities. Toronto's biggest issue this season has been its offense, and Gaston should shake things up to jump start his team. Fantasy owners may want to make a play for either Wells or Rios, as both could see an increase in swipes under Gaston. Marco Scutaro and David Eckstein could also see the benefits of a more aggressive manager, but they would only be options in deeper AL-only formats.

Seattle Mariners: We don't have a long history of statistics to look at for the recently dismissed John McLaren, but from his short stint as a manager, we could tell that he was lukewarm on the stolen base. Ichiro Suzuki had free reign on the bases, but who wouldn't give a guy like Ichiro the green light? After Ichiro, Seattle's stolen base numbers aren't all that impressive, and there is some room for improvement. Seattle has a few players with the potential to reach double digits in steals, notably Adrian Beltre, Willie Bloomquist and even Yuniesky Betancourt (who has speed but is a terrible base runner) and Jose Lopez (who once stole 31 bases in the minors). Enter new manager Jim Riggleman, who has a history of sending his runners, even if they are prone to being thrown out. Take a quick look at Riggleman's managerial statistics when it comes to baserunning:

Manager Average SB Average CS Average ATT SB%
Jim Riggleman 91.00 46 137 66.4%

The first thing that should pop out at you is the fact that Riggleman's teams were not very successful on the base paths. That didn't stop him from sending his runners an average of 137 times per year. That's not an astronomical number, but it is quite high when you consider the success percentage. Clearly Riggleman did not mind taking risks on the bases, and this could be a good sign for Seattle's stable of runners. Ichiro will be Ichiro, but expect to see Bloomquist (when he plays) and Beltre reap the rewards of a slightly more aggressive manager. The two wild cards here could be Lopez and Betancourt. Betancourt has the pure speed to swipe 20-25 bases, but he gets terrible reads and jumps and has a horrendous career success rate at 51 percent. McLaren was smart enough to keep Betancourt grounded, but Riggleman may turn him loose again, which could help his SB totals. Lopez is a solid little player, but lacks both the power and speed that fantasy owners crave. Still, Lopez did steal in the minors, and he may be able to get more opportunities with Riggleman at the helm. Lopez would be a much stronger fantasy option if he could add 8-10 steals to his repertoire, and it's worth making a play for him just in case Riggleman decides to let him fly out of the two spot.

Brian McKitish is an award-winning fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com.