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Friday, April 23, 2010
Sox allowing historic number of SBs

By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPN Stats & Information

At some some point, the word stealing seems inadequate. In the absence of law and order, the Red Sox have become victims of widespread looting.

When Boston allowed Texas to run wild for nine stolen bases Tuesday, it put a historic face on a longtime problem.

The nine steals were the most by an AL team since the A's swiped 12 against the Twins in 1976, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Yet, this is by no means a new problem. Tuesday merely provided the irrefutable evidence.

After stealing two bases Thursday, the Rangers have successfully swiped 34 straight bases against Boston dating to 2008. Elias pegs that as the longest streak for one team against another since 1976. But the problem is even bigger than Texas. On the season, the Red Sox have caught only one of 37 would-be base stealers. That was Robinson Cano on April 7. Since then, they've allowed 34 straight thefts without any recourse.

It's hard to say what's more troubling: Opponents' rate of success or the frequency with which they are taking off. The numbers are not for the faint of heart.

Victor Martinez
Victor Martinez has thrown out just one of 26 base stealers this season.

Opponents have a 97.3 percent success rate thus far. Since 1951, when caught stealing was first fully tracked, the 2007 Padres were victimized with the greatest rate of success at 90.4 percent.

The Red Sox have allowed 36 stolen bases through their first 16 games. Elias says it's been 92 years since that has happened. The 1918 Tigers allowed 37 steals through 16 games.

In the expansion era (since 1961), the most stolen bases allowed in a season was 223 by the 2001 Red Sox. That was the year Jason Varitek broke his elbow diving for a foul ball, leaving Scott Hatteberg to take on the bulk of the work. He allowed 115 steals in 72 games, and never played catcher again.

2010 is on track to make 2001 look like a smashing success. At their current pace, the Red Sox will allow 364 stolen bases. Yes, 141 more than their own modern record of futility. Even if you take out Tuesday's debacle, Boston is still on pace to allow 291 steals.

The most difficult aspect of stealing a base against the Red Sox is getting to first base.

But just how damaging are all of these steals? Consider that 19 of the 36 stolen bases have resulted in the runner eventually scoring. Another way of looking at it, 18 of the 85 runners to score this season against the Red Sox have stolen a base on their journey to home plate. No other AL team has even allowed 18 steals.

Last season's results provide an even clearer picture. The Red Sox were 59-27 when their opponent failed to steal a base, according to Baseball-Reference.com. When allowing one or two thefts, they were 33-27. It was when opponents stole three or more that Boston really felt the impact, losing 13 of 16 such games.

Baseball Info Solutions devised a method to measure the defensive value of preventing stolen bases. Stolen Bases Runs Saved measures how many runs a team's defense allows or saves based on steals. The number reflects both frequency and success rate, and uses historical data against a pitcher to attribute the runs saved to either the catcher or pitcher. This may sound complicated, but the end result is a number that explains how many runs a team saved or gave up in relation to the league average.

Last season, the Red Sox set an AL record for futility by allowing an 86.8 percent success rate. Only 23 of 174 were caught, and no team allowed more steals. So as you might expect, the stolen bases runs saved statistic was not kind to Boston. Because of their problems stopping runners, the Red Sox allowed an estimated 23 more runs (10 attributed to the catchers and 13 to the pitchers) than an average team would have. That ranked dead last in the majors.

Which brings us back to this season. Through 15 games, the Red Sox were already at -10 stolen bases runs saved. This is not an average, but rather a number that accumulates over the course of a season. That means the Red Sox are on pace to lose over 100 runs because of stolen bases. While the current rate is almost assuredly unsustainably bad, it underscores the crisis. All of the supposed defensive upgrades made in the offseason could be irrelevant because of stolen bases.

Blame game

So who's to blame for allowing the floodgates to open? Both Martinez and Tim Wakefield attempted to fall on the sword after Tuesday's game, but the true answer is that both the pitcher and catcher play a major role in preventing steals.

Martinez is the easy one to condemn. The catcher is the public face of Boston's futility, as his throws repeatedly arrive late or sail above the runner. Thus far, 25 of 26 have stolen successfully against him.

This isn't the first time he's suffered a throwing crisis.

On July 5, 2006, the Yankees swiped six bases against Martinez and the Indians. At that point in the season, he'd thrown out only five of 66 base stealers. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, that game led to a meeting with manager Eric Wedge, a former Red Sox catcher, and catching coach Joel Skinner. Martinez would throw out 22 percent of base stealers over the rest of the season. He still finished the year with the worst caught stealing percentage in the AL, but a crisis had been averted.

The bigger change occurred that offseason after Skinner instituted a throwing program to strengthen Martinez's shoulder. In 2007, Martinez wasn't just better, he was one of the best. He threw out 30 percent of would-be base stealers, third best in the AL.

Could another turnaround be in the future? Since surgery on his throwing elbow in 2008, Martinez has thrown out only nine of 90 base stealers.

But if Martinez is the problem, his backup is by no means the solution.

Varitek is 0-for-11 in catching runners this season. In 2009, he nabbed only 8.5 percent of runners. That number is even more stunning given that he did not catch Wakefield, who was the victim of more stolen bases than any other pitcher last decade. Varitek's was the second-worst performance by an AL catcher over the last 20 years, while Martinez's 12.5 percent was the seventh-worst.

Pitching in?

In "The Fielding Bible: Volume II," John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions argues that pitchers are actually more to blame for stolen bases. This theory is in part based on the fact the difference between the best and worst pitchers is actually greater than it is for catchers.

Last season, every Red Sox starter was below league average in the stolen base percentage against. Only Jon Lester had a respectable percentage, thanks to six instances in which he caught the runner himself.

Could all of this be blamed on an organizational philosophy to concentrate on the player at the plate? As ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes reported Tuesday, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein shot down that notion rather emphatically.

"Some have speculated that we don't care about [all the stolen bases], that we just want to always make the pitch and not worry about the baserunner," Epstein said prior to Tuesday's game. "That's not true. I almost wish that were true. We care about it. We definitely recognize the importance of stopping the running game, and thus far we haven't been able to do it."

Even if the Red Sox had been ignoring runners in order to concentrate on the batter, it certainly wasn't working. If anything, the stolen base problem seems to have rattled Red Sox pitchers with a man on first.

Last season, with second base open and a runner on first, opponents hit .304 against the Red Sox; the major league average was .278. In all other situations with men on base (which would be considered non-stealing situations), opponents hit just .235 against Boston pitching.

Contrary to some perceptions, the pitchers are trying to limit stolen bases. They just haven't been successful, and ironically, it appears to be hurting them against hitters.

Bottom line

Through 16 games, Red Sox catchers rank last in the majors in stolen bases runs saved (see table), just as they did last season. Likewise, the pitchers rank last for the second straight season. Those numbers show a perfect storm: Pitchers who can't effectively hold runners on and catchers who can't throw them out.

So who's at fault? The simple truth appears to be everyone -- and until the problem is addressed, teams will be running wild against the Red Sox.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.