Stolen bases and team-based WAR generation

Speed kills, or so it’s said. And given the prospects of this particular Blue Jays team, I was interested to see what kind of impact stolen bases might have on the outcome of a team’s season.

With that in mind, here are the top ten teams and the bottom ten teams in total stolen bases over the past decade (2002-2012) and their associated total WAR. (There's more here than just a table, dont worry).

Top Ten vs Bottom Ten

1 2007 Mets 1836 200 0.303 0.275 0.342 31.5
2 2009 Rays 1684 194 0.303 0.263 0.343 35.4
3 2002 Marlins 1864 177 0.301 0.261 0.337 23.6
4 2010 Rays 1718 172 0.293 0.247 0.333 32.3
5 2011 Padres 1859 170 0.294 0.237 0.305 21
6 2005 Angels 1704 161 0.294 0.27 0.325 20.9
7 2010 White Sox 1652 160 0.292 0.268 0.332 17.1
8 2012 Brewers 1903 158 0.299 0.259 0.325 33.6
9 2010 Athletics 1680 156 0.297 0.256 0.324 22.7
10 2011 Rays 1693 155 0.281 0.244 0.322 31.7
Avg = 26.98
323 2003 Athletics 1681 48 0.273 0.254 0.327 12.8
324 2004 Athletics 1650 47 0.3 0.27 0.343 22
325 2002 Athletics 1751 46 0.284 0.261 0.339 24.9
326 2005 Red Sox 1749 45 0.31 0.281 0.357 27.5
327 2005 Nationals 1900 45 0.293 0.252 0.322 21.5
328 2004 Rockies 1892 44 0.314 0.275 0.345 17.5
329 2004 Giants 1894 43 0.29 0.27 0.357 30.9
330 2003 Blue Jays 1685 37 0.313 0.279 0.349 19.1
331 2008 Padres 1862 36 0.294 0.25 0.317 18.6
332 2005 Athletics 1603 31 0.281 0.262 0.33 23
Avg = 21.78

The premise of the investigation was to see if there was a relationship between the number of bases teams steal and the total team WAR. Presumably, if a relationship were found, this would indicate that teams stealing a lot of bases can expect to have a better team outcome. Here is the total data of all 332 teams between 2002-2012 in a more simplified form:

*From 2002-2012 MLB Stolen Bases MLB WAR Number of Teams with more SB
Total bases stolen 31398 7146.6 n= Avg WAR
Average SB 95.14 21.65 151 22.34
Median SB 92 20.9 161 22.5
75th Percentile 116 26.9 80 22.4
90th Percentile 138 31.91 31 24.04
95th Percentile 148.55 33.86 18 25.36
Top Ten 156 --> 200 36.3 10 26.98

Given what you see here, it clearly paints a picture that the percentiles of successfully generating stolen bases (SB) and the percentiles of successfully generating WAR are not correlated strongly as a team value. There is a small trend once teams get past the 75th percentile of SB upwards in team WAR. Is it significant? Not really. But is it inconsequential? Well... maybe I’ll leave that for you to decide. Baseball is still a sport where what counts in the end are wins and losses, and therefore any additional WAR generated is likely to help the prospects of a team succeeding over the course of a season. However, given the difference between the 97th percentile (top ten teams) and the median value of SB over the last decade works out to an average of 4.5 WAR, it’s evident that speed alone has little impact on the success of a team. The best thing that can be said is that great SB teams seem to do better than average or poor SB teams. However, great WAR teams are not dependent, or even particularly influenced, by SB values.

In short, speed alone is unlikely to propel a baseball team to glory. There is no apparent correlation between teams that generate a higher WAR value and teams that steal the most bases in terms of total WAR. This holds true by visual estimate (a gap of nearly 10 WAR between the best SB teams and best total WAR teams) and also if you generate a correlation coefficient across the sample (r=0.138). However, I’d wager the small benefits gained from the threat of a SB will help push good teams towards being great, as evidenced by the consistent increases noted from 75th percentile up, and the contrast in average WAR accumulated by top ten SB teams vs the bottom ten SB teams over the last decade. It’s simply not a requirement of being a good team.

End story right? I still wanted to look at this year’s roster since I was still curious how many bases they might steal. So despite the small returns in finding a correlation between the two values, I went ahead put together a Blue Jays roster similar to what we should see on opening day. If it happens to reach above that 75th percentile (or better yet into the top ten) of SB, at least it would be reasonable to assume there is more than just entertainment value associated with the Blue Jays running a lot this year. I used Bill James’ projections for each position player to project total SB (seemed like a reasonable way to assess probable outcomes without imparting any personal bias on the totals, and they were easy to access).

2013 J.P. Arencibia 116 444 22 51 67 1
Edwin Encarnacion 150 597 31 82 89 9
Maicier Izturis 101 327 3 39 32 11
Jose Reyes 151 673 11 96 56 39
Brett Lawrie 155 647 18 96 71 21
Jose Bautista 153 642 39 96 99 7
Colby Rasmus 149 616 23 87 72 6
Melky Cabrera 148 648 13 88 75 14
Adam Lind 141 564 22 60 84 1
Emilio Bonifacio 153 595 3 74 33 45
Henry Blanco 41 134 3 10 12 1
Rajai Davis 100 296 3 38 24 25
TOTAL 1558 180
*162/player MLB Games 1458
Overestimation 6.40%
*-6.4% Adjusted Value 1458 168.48

I included Henry Blanco as the reserve catcher because based on comments from AA recently, I’m of the assumption Josh Thole will be starting the season at AAA Buffalo. However, since the projections overestimate total games played, and I’d rather be on the low side than the high side of an estimated total SB, I cut the totals own by 6.4% to bring games played values back in line with a 162 game season from 9 position players.

With this adjusted value, 168 stolen bases puts the 2013 Blue Jays firmly within the top ten teams at stealing bases in the last decade. Does that mean we can expect a high WAR outcome from this Blue Jays team based on this data? No. Strictly, no. As discussed above there is no direct correlation between WAR values generated by a team and the number of bases they steal in a season. What we can say from this data is that the Blue Jays are more likely to produce a higher WAR by stealing a lot of bases than by not stealing a lot of bases. And it’ll be fun to watch.

So it’s a simple, if slightly disappointing, outcome that suggests:

  1. Stole bases are worth more than just entertainment value.
  2. They give a slight advantage over other teams that do not steal bases, but
  3. They will not directly influence a team’s performance in generating a high WAR value.

Disclosure and things I have assumed: I have assumed team WAR is a reasonable predictor of team success, and I have assumed total SB generation is a reasonable predictor of successful baserunning.

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