Jose Reyes has averaged a steal every 2.95 games for his MLB career, a number that has only risen to every 3.62 games the past two years. However, now that he’s with the Blue Jays, his green light could be affected by the presence of Jose Bautista behind him in the line-up.
With the Marlins in 2012, he was usually the lead-off man with Giancarlo Stanton or Hanley Ramirez hitting third, but he also hit third himself 277 times, allowing us a nice comparison. When Reyes led off, he attempted a steal every 15.4 plate appearances. When he hit third, Reyes attempted a steal every 12.6 plate appearances. He took off a bit more often later in the order, which makes sense for a few reasons.
For one, it makes sense intuitively not to run into outs with a strong hitter up. Plus, stealing second just opens up first base for a pitcher to potentially pitch around your slugger. However, there are counter-arguments to this, including the fact that lead-off men are typically speedy and 3-4 hitters typically very good (not that conventional wisdom is by any means an indication of sound strategy). Additionally, providing a threat on the bases could help a hitter to receive more fastballs than he would otherwise. There's also the argument of the running game distracting pitchers, which may hold true at least for those pitchers who struggle from the stretch.
A recent study showed the differing break-even success rates for stolen bases given the batter at the plate. That is, based on each player’s hitting profile and the game situation, when should a runner steal and when he should stay.
When there are no outs, you want to avoid stealing with a great hitter up, sure (Giancarlo Stanton had the highest break even rate, Dayan Viciedo the lowest), but there are some other things to consider as well. For example, players who hit into a lot of double plays improve the value of a stolen base, since that player can no longer hit into a double play with a runner on second and first base empty. Michael Young, for example, grounded into 26 double plays and clocks in here with just a 61.8% break-even rate. Coming in sixth place with nobody out was Edwin Encarnacion – base runners have to steal at a 75.3% success rate for it to be a net positive with Encarnacion batting. With that said, Reyes will never be on first with nobody out and Encarnacion batting, unless the line-up changes. Bautista will likely be the primary player in such a situation, and he rarely attempts to steal anyway.
With one out is where things get more interesting, since if Reyes is on first base, it’s pretty likely there’s an out if Bautista or Encarnacion are batting. Here, Encarnacion ranks fourth with a 76.1% success rate required to break even in terms of stolen base value, while Bautista isn’t far behind at 72.6%. Reyes is actually an 80% base stealer for his career, though, so he may still get the green light.
With two outs, things change dramatically. Since the threat of hitting into a double play is no longer there, the players with the highest break-even point basically become the top sluggers and players who don’t hit a lot of singles. Singles are important here, especially with two outs, since the value of stealing second is much larger if the batter is likely to poke an RBI single through. Since Bautista and Encarnacion are sluggers in the foremost sense, they rank second and sixth, respectively. Their teammates would need to steal at a 79.4% clip (Bautista) and a 75.5% clip (Encarnacion) to make stealing second with two outs worthwhile.
These rates are right around what we’d expect from Reyes, and also right around the marks for Rajai Davis and Emilio Bonifacio. And the steal-stay decision is likely to come up with Reyes on base and Bautista or Encarnacion batting and two outs. It can happen with Encarnacion right from the start of the game, while it can happen with either player in any number of ways later in the game.
For the Jays, this means you might see Reyes run less than expected with the sluggers up. It may also mean, though, that you see him be more aggressive when the number two hitter is batting. It also means whoever ends up hitting second, presumably Melky Cabrera and his 73.7% career success rate, may also have the red light. And it means that the players later in the order, with poorer hitters behind them, have good reason to steal and "manufacture" runs. Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Bonifacio and even Maicer Izturis all have decent quicks, and won’t be on base often with the studs at the dish.
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