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We Know the Fire Awaits Unbelievers: Stop Complaining About Rajai Davis Stealing Third Base

An analysis of how well Rajai Davis picks his stolen bases

Note how the ball isn't even in the picture.
Note how the ball isn't even in the picture.
Tom Szczerbowski

The other day, Rajai Davis stole third base with two outs. This tends to drive fans (and announcers) bonkers because it means the runner has put himself at risk of being thrown out on the basepaths even though he was already in scoring position. Maybe it's just my contrarian nature but I disagree with this widely held viewpoint.

I love to see guys like Rajai Davis steal third with two outs because -- and I'll admit that my gut feeling is purely anecdotal -- it seems like they're almost always successful. I think it bothers the pitcher (particularly righthanded pitchers who might see Davis dancing around third base) and the catcher, knowing that the slightest mistake on a ball in the dirt could now let in a run. Now, while there is a certain degree of truthiness to that statement, it's going to be pretty difficult to tease any of those effects out of a large, noisy dataset in any statistically meaningful way. So let's just go with what we know.

The marginal value of being on third rather than second with two outs is much smaller than the marginal win value of being on second rather than first. Here is a Run Expectancy Table courtesy of an excellent article in the Hardball Times.


What this essentially means is that stealing second with two outs increases run expectancy by about one tenth of a run while stealing third increases it by around half that. On the flipside, being caught stealing third decreases run expectancy by 0.32 runs whereas being caught stealing second decreases run expectancy by 0.22 runs; thus the reward is around 50 % as valuable at an added risk of around 50 %. All told, depending on the game situation (score, inning, etc.) the break-even rate should be somewhere between 80 and 90 %. In 2013, Rajai Davis has stolen third base successfully 13 times and been caught once. There was one out when we he was caught. Over his career, he's stolen third base successfully 78 times and been caught seven times. Six of those times were with one out.

Yep, over his career, Rajai Davis has been caught stealing third with zero outs or two outs just one time. He's stolen it or been part of a double steal 34 times. Stop complaining. Rest assured, he knows more about baserunning than we do.