Bad timing for the headline, but this is a fun one…
Here’s a question for your mailbag:
I hate it when the Padres steal a base. Why? Because Mark Grant and Dick Enberg (whom I love) inevitably bring up that stupid correlation between stolen bases and wins this year for the Pads. Is this correlation outside of the norm for the league? What about doubles? Do the Padres tend to win as often when they hit at least one double?
It’s kind of like saying that the Padres are more likely to win when they do things well. Well… duh?
Thanks, Andy, for the question. It’s funny you should mention this; I was just wondering the same thing a few weeks ago. I actually started running numbers and drafting an article, but then stopped because it seemed heavy on the duh factor and I wasn’t sure anyone else would find it interesting.
First, a brief philosophical interlude… People love stories. People love when things makes sense. One of the key narratives coming into the 2010 season was that the Padres would be aggressive on the bases this year. We heard the story from the beginning of spring training and came to believe it.
In fairness, there is truth in the story. The Padres have been aggressive on the bases. Sometimes it has helped them, other times not so much. Either way, this is part of the narrative and so it is what we have.
We also have a team that is winning games with surprising regularity. We have to attribute the Padres’ unexpected success to something, right? (Because, you know, we love when things make sense). Why not stolen bases? After all, they are a manifestation of aggressive baserunning. The idea that stolen bases is leading to success fits the narrative well and therefore makes us happy.
Okay, fine. How about actual baseball? Well, here are the numbers through Friday, August 27:
SB? G W-L Pct Yes 60 49-11 .817 No 67 27-40 .403
Wow, all that running sure helps.
Well, maybe. Although it’s true that the Padres win more often (twice as often, in fact) when they steal bases than when they don’t, it’s also misleading. Here’s the bigger picture:
SB? G W-L Pct R/G BA OBP SLG Yes 60 49-11 .817 5.38 .276 .359 .420 No 67 27-40 .403 3.64 .227 .289 .341
It would be more precise to say that the Padres produce more runners when they steal bases than when they don’t, thus leading to more runs and to more wins. That’s still not quite right, as really the reverse is true: They steal more bases when they produce more runners. In graphical form, this is what we’ve been hearing:
Stolen bases -> Runs -> Wins
And this is what’s been happening:
Baserunners -> Runs -> Wins
In other words, stolen bases are a by-product, not the cause.
A couple other oddities caught my eye:
- The Padres are 11-0 when they steal three or more bases in a game.
- Their 27-40 record when they fail to steal a base breaks down as follows:
- 0 CS: 16-29
- >0 CS: 11-11
That is not what I would have expected. All I can think is that maybe the Padres are getting caught more often because they have more baserunners in those games, which as we know leads to more runs… You can make yourself crazy thinking about this stuff.
As for how the Padres’ current success in games where they steal a base stacks up against other teams, I don’t know. Someone with a good database might be able to answer that question. (For the curious, I’m just dumping game logs into a spreadsheet and then executing simple operations. That’ll do for a team or two, but it gets rather tedious after a while.)
Anyway, Andy also asked about doubles. Here’s that last table re-run with doubles:
2B? G W-L Pct R/G BA OBP SLG Yes 96 60-36 .625 4.88 .265 .336 .403 No 31 16-15 .516 3.19 .202 .281 .300
This makes my head hurt. First off, how do the Padres have a winning record with a batting line of .202/.281/.300? Well, of those 31 games in which the Padres failed to hit a double, five coincided with shutouts thrown by one (or more) of their pitchers. They allowed just one run in four more. So, yeah, great pitching has helped.
Second, why is the Padres’ record in games where they steal at least one base so much better than that in games where they hit at least one double? This would require more rigorous testing than I’m prepared to do right now, but I have my suspicions:
- Stolen base attempts are dictated to a degree by game situation. If you’re losing by a lot, you’re less likely to run. There’s a selection bias at work. With doubles, on the other hand, there is never a question of intent. Batters presumably always try to make hard contact, which sometimes results in doubles.
- Doubles are relatively common. The Padres have hit at least one in roughly 72% of their games this year. Even still, they rank last in the NL as of this writing, which means that whatever team they are playing on a given night hits doubles with even greater frequency. If we expect doubles to lead to runs (and wins), this should hold for both teams. In other words, if the Padres gain an advantage by hitting a double in a game, so also does their opposition by doing the same… and they do so more often.
Like I said, though, these are just untested suspicions.
Oh, and here’s a fun small-sample quirk:
2B W-L 3 11-1 4 4-0 5 3-0 6 0-3
Yep, once the Padres reach three doubles, they are in great shape… unless they hit that sixth. Clearly the solution is to hold at first with a single in that situation. Then steal second, thus increasing the chances of winning and further validating the narrative. Or something like that.
Bottom line: The assertion that the Padres win a lot when they steal a base is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Thanks again, Andy, for the excellent question. If nothing else, it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one thinking about these things.