Four Stolen Base Decliners Due to Team Quality

Yesterday, I wrote about why Wil Myers will probably continue to steal bases in 2017. The theory was pretty simple – mostly because it didn’t need to be complicated – Myers was an efficient thief and bad teams usually let their players run. Myers is still young, and the Padres are still bad.

The other side of the coin – players on good teams usually run less often. It’s a trend, not a hard and fast rule. Rickey Henderson (or Billy Hamilton) would steal bases on any team. However, guys with iffier success rates like Cesar Hernandez (17-for-30) typically stop running when they join a quality roster. Today we’ll discuss four top stolen base sources from 2016 who may decline due to their team situation.

Melvin Upton

Here’s a case where we already have some information. Upton spent the majority of last summer with the Padres before joining the Blue Jays. He rebounded to impressive fantasy rates while in San Diego – 16 home runs and 20 stolen bases (25 attempts) in 374 plate appearances. Upon joining Toronto, the wheels promptly fell off the bus – four home runs and seven steals (10 attempts) in 174 plate appearances.

We already have some small sample data to examine. He attempted a steal once per 15 plate appearances in San Diego. That fell to once every 17 plate appearances in Toronto. However, since he reached base substantially less often with the Jays, he probably didn’t actually change his approach.

Upton is a relatively efficient thief with a long track record on the bases. He’s not going to suddenly crater to zero steals. A very large portion of his value to a real team is in disrupting opposing pitchers. Upton’s also a bottom of the lineup hitter which inherently reduces the break even stolen base rate – at least until the leadoff man comes to plate. However, between his miserable OBP, good supporting cast, and slightly older legs, don’t be surprised to see him attempt steals every 20 plate appearances in 2017.

That equates to about 15 to 20 attempts in 300 plate appearances.

Eduardo Nunez

Another guy who was traded mid-season, Nunez shocked the world by stealing 40 bases with an 80 percent success rate in 2016. The last time he ran like this was in 2012. Nunez, 30, split the love. In Minnesota he attempted 33 steals in 396 plate appearances (once every 12). In San Francisco, he tried 17 in 199 plate appearances (once every 11.7). His OBP was flat between his two teams, making this an oranges to oranges comparison.

After a decade as Derek Jeter’s backup/wandering scrub, last season was Nunez’s first as a successful regular. When a battery sat down to form a plan of attack against the Twins, I like to imagine most of the time was spent on fooling Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and the other young players on the roster. I’m picturing Yordano Ventura and Salvador Perez completely sneering at Nunez. Now that he’s had success and figures to enter 2017 as a starting third baseman, Nunez may discover there are some game plans in place for him. That will include controlling him on the base paths.

Since Nunez is a successful runner, the Giants may not constrain him out of the gate. Like Upton, he’s also a bottom of the lineup hitter which bodes well for him attempting steals. Ironically, if Bruce Bochy moves him up in the order to take advantage of his speed, he’ll probably run less frequently in front of Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, and Hunter Pence.

I’m predicting 35 steal attempts in 500 plate appearances.

Mike Trout

In an effort to save my bold predictions, Trout squeezed out 30 swipes in 2016. This after taking just 27 bases in 2014 and 2015 combined. Trout’s been saying for years that he wanted to get back to his early career thievery, and everything lined up perfectly in 2016.

The 2017 Angels look to be a better team with a much higher floor to the lineup. The offensive attack is still Trout plus some other guys, but that’s an upgrade from Trout plus garbage. Although he posted a good 81 percent success rate in 37 attempts, there are non-base running reasons for Trout to take fewer bases.

Every steal is an injury risk. Like the majority of runners, Trout dives head first into second base which only increases that risk. Thumbs get jammed (torn) and infielders sometimes crash awkwardly on joints. Teams are generally reluctant to instruct players to avoid injury, but the Angels might use some other excuses to keep Trout from diving quite so often.

I’m expecting between 20 and 25 steal attempts in 700 plate appearances.

Bryce Harper

Speaking of “could get injured,” Harper’s already experienced that bummer. He tore the UCL in his thumb back in April of 2014. It turned into a lost season for Harper. Relatively speaking. I suppose a lot of players would love to post a 115 wRC+ in a so-called lost season.

Harper stole 21 bases in 2016 after nabbing just 19 across the previous three seasons. Unlike the others we discussed today, Harper wasn’t very successful (21-for-31). His role in the midst of a potent Nationals lineup make that low success rate particularly painful. Harper is a willful player so he may continue to run as a way to “punish” pitchers for walking him. Unfortunately, he’s hurting the Nationals more than his opponents.

The Nationals star is the most likely on this list to stop running entirely. Just as Anthony Rizzo went from 17 steals in 2015 to three in 2016, Harper could drop from 21 to five. I’ll still predict 20 steal attempts.

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Jim Melichar
5 years ago

Couple of questions. Have you studied the numbers to show bad teams let their players steal more frequently? Also, are these more along the lines of guesses or have the Angels for instance come out and said they want to limit Trout’s injury chances? It would be nice to know these types of things in the article.