There are certain players who are going to steal bases. It doesn’t matter which team owns Billy Hamilton’s contract, he’s going to run. That’s just who he is as a player. To other guys, stealing bases feels a lot more incidental.
Getting 17 stolen bases from Anthony Rizzo in 2015 probably won a few championships. You didn’t pay for those steals when you drafted him. Ditto Manny Machado’s 20 swipes. Respectively, they stole just three and zero bases in 2016. Rizzo and Machado didn’t become unathletic overnight. If you had the authority to tell either player they must steal 15 bags in 2017, they could. They mostly stopped running because it didn’t make sense within their team context.
Last season, the Brewers, Reds, Diamondbacks, Indians, and Padres stole the most bases. Four of those teams had a terrible offense. Cleveland’s hitters massively outperformed expectations. Bad teams have more cause to steal bases. Theoretically, the break even success rate is lower for a bad offense. The teams with the fewest steals – the Orioles, Cardinals, Mets, Dodgers, Athletics, and Blue Jays were among the best in baseball. And the Athletics. It was riskier to run.
Let’s imagine Wil Myers could play for the Padres or Cubs. On the Padres, Yangervis Solarte and an assortment of scrubs bat behind him. He’s not very likely to score after reaching first base. As a Cub (I’m assuming he replaced Rizzo), he’d have an OBP monster like Ben Zobrist behind him along with several other potent bats – Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, etc. Myers still wouldn’t be likely to score from first, but in a relative sense, he’s in very good hands. To attempt a steal, he has to be much more confident about making it. There’s a roughly 40 percent chance Zobrist will get him there.
So we have a rule of thumb. It’s not a hard and fast rule at the team level. Just because a team is good, it doesn’t mean they won’t steal. Talent matters. The Nationals had the sixth most steals because they had some fast guys like Trea Turner, Michael Taylor, and Ben Revere. Running is part of their game, and they’re good enough for any setting. However, Bryce Harper (21-for-31) and Anthony Rendon (12-for-18) probably shouldn’t have been attempting many steals given the quality of the supporting cast. Meanwhile, the A’s simply didn’t have base thieves. Even though they were bad, there was nobody to take the bases.
Let’s go back to Rizzo and 2015. The Cubs weren’t considered a contender entering the season, yet the rebuild clicked into place much sooner than expected. Rizzo’s breakout was a part of it, and I’m sure the club encouraged his aggression on the bases. Going into 2016 as the World Series favorite probably makes a team a lot more conservative. Theo said, “Uh, Rizzo, why don’t you hold onto this anchor. Please.”
The corollary is that any sort-of-fast player on a bad team (ahem, Myers) may suddenly steal a bunch of bases. This is both more useful and much harder to predict with any accuracy. Thinking back to the 2015 Cubs, I would have bet on Addison Russell (4 SB) taking more bases than Rizzo. So yes, bet on unexpected steals on bad teams. but don’t count on specific players without a proven track record. It’s randomish.
A better comp for Myers is Todd Frazier. After a two year hiatus from attempting steals, Frazier broke out for 20 thefts in 2014. He’s since followed that up with 13 and 15 steals. All three of those rosters were bad, leaving Frazier free to ignore his bad caught stealing rate (48-for-69 over the three years). On a better team, he gets the red light.
Like Frazier and unlike Rizzo, Myers is staying on a bad team. Unlike them both, he’s earned the benefit of the doubt by taking 28 bags in 34 attempts. That boat floats on any team. The Padres will absolutely run as a team – they even steal home with relative frequency. Myers will be a big part of that. Only healthy or an offseason of bulking up can stop him.
He had the 16th most attempted steals in 2016. Having already proven his mettle, he may focus on other aspects of his game like staying healthy or reaching a Chase Utley-level success rate. Or he may keep running at the same pace. We can safely project a solid 25 attempts. Incidentally, Steamer says he’ll try 26 steals with a big backslide in success rate (17-for-26).
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