Two weeks ago, Wil Myers stole three bases in a game against the Phillies. All three came in the fourth inning when he stole second, third, and home to single-handedly manufacture a run following his single. Since then, Myers has stolen two more bases to raise his August total to six. That isn’t Billy Hamilton or Byron Buxton territory, but it’s really useful in a player who also provides power.
I’ve been thinking about Myers’ three-steal day a lot over the last few weeks because that specific performance and Myers’ season as a whole illustrate some of the frustrations in attempting to predict stolen bases. Despite his recent run, he remains 12 steals shy of his 2016 total and does not look likely to reach the high bar he set for himself. Many won’t be surprised by that decline since middle-of-the-order bats like Myers are often discouraged of running.
But has Myers actually become less aggressive? To my mind, Myers has seen other factors contribute to a decline in his stolen base total. He has lost about 25 points in batting average compared to last season with steady isolated power and walk rates. So Myers is reaching first base less often this year than last year, which—steal of home aside—provides the bulk of a player’s stolen base opportunities. And he has already been caught stealing six times, the same number of times he was caught all of last season. Based simply on steal totals, I’m not sure whether he has been any less aggressive this season than last.
Speaking generally, a runner can gain or lose stolen bases because of three factors: changes in his number of opportunities, changes in his efficiency, and changes in his aggressiveness. And digging a bit deeper into players’ totals, one can make some simple estimates that categorize their stolen base gains and losses into those three categories. The following table splits the total gain or loss of stolen bases of the runners who stole 20-plus bases last season into TOF (Times on First) Loss, Succ% (Success Percentage) Loss, and Aggr (Aggressiveness) Loss. I’ve sorted by players’ decline in aggressiveness.
|Player||SB 2016||TOF Loss||Succ% Loss||Aggr Loss||SB 2017|
Jose Peraza leads the way, which is a bit surprising considering he will likely improve on his 21-steal 2016 season by the time this one is finished. But Peraza will also likely double his plate appearances compared to last season. His minor league steal rates and amazing 21 steals in 256 plate appearances in the majors last season hinted at a Hamilton-like stolen base potential which he has fallen well short of this season.
Myers is not near the top of the list. Only three of his 12 lost steals have been due to a decline of aggressiveness. He should improve on the seven steals he’s lost because of declining opportunities since he has another month in the season to play, but compared to this time last season, Myers has reached first base 16 fewer times (134 vs. 150). I think Myers could steal more bases next season as his batting average improves with regression. In contrast, Bryce Harper is having the stolen base season that many feared Myers would have. He has declined from 21 steals to two with the main reason being less-aggressive play.
Many of the big changes in times on first had those changes due to playing time. Starling Marte was suspended for half of the season. Travis Jankowski has dealt with a foot injury and spent time in the minors. But Jonathan Villar owes much of his 39-steal decline to 48-point drop in batting average and 4.2 percent drop in walk rate. Pretty much all of Villar’s batting average drop is BABIP-related, and his seasonal .315 BABIP is 25 points below his career rate. Given an opportunity to play next season, I’d expect his stolen base total to markedly increase again.
Dee Gordon is second in baseball with 46 steals and well clear of third place. But it’s not quite fair to say that he’s showing no signs of aging. His big increase in steals is mostly about reaching base; his batting average is up and his isolated power is down compared to last season. He actually has been a bit less aggressive this season. That will be something to watch with Gordon next season when he turns 30 years old.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt