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Baseball by the numbers: Putting SBs in proper perspective

Los Angeles Dodgers' Dee Gordright is called safe first base against Milwaukee Brewers during sixth inning baseball game Saturday Aug.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Dee Gordon, right, is called safe at first base against the Milwaukee Brewers during the sixth inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Darren Hauck)

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Updated: August 11, 2014 10:16PM

It’s sometimes suggested that those who deal with advanced baseball metrics hate stolen bases. That’s not the case. Analysts just want to make sure steals — and caught-stealings — are given proper weight relative to how runs are created.

Steals don’t correlate to runs as well as singles or walks do. They don’t put an extra man on base, nor do they advance other baserunners. A steal does increase the chance of scoring one run. That has value, provided the success rate is high enough.

Caught-stealings kill offense, both by adding an out and taking a runner off the bases. The break-even point for steals is about 70 percent, but it varies slightly with offensive conditions. Steals are most valuable in low-scoring times and least valuable when runs are plentiful.

Advanced metrics have to take into account both steals and caught-stealings.

Take Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon, who leads the majors with 51 stolen bases through Sunday, and Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton, who is second in the National League with 43. If Hamilton steals at least seven more bases, it will be the first time two players in the same league steal 50 or more since 2010, when American League leader Juan Pierre stole 68 for the White Sox and Rajai Davis 50 for the Athletics.

Gordon has been caught 13 times for a 79.7 percent success rate, while Hamilton has been caught 18 times for a 70.5 percent success rate.

For an approximation of what that means in runs, we can turn to different versions of Bill James’ runs created formula. The basic formula James published in his early Baseball Abstracts is runs created = (hits + walks)
x total bases/(at-bats + walks). By that formula, Gordon has 57 runs created and Hamilton 50. You’d expect Gordon to have more because his .720 OPS and .335 on-base percentage are well ahead of Hamilton’s .693 and .299.

The basic runs created formula soon was followed by a stolen-bases version: (hits + walks - caught stealing) x (total bases
+ .55 steals)/(at-bats + walks). With that tweak, Gordon’s total rises to 61 and Hamilton’s declines to 49. The caught-stealings are just too costly.

Even with Gordon’s high success rate, his steal attempts net only four additional runs for the Dodgers’ offense. What if he made no attempts but turned five outs into singles and five into walks? By the basic formula, that would push his runs created to 62.6. The extra times on base are more valuable than the steals.

There are more detailed versions of runs created. uses the ‘‘technical version’’ that also includes sacrifice flies, sacrifice bunts, double plays and more to get as complete a picture of a hitter as it can. There, Gordon rises to 64 and Hamilton is at 50.

The basic message sent by the numbers is that steals add value, provided caught-stealings are low. But there’s much bigger value in getting on base.

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