On Speed, Stolen Bases, and Lead Off Hitters

by Douglas Fox | Posted on Friday, February 5th, 2016
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In his excellent treatise on the history of scouting,  Dollar Sign on the Muscle,  author Kevin Kerrane devoted considerable attention to the pioneering ways of Branch Rickey, who not only invented the modern-day farm system (which was the beginning of the end of the minor leagues’ status as autonomous entities), he also developed the first methods of evaluating and developing baseball prospects.

Kerrane noted that Rickey preferred the “quality out of quantity” method of culling amateur players for the Cardinals’ roster (instead of purchasing them from minor league teams, as most MLB organizations did for the first decades of the last century) through tryout camps across the Southern and Western U.S.A., where the Cardinals pretty much had a monopoly on talent and fans before baseball expanded and transferred its way across the country in the 50s and 60s. .  Rickey needed to be able to project this cattle call of talent several years into the future in order to determine which ones the team would sign to a contract, and he did this by determining the young players’ athletic skill set, or “tools,” as they became known.

Rickey felt that the most important tool in a prospect’s kit was speed, “the only common denominator on offence and defence,” according to Kerrane.  At the Cardinals’ tryout camps, any non-pitcher who was unable to run 60 yards in less than 7 seconds was sent home before they had a chance to pick up a glove or swing a bat. Other skills, Rickey reasoned, could be taught – but speed couldn’t.

Since that time speed has been a constant through baseball history.   Speed can be a weapon in the field and on the basepaths, and while stolen base totals were high in the small ball era,  it wasn’t until the 60s that the stolen base again became a significant factor in baseball offences – the steal was almost an afterthought in the 20s,30s, and 40s, bottoming out with Stan Hack‘s NL-leading 16 SBs in 1937.

The stolen base has had such importance placed upon it that by the 70s, almost all teams featured a speedster at the top of their lineup, and the 70s and 80s era produced several of the game’s all-time top base thieves such as Lou Brock (who set an all-time high of 118 steals in 1974), Rickey Henderson (who broke Brock’s record in 1982, and is baseball’s all-time stolen base leader), Tim Raines (the most successful base stealer of all time in terms of percentage), and Vince Coleman (who stole 100 bases three straight years in the 80s).

For those of us who grew up playing the game, our typical batting order went something like this:

  • Lead Off Hitter – fastest guy on the team (not necessarily the best at getting on base)
  • 2nd Hitter – guy who could bunt and hit & run (which our coach seldom used)
  • 3rd/4th Hitters – guys on the team who could barrel up balls consistently
  • 5th hitter – guy who could hit the ball far, but only occasionally
  • 6th-9th hitters – guys who couldn’t hit

For most fans, because they grew up in that kind of atmosphere, the issue of who hits leadoff has taken on considerable importance.  Unfortunately, the game they played on the sandlots of their youth is not the one they see on television.  For starters, even an 8th-place MLB hitter was likely a 3/4 hitter in his amateur days.  And while speed remains important, the stolen base has taken much of the limelight, when in fact, it’s highly overrated:  that speedy leadoff hitter who puts fear in the opposition also can cost his team when he’s unsuccessful.

Pete Palmer and John Thorn had long wondered what the effect of a caught stealing has on a team’s offence.  They scoured through play-by-play data from every game played from 1961 to 1977, and calculated the number of runs on average a team scored in the rest of an inning as the result of both a stolen base and a caught stealing.  The pair developed what became called the “Run Expectation Table,” and discovered that with a man on first and no outs, teams scored an average of .783 runs in the rest of the inning.  With a runner on second and no outs, that average increased to 1.068, but with no runners on and one out, the average dropped to .249.  Base stealers, of course, deal in volume, but Thorn and Palmer discovered that if a runner was successful less than 63% of the time, they were costing their team runs.

Run Expectancy varies over time, and with the emphasis on the long ball over the last two decades, those averages have changed, but the data still demonstrates has been that there’s a huge differential between a team’s chances of scoring a run with a runner on first/no outs, and no runners on/two outs.  The most recent break-even point for base stealers is something around 69%, meaning that if that speedy guy at the top of the lineup steals less than 35 bases in 50 attempts, he’s costing his team runs.

How important is that leadoff spot?   The leadoff hitter does come to bat, on average, 4.8 times per game (compared to 3.9 for the 9th hitter),  but how often does he actually lead off an inning?  One study suggests about 40% of the time, with the other 60% being shared almost equally between the other spots in the order.  For a leadoff hitter who had 700 Plate Appearances (assuming he played all 162 games – and I’m rounding here),  that would amount to about 118 times beyond the start of the game, less than one extra lead off appearance per game.

According to Tom Tango, Andrew Dolphin, and Mitchell Lichtman in their work “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball,” getting on base is a more important skill for a lead off hitter than are stolen bases, because the best hitters on the team follow him in the lineup, meaning that a reliance on small ball is not necessary, and that lead off hitter can’t score if he doesn’t get on base to begin with.  The speedy/low OBP player, they suggest, is better at a lower spot in the order, where his speed can be an advantage with the singles hitters who tend to populate the bottom third of the order.  Surprisingly, many MLB managers don’t seem to understand this – maybe we can blame Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines, who were highly proficient at stealing bases and getting on base, but players with that combination of skills are few and far between.  When in doubt, some Managers seem content to go with the speedy guy over the high OBP player.

Which brings us to the Blue Jays, and their erstwhile top of the order man, Ben Revere, whose departure some fear will lead to a gaping hole in the Blue Jay batting order. Installed in the lead off spot after the struggles of Troy Tulowitzki caused Manager John Gibbons to take some pressure off of Tulo by dropping him in the order, Revere did make a solid contribution to the Jays pennant run.  Even though there’s no confusing him for a Gold Glove defender, Revere did provide a vast upgrade in the outfield defence.  But what about his on-base and base stealing skills?

While he has never challenged for a stolen base title, Revere has been successful about 80% of the time in his career, meaning that he is well above the break even point.  His career walk rate of 4.4% and .328 OBP do not profile as a top of the order bat, however. His numbers with the Blue Jays, interestingly, were far different from his career averages.  His .354 OBP (in a small sample size) was well above his career norm, while his 7 stolen bases were considerably below (Revere has averaged 44 per season – he had 31 with the Phillies and Blue Jays last year).  Perhaps Revere recognized that with the gauntlet of hitters coming up behind him, a more discerning eye and caution on the basepaths would be in the best interests of the team.

But will his absence harm the Blue Jays offence?  Who could take his place?

Well, for starters, you could do a lot worse that Tulowitzki and his career .369 OBP.  Tulo’s struggles after being acquired by the Blue Jays may have had a lot to do with the shock of being dealt after having been a franchise icon in Denver for a decade, and should at least give him another shot at the spot.  Tulowitzki’s career high total for steals in a season is only 20, but he’s hardly a basepath clogger.  Again, with the bats of Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion, Colabello, Martin, and even Saunders behind him, getting on base is the key for anyone starting off this lineup.

His time may not be now, but it’s not hard to envision Dalton Pompey one day leading off the Blue Jay batting order.  Pompey’s career minor league OBP of .371   demonstrates an ability to get on base, and there is possibly not a smarter base runner in the organization.

One name that some fans and media members have suggested hit lead off is human highlight reel Kevin Pillar.  With this speed and base running skills, Pillar is indeed an asset on the base paths, but with a .303 career OBP, that’s just not a good idea, and there’s not a lot in his minor league numbers to suggest that a huge improvement in pitch recognition is forthcoming.  Even former Jay Anthony Gose had a higher OBP than Pillar in 2015. Because he finds himself in a lot of pitcher’s counts, Pillar’s contact tends to be of the weak variety, which translates into a lot of singles.  Only 3 players posted a higher Soft Contact percentage than Pillar last year, and his .121 ISO was well below league average.  An unheralded 32nd round pick in 2011 despite an NCAA-record 54 game hitting streak, Pillar raced through the minors largely due to his ability to make contact, rarely posting a walk record above 5%.  While he did learn to put the ball in play to take advantage of his base-running skills, he did not learn how to effectively recognize pitches and work the count in his favour.  In the minors, he could exploit pitchers who made mistakes, but he left himself with little margin of error as a major leaguer.  Pillar profiles better as a 7/8 hitter, where his speed can be a bonus with the singles hitters hitting behind him.

Is the lead off hitter position important?  Will the Blue Jays miss Ben Revere?

The answer to the former is yes, but not in the way most fans think.  For the latter, no. There are more than adequate candidates to replace him in the field and in the batting order.

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Douglas Fox
About the Author

Doug Fox has played, watched, studied, and generally obsessed about baseball for decades, and once played in the Toronto Star Pee-Wee Baseball tournament. He writes about Blue Jays prospects and minor league baseball at clutchlings.blogspot.ca Follow him on Twitter @Clutchlings77.

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