Pittsburgh Pirates: Stealing Their Way to a Losing Season

Tom AuSenior Analyst IISeptember 13, 2012

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 11: Alex Presley #7 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a home run in the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds during the game at Great American Ball Park on September 11, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Alex Presley was caught trying to "steal" home plate last night. That was a failed bunt suicide "squeeze" play, and would have represented a run if he had succeeded. But it probably didn't represent his best chance of scoring a run.

This occurred because he had hit a triple earlier. With only one out. So why waste such a good hit on an iffy play?

What could have been a run on the next play after he was called out ended up being just a fly ball to center. That would have been worth trying to race to the plate for. If he gets cut down there, so be it. But at least the ball is coming from the outfield, rather than the infield.

With a man on third and one out, a team will score an average of one run, according to FanGraphs.  They will be compensated on other occasions by multiple runs for the few times they don't.

With the score tied at 1-1 in the top of the sixth, the Pirates' chances to win were 57 percent. When Presley was caught off third base, that reduced his team's "win expectation" to 44 percent. That's a decrease of 13 percentage points.

It's dangerous to "re-write history," but if we assume that Cincinnati would have scored the same one run in the bottom of the sixth and tied the game 2-2, the Pirates would have gone into the ninth (and probably extra) innings with a 50-50 chance. So Presley's ill-advised gamble ultimately cost his team half a game.

Presley is not alone in overly aggressive base running, having stolen nine bases and getting caught five times (counting this particular play that was technically "caught stealing"). Almost all of the Pirates' young players are guilty of trying to steal too many bases. Andrew McCutchen has tried 27 times, and gotten caught 11. Neil walker has stolen seven bases and gotten caught five times. Jose Tabata has been caught more times (12) than he has succeeded. One can see how such statistics cause the Pirates to throw away games.


What these players (and their coaches) don't understand is that a runner needs to succeed at least 70 percent of the time before stealing makes a positive contribution. That's because the value of the extra (stolen) base is less than the value of an out. Put another way, a runner would have to be able to steal TWO bases to make things more or less even.

You won't find veteran Rod Barajas stealing bases. Garrett Jones, an older, relatively veteran player is also not known for swiping bags. Veteran Clint Barnes likes to try, judiciously with a success rate of four out of five, or 80 percent, which is a good enough ratio.

Contrary to what they would like to think, the Pirates are NOT good at "small ball." That is, trying to "manufacture" runs by stealing, "legging" out extra bases, etc. Instead, Pirates' catchers have allowed other teams to out-steal them 127 to 58. It's just a part of the game the Bucs aren't good at.

It's now "nip and tuck" as to whether after great initial promise, Pittsburgh will have a winning or losing season. Unfortunately, the "half games" the team has lost by getting caught stealing may tilt the balance the wrong way.