Go Rate, and the Pursuit of Whatever’s Beyond Perfection

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

If you enjoyed last week’s Buntpalooza, you’re going to love this, because I’m making up new stats again.

Let’s start with Rickey Henderson. You probably know that in 1982, Rickey set a still-unchallenged single-season record of 130 stolen bases. Which is a lot. Of course it’s a lot; this was the highest-volume season by the best basestealer who ever lived. I just referred to him as “Rickey,” because he was so great he can go by his first name on first reference, like “LeBron” or “Tiger” or “Weird Al.”

Nevertheless, I worry that we don’t appreciate how extremely a lot 130 stolen bases is in one season. One way to look at it is in distance; 172 stolen base attempts (Rickey also got caught a league-high 42 times that year), at 90 feet each, constitutes almost three miles of ground covered. The man ran the best part of a 5K in stolen base attempts alone.

In 1982, Rickey registered 656 plate appearances and 143 hits, including 10 home runs and four triples. Let’s take those away, because you can’t steal a base after hitting a home run, and while you can theoretically steal a base after hitting a triple, come on, this isn’t the 1890s and you’re not Sliding Billy Hamilton. That leaves Rickey with 130 stolen bases on 129 hits that could’ve given him a chance to steal a base.

Baseball Reference is kind enough to count how many times a player reaches base in a given season. This is instructive for Rickey, because while he hit just .267 in his record-setting campaign, he led the majors in walks with 116, giving him an OBP of .398. We’re not just looking at hits, in short. B-Ref has Rickey with 274 times on base, including errors, in 1982. Subtract the 14 home runs and triples and you’re left with 260 of what I’ll call stolen base opportunities. That means Rickey was on base 260 times and attempted to steal almost two-thirds of the time: 66.1%, to be exact. From here on, I’ll be referring to this ratio as “Go Rate,” because I could not in good conscience devote any more time to thinking of a funny backronym like PECOTA or CORSI.

The weakness in go rate, which I’ll address up front, is that it doesn’t account for a number of scenarios in which a batter-runner could be in position to steal, or exclude scenarios in which he’s blocked. For instance, times on base doesn’t include instances of a batter reaching on a fielder’s choice with the base in front of him empty. Nor does it debit instances of the batter reaching, only to find the base in front of him occupied. For Rickey, that wasn’t always a problem, as Tony Phillips and Davey Lopes spent plenty of time at the bottom of Oakland’s lineup in 1982, thus inviting a double steal. But ordinarily, you don’t run if the base ahead already has someone standing on it.

If, for some reason, you remember my May article about Esteury Ruiz’s unusual on-base ability and unusually aggressive baserunning, you’ll recall that I went through his plate appearances one-by-one and weeded those cases out. For a few weeks’ worth of one player’s season, that’s feasible. But for the 379 position players who’d appeared in 50 or more games through this weekend, that’s a tall order. Generalities will have to do for now.

What makes the Rickey Henderson season so ridiculous is the combination of aggressiveness and volume of on-base opportunities; the man played 149 games, almost always hit leadoff, and was among the best on-base guys in the league. But two players this season are beating Rickey’s 1982 go rate, albeit in more limited opportunities:

The 10 Go-est Players in Baseball
Name Go Rate SB% SB Opp SB CS
Andrew Velazquez .727 81.3 22 13 3
Dairon Blanco .697 78.3 33 18 5
Esteury Ruiz .519 85.3 131 58 10
Jorge Mateo .416 87.5 77 28 4
Elly De La Cruz .351 78.8 94 26 7
Willi Castro .340 86.1 106 31 5
Bobby Witt Jr. .327 80.4 156 41 10
Jake McCarthy .326 89.7 89 26 3
Ronald Acuña Jr. .315 84.2 241 64 12
José Caballero .315 89.3 89 25 3
SB Opp derived from Baseball Reference’s Times on Base
Minimum 50 Games
Through 9/10

Between this and his appearance atop the bunt leaderboard, Velazquez has to be the most John McGraw player in the league right now. Sixteen stolen base attempts out of 22 opportunities is a ridiculous number. If there weren’t a pitch clock in place, a pitcher could just hold the ball and wait for Velasquez to get bored and take off for second.

(And because Velazquez only had 94 plate appearances when I made this chart, I went back and counted manually every time he reached base with the bag in front of him unoccupied: Eight walks, seven singles, three fielder’s choices, two doubles, and a strikeout/wild pitch, for 21 total opportunities. So the stolen base opportunities column might not be accurate down to the last decimal, but it’ll get us in the proverbial ballpark.)

What I love about Velazquez on this list is the fact that he isn’t even a particularly good basestealer or even a runner. He’s perfectly fine in both cases — 77th percentile sprint speed and a 13-for-16 success rate that’s just a tick over the league average — but little about Velazquez’s game suggests that he should be running the bases like Vince Coleman after three Red Bulls.

Blanco, the next player up, makes a little more sense; he’s got 100th percentile speed, which is the good stuff. That’s some Bobby Witt Jr., Corbin Carroll, Elly De La Cruz action. Of course this guy should be running all over the place even if 18-for-23 (and 19-for-24 for his career) isn’t a standout steal rate. Blanco’s position here brings back memories of the absurd team speed the mid-2010s Royals had; Lorenzo Cain was the third-fastest outfielder on the playoff roster. Or the 1980 Royals, who had Frank White and Amos Otis, and also Willie Wilson, who stole as many bases as White and Otis put together.

At the other terminus of the Johnny Damon Highway comes the first high-volume outlier: Ruiz, who’s attempted 68 steals out of 131 opportunities, which is an absurd go rate of .519. As we get out of the top four, the gaps on the leaderboard start to calm down, and it becomes clear that a go rate in the neighborhood of .300 signifies an aggressive basestealer. Just as in Kansas City, there’s something in the water in Oakland’s outfield: not just Henderson, but Rajai Davis and Coco Crisp. Even Starling Marte went 25-for-27 on stolen base attempts in the 56 games he spent in green.

Not to beat the same dead horse about Ruiz, but I’m so happy he’s doing this. The A’s are on their way out of town; the team might lose 110 games. Ruiz was the big shiny offseason acquisition in a three-way trade that delivered All-Stars to multiple National League contenders; Ruiz, at this point, is kind of a poor man’s Marquis Grissom? A destitute man’s Starling Marte, perhaps.

Life is like Ozzie Albies hitting right-handed: It is short, and it is brutal. There are two ways you can go with that information. You could give up and phone it in, knowing none of it matters. Or you could decide that, because none of it matters, you might as well get your giggles in while you can. Why shouldn’t Ruiz run a go rate over .500 in high volume? What’s the worst that can happen? He gets caught? The A’s lose? Please.

In that spirit, let’s find the players who are committed to running no matter the results. These are the six players who are at least a full run below average in BsR and have a below-average SB%, and yet are in the top 100 in go rate:

Maybe Running All the Time Isn’t Such a Good Idea
Name BsR Rank Go Rate Rank SB% Rank SB SBatt SB Opp
Isiah Kiner-Falefa -1.2 260 .177 47 70.6 230 12 17 96
Manuel Margot -2.0 292 .134 79 72.7 223 8 11 82
George Springer -1.4 269 .129 86 79.2 177 19 24 186
J.T. Realmuto -1.9 289 .127 87 76.5 192 13 17 134
Ke’Bryan Hayes -1.1 252 .126 88 60.0 260 9 15 119
Henry Davis -1.4 268 .117 98 42.9 300 3 7 60
SB Opp derived from Baseball Reference’s Times on Base
Minimum 50 Games
Through 9/10

Realmuto’s a weird case, because last year he almost set the record for most stolen bases in a season without being caught. (Jon Berti, last season’s major league stolen base leader, very nearly made this list as well.) Chase Utley holds the record over a full season with 23; Realmuto was 21-for-21 last year when he got thrown out on his final stolen base attempt of the regular season in the Phillies’ 160th game of the year. Trea Turner is currently 26-for-26 in 2023; we’ll get to him in a minute. Conversely, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Henry Davis are having a horrendous time on the basepaths. It’s like all the stolen base luck in Pennsylvania rolled east.

Then there’s Springer, who at 19-for-24 is a rounding error below league average but is actually having one of the best basestealing years of his career. The biggest difference in Springer’s game since moving to Toronto three years ago is that he’s actually a decent percentage basestealer now; in seven seasons with the Astros he was 48-for-79, which is mystifyingly bad for a player as fast as Springer was in his youth. With the Blue Jays, he’s now 37-for-45, which is positively respectable. But as Leo Morgenstern wrote last week, speed isn’t everything when it comes to baserunning.

As you might expect, the top of the go rate leaderboard features lots of players who know what they’re doing. These players are in the top 100 in go rate, with a SB% of 90 or better and a BsR of 4.0 or better:

Players Who Run a Lot But Need to Run More
Name BsR Rank Go Rate Rank SB% Rank SB SBatt SB Opp
CJ Abrams 8.9 3 .314 11 93.2 83 41 44 140
Corbin Carroll 12.1 1 .297 13 90.4 91 47 52 175
Taylor Walls 5.7 10 .264 19 95.7 78 22 23 87
Josh Lowe 5.7 9 .250 21 90.3 92 28 31 124
Jarren Duran 5.4 14 .224 24 92.3 90 24 26 116
Bryson Stott 4.8 21 .166 53 93.3 82 28 30 181
Francisco Lindor 5.7 11 .162 58 92.9 84 26 28 173
Trea Turner 5.9 8 .150 67 100.0 1 26 26 173
Christian Yelich 7.1 5 .149 68 90.0 93 27 30 202
SB Opp derived from Baseball Reference’s Times on Base
Minimum 50 Games
Through 9/10

These are the best baserunners, and the best high-volume basestealers, in the sport. And you know what? A few of them could stand to be a little more aggressive on the basepaths. Turner in particular. Obviously what he’s doing is impressive, potentially even record-setting. Utley is the most efficient basestealer of all time, and being more perfect than him is no small feat. More than that, Turner is in a lineup with a lot of guys who can drive you in from any base, so maybe he should be a little more conservative than someone like Ruiz.

But the number I keep coming back to with Turner is from 2012, his freshman year at NC State. That season, Turner stole 57 bases in 61 attempts in 63 games. Even Rickey Henderson would be impressed by that level of get-up-and-go.

The thing about 26-for-26, or even 30-for-30 if Turner gets there, is that I doubt Turner has chosen to run in the only favorable situations that presented themselves. At the risk of drawing a fraught comparison between division rivals, consider Acuña:

Perfection vs. Adventure
Name BsR Go Rate SB% SB SBatt SB Opp OBP
Trea Turner 5.9 .150 100.0 26 26 173 .319
Ronald Acuña Jr. 5.5 .315 84.2 64 76 241 .417
Stats current through 9/10

Here we have two of the best high-volume basestealers in the league. And because Phillies fans all learned the same lesson from Ted Lasso last month and turned Turner into Jimmie Foxx, both Acuña and Turner are both in the midst of special power-speed combo seasons as well.

Maybe this is an unfair question to ask, because it’s impossible to separate Acuña’s baserunning from his MVP-worthy campaign at the plate, but I’ll ask anyway: Which of these seasons are you going to remember five or 10 years from now?

From a baserunning perspective only, Turner is the one on pace to set a record, and he’s been a slightly better runner overall. But Acuña is doing something spectacular; he called his shot for 50-50, and while he won’t get there, 40-70 is in play and that’s not a bad consolation prize.

There’s something alluring about how in-your-face Acuña’s season is. (You’ll notice this chart is slightly out of date. That’s because Acuña tried to steal twice while I was writing this article.) He’s forcing the action more than all but a handful of baserunners. I think there’s an artistry to Turner’s (so far) perfect basestealing season, and nobody with half a brain would accuse him of being a boring player. But I want a player with his obvious gifts to be as aggressive as possible.

Stolen bases are more common this season than they’ve been in any year since 1997. Some of that has to do with the rule changes, which I supported in large part because they might lead to precisely this outcome. But it’s also because players like Ruiz and Acuña have decided to run like hell. That’s what I want from this sport: Aggressiveness, risk-taking, forcing the issue. Whether it’s smart or safe or not.

In 1982, Henderson not only stole more bases than anyone before or since, he also became the only player since the stat was recorded to be caught stealing 40 or more times in a season. Among players with 100 or more career attempts, Utley is no. 1 in SB%. Turner is fourth. Henderson is 51st. Only one of them is the consensus best basestealer of all time.

Efficiency is great. Perfection is even better. But sometimes perfection leaves you wanting more.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Doug Lampertmember
7 months ago

I love this article, but as I’m not getting any streaming services, I’m not sure what lesson to take from last month’s Ted Lasso.

Oneearmember
7 months ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

No one can tell you or Apple will sue them for IP violations which appear in the fine text every time you click “accept.”