Stolen bases aren’t a priority in today’s game. Catchers and pitchers have taken to strategies that slow runners down as teams and players have stressed the value of baserunners and emphasized the risk and downside of making outs. When everybody is hitting home runs, getting from first to second matters a little bit less. But even accounting for that strategic shift, what the Cardinals are doing in preventing steals is impressive.
With 11 games to go, the Cardinals have given up 32 stolen bases. In the last 50 years, the lowest team stolen base total allowed was 31 by the Cincinnati Reds in 1971. Since the advent of the designated hitter in 1973, the 2005 Cardinals have the fewest stolen bases surrendered in a single season with 32.
This is not a new phenomenon for St. Louis. Since 2005, the Cardinals have boasted the lowest stolen base total six times; they’ve finished with the second-lowest seven times, fifth-lowest in 2006, and 17th-lowest in 2016.
As one might expect, the Cardinals have the fewest steals against them since 2005 when Yadier Molina took over full-time catching duties. Before getting to those numbers, though, here’s a graph showing team wild pitches plus passed balls since 2005.
The Cardinals are in first place, and about 200 wild pitches plus passed balls below average. Onto the stolen base numbers. First, stolen base percentage:
Maybe it’s not a surprise that Molina’s Cardinals have thrown out a higher percentage of base runners. He’s kind of known for that. Now, here are the attempts:
The Cardinals have the lowest total by about 400 attempts and are nearly 700 attempts below average. As to the number allowed:
Here, the Cardinals are more than 300 steals below the second-best team and are nearly 600 steals below average. I’m not sure quite what to make of that ridiculously low total compared to the rest of baseball. They are more than three standard deviations away from the average. Most teams are going to have good and bad catchers over the course of 15 seasons; the Cardinals have had just one great one.
How many extra runs are we talking about? 25? 50? 100? Has Molina been worth another 10 wins over the course of his career that he’s not getting credit for? Due to the chances of getting caught and the potential runs taken off the board, a stolen base attempt is barely a positive offensively. Even preventing 700 attempts might only be worth 25 runs or so compared to average. But it’s hard to square that with the 600 fewer steals, which might be worth four times the amount of the prevented attempts.
A lot is made of Molina’s intangibles when it comes to assessing his career. Here, we have something very tangible, yet not fully accounted for by his WAR. Catching is hard. Putting everything a catcher does into WAR is incredibly hard. What Yadier Molina has done to the run game over these two decades has been of great value to the Cardinals. The graphs above should help put his career in perspective.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.