The Red Sox Have Been the Best Base-Stealing Team Ever

Yesterday morning, I published a post on the main site detailing Jose Altuve’s base-running woes of the past two seasons. Within that post, I noted that Altuve is a good base-stealer, citing his success rate on stolen-base attempts this season. “Among the 71 players with at least five steal attempts this year, Altuve’s success rate ranks third,” I said. The stat would’ve been cooler if I could’ve said he was first, but I couldn’t say that, because there were two Red Sox players in front of him.

Most efficient base-stealers, 2016 (min. five steal attempts)

  1. Mookie Betts, 100% (11-for-11)
  2. Jackie Bradley, Jr., 100% (5-for-5)
  3. Jose Altuve, 95% (18-for-19)

Two Red Sox at the top! Bradley and Betts are a combined 16-for-16 on steal attempts this year. Interesting! Bradley has still never been thrown out on a steal attempt in his major-league career, about which fact I wrote in the offseason. He’s now eight successful steals away from tying the all-time record of consecutive successes to begin a career. And then Betts might just be the best all-around base-runner in the game.

So, those two have been perfect at stealing bases, but as I scrolled down the list of base stealing efficiency, something caught my eye. In 11th place is Hanley Ramirez — Hanley Ramirez! — who’s 5-for-6. Xander Bogaerts is four spots behind him, at 9-for-11. Two spots behind Bogaerts is Dustin Pedroia, 4-for-5.

It’s the whole team! But is it really the whole team? I made a new spreadsheet of team base-stealing efficiency. I think this plot is pretty fun:

TeamSBA_vs_SB

No one is even close to Boston’s place on the x-axis — the next-most efficient team clocks in barely above 80%. In terms of efficiency, the gap between the Red Sox and second place is the same as the gap between second and 13th. The success rate would likely be lower if they ran more often, but they’ve still attempted an above-average rate of steals, and due to their efficiency, they’ve extracted significantly more value from their steal attempts than any other team in the league, despite having stolen 11 fewer than the league leader.

I wondered where this rate of efficiency might rank historically, so I grabbed stolen-base attempts and successes for every team since 1961. The table:

The 10 Most Efficient Base-Stealing Teams, 1961-Present
Year Team SB CS SBA SB%
2016 Red Sox 45 6 51 88.2%
2007 Phillies 138 19 157 87.9%
2013 Red Sox 123 19 142 86.6%
2008 Phillies 136 25 161 84.5%
1994 Orioles 69 13 82 84.1%
2010 Phillies 108 21 129 83.7%
2012 Phillies 116 23 139 83.5%
2013 Royals 153 32 185 82.7%
1995 Blue Jays 75 16 91 82.4%
1975 Reds 168 36 204 82.4%

We’re more than one-third of the way through the season, and the Red Sox are running the highest stolen-base success rate the modern era’s ever seen. Also, you’ll note the 2013 Red Sox checked in at a fairly historic rate. Since the beginning of that 2013 season, the Red Sox have been baseball’s most efficient base-stealing team (79.7% success rate). This year, they’ve just ramped it up.

When I wrote the Bradley post in the offseason, I included a John Farrell quote from 2014 where he cited the importance of quality over quantity:

“I think we always look at it as opportunistic,” Farrell said. “We had a high success rate – and success rate is probably the No. 1 thing. Do we have a 50-plus-stolen base guy? No. But can we take advantage of some situations with an average-running-speed type of player, well, we’ve proven that.

“The beauty of it all is that if a guy hasn’t been a base-stealing threat in his career, he knows he may be put in motion at times because of the homework our entire staff does. So it comes down to success rate.”

Maybe the most interesting thing about this is that the Red Sox don’t have a Billy Hamilton or a Dee Gordon or a Jonathan Villar. Those late aughts Phillies teams that populate the table above had a couple true burners — Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino were perennial 40-steal candidates. This team’s got Bradley, who was never much of a base-stealer in the minors. Bogaerts was never anything of a base-stealer in the minors. Pedroia’s always had success in the past, but he wouldn’t be mistaken for a burner. Maybe the planets have just aligned this year, but then there’s 2013, too, and it sure seems like maybe the Red Sox know how to get the most out of their stolen base attempts.

Going back to that Bradley post one more time, I looked at the batteries against which he’d attempted steals, and found some evidence to suggest that perhaps he was choosing the batteries against which he’d recorded his attempts very carefully. In other words, the distribution of his steal attempts was more heavily weighted toward pitchers who were slow to the plate and catchers with weak arms than the average base-stealer. Only going when he felt he had an edge. The trend seems to have continued this year — he’s twice stolen against a Russell Martin battery, and Martin’s been dreadful against the run game this year, potentially due to the neck injury that’s lingered for most of the season. Another came against a George KontosTrevor Brown battery, both of whom score receive below-average marks by BaseballProspectus’ SRAA model. Same with the Ivan NovaAustin Romine battery. Bradley continues to prey on weak opponent batteries.

A perusal of Bogaerts’ stolen-base log reveals similar tendencies. Two against Ubaldo Jimenez, the easiest pitcher to steal against in 2015. Two more with Tyler Flowers behind the dish, one of the most exploitable catchers in baseball the last couple years. He’s also had steals against Michael Pineda and Julio Teheran — both impressive feats — but a cursory glance of his steals shows more weak batteries than strong.

Of course, all teams are aiming to take advantage of weak batteries — it’s not like the Red Sox are the first to think of this — but my gut tells me what Farrell’s quote from 2014 seems to indicate that perhaps the Red Sox place a greater emphasis than most on the matchup when it comes to choosing their stolen-base attempts. This isn’t something we can tell for sure; what we can tell for sure is whatever Boston’s doing on the bases this year, it’s working.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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southie
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southie

Fangraphs by-law 1.1 states ‘Any team containing Mookie Betts will hereby be considered the best at everything’.

Concerned Reader John
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Concerned Reader John

Counterpoint:

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/this-cubs-lineup-might-be-the-most-disciplined-lineup-ever/

by August Fagerstrom

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/another-thing-at-which-these-cubs-are-best/

by August Fagerstrom

I didn’t even have to look beyond the homepage to find these articles.

southie
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southie

Fangraphs by-law 1.2 states ‘Any team managed by Theo Epstein should be praised mightily in hopes of getting hired.’

Malcolm-Jamal Hegyes
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Malcolm-Jamal Hegyes

Fangraphs by-law 1.0 states ‘Any team with regular trolls will have a minimum number of articles (TBD) in order to maximize website clicks.”

Grammer Police
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Grammer Police

Mookie is the best ever at hitting .291 year in year out.

Darren_Dreadfort
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Darren_Dreadfort

Why did you stop posting his OPS in every Red Sox article?