Focusing On The Wrong Problem

Buster Olney, in his column for ESPN today, writes about how Spring Training results may be meaningless for most of the teams in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, but not so much for the newish manager and general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Olney then goes on to mention the following:

Manager Kirk Gibson has been drilling the team relentlessly. For example, the team has practiced pickoff moves over and over, in an effort to slow opponents on the bases.

It’s true that the Diamondbacks allowed the ninth most stolen bases in the league and had the eighth worst caught stealing rate as well, but both World Series teams, as well as the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, allowed more stolen bases, and from among those teams only the Giants had a better caught stealing rate.

A far bigger problem for the Diamondbacks was allowing more home runs than any other team in baseball last year.  It also doesn’t help matters when opposing hitters are putting up the second highest OPS in the league against their pitching staff or a bullpen that had the second worst record in the league for holding leads of three or less runs.

While any reasonable person would see those other issues as far more pressing than giving up too many stolen bases, which have far less of a run value than people imagine, if you’re going to focus on catching attempted steals, are there better ways to do it than focusing only on pickoffs?

A study by Jeremy Greenhouse of The Baseball Analysts shows that while pitchers play a far greater role in stopping base runners than their battery companions, they do so through more than merely checking the runner when he reaches first base.  Pitch velocity and location play a vital role.

Consider this graph of the success rate of stolen base attempts from 2008-2009 based on the pitch location:


And this chart comparing velocity to stolen base success rate:


Despite these results, consistently pitching  a steady diet of fastballs high in the strike zone with runners on probably isn’t a recipe for success.  There’s no discernible connection between success at throwing out runners and the total number of runs a team allows.  For what it’s worth, I think the Yankees and Red Sox have their priorities straight when it comes to base runners.  Don’t ignore them completely, but focus primarily on the batter because in all likelihood he’s going to hurt you far more than any speedster on base will.