Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Bourjos should aim for different goal from stolen bases

According to Rick Hummel, new Cardinal Peter Bourjos is aiming to steal a bunch of bases this year:

“I’d like to be in the 40s,” said Bourjos, referring to his potential stolen-base total, as he was interviewed at the Cardinals’ Winter Warm-Up, which wrapped up Monday.

“It’s all about how you’re swinging the bat,” said Bourjos.

“In the minor leagues, I had a season where I stole 50 bags and I had a lot of seasons where I was in the 30s. So, in the 30-to-40 range would be nice.”

We’re all for setting (and reaching!) goals. Total stolen bases, however, is a dubious measurement. Unless your goal is ultimately to steal bases, rather than, say, produce more runs, simply counting thefts without reference to their context — like how much win-probability they  add — can actually have undesirable side effects. Don’t believe us? Check out the teams that topped the NL in raw stolen bases last year: Milwaukee (142), San Diego (118) and New York (114). All three teams scored below league average runs per game. The team with the fewest steals? You guessed it, the Cardinals, with a mere 45.

No one denies that Bourjos is fast. But his career stolen-base rate — 76%  – isn’t exactly Rainesian (NL average in 2013 was 72%). Moreover, stolen bases simply don’t help a team score as much as their reputation leads people to believe. For example, Bourjos stole six bases last year, but their sum total win-probability added was a mere .308. And that’s to say nothing of the cost. For his career, the net win-probability added by his 54 stolen base attempts — which includes caught stealing — is .287. To put that into perspective, that’s less than an eighth-inning David Freese RBI single.

Year SB CS WPA
2010 10 3 .016
2011 22 9 -.030
2012 3 1 -.007
2013 6 0 .308
41 13 .287

When he set his career high of 22 steals in 2011, Bourjos actually cost his team win probability. Seen in this way, a plan to steal more bases is like the company that loses money on every sale but plans to make it up in volume.

Given that Bourjos projects to get on base at a below-average rate (despite a career OBP of .306, estimates range from .309 to .331), he’s better advised to focus on getting on base in the first place. For a player who professes that “I’ve never walked so I can’t really say I’m an on-base guy” and that “I don’t go up trying to walk because I don’t think it’s one of my strengths,”  his speed better serves him in his effort to improve his batting average on balls in play, which, if he eliminates walks from his game, is going to be the only lever he can use to boost his on-base percentage.

Bourjos noted that Albert Pujols told him that St. Louis “fans understand the game.” Assuming that the locals comprehend the folly of an offensive strategy that focuses on total stolen bases, the darling of the Sabermetric set may be in for a rude welcome if he fails to consider his running game in the bigger picture. The primary reason so many people loved the acquisition of Bourjos was because his speed served the ends of better defense, not more stolen bases. At the team prepares for camp, perhaps someone in the organization this spring can help the promising outfielder put some context around his quest to steal bases. We suggest a slightly different goal:  Add positive WPA with his stolen base attempts.

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