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Living and Dying with the Running Game

May 3, 2011

Having now watched the man manage the Jays through a month that was, in turns, both entertaining and frustrating, and altogether merging to middling, we now have – believe we have – the book on neophyte skipper John Farrell. Including Sunday`s 5-2 loss to the New York Yankees, the Blue Jays now sit with a record of 13 wins against 15 losses, somewhat below.500, but around where many pundits believed this year’s team would end up.

Not to take debits where they aren’t due, but supposed semi-ace Brandon Morrow has only made two starts due to a mysterious late Spring injury termed as inflammation of the right forearm. Offseason pickup and supposed catalyst, Rajai Davis has appeared in only 10 games, missing the other 18 due to an ankle injury sustained on Opening Night, in a botched pickoff attempt that set off a long-winding and long-winded rumination on Farrell`s increased use of the running game in the Blue Jays offense and the development of proxy methods to measure its effectiveness. Farrell has not made any secret of his interest in expanding the Jays’ use of basepath terror as a weapon of mass confusion for opposing pitching staffs, being quoted in a recent article brushing off a costly caught stealing by saying: “We’ve had a lot of success as far as running the bases go, and you’re not going to be right 100 percent of the time…We don’t want our aggressiveness curtailed for the fact that we gambled wrong in that situation. For us to really generate and to continue to cause a little disruption, that’s a part of our offense, and we have to stick by that.”

Back in the dwindling winter before the onset of the 2004 season, writing for Baseball Prospectus, Joe Sheehan wrote:

“Think of stealing bases as a bit like one of those commercials for breakfast cereal. You know, the ones where they say it takes 14 bowls of Cereal X to equal what you get from one bowl of Cereal Y. In this case, it takes three stolen bases to equal one walk of shame back to the dugout. If you’re stealing at less than a 75% success rate, you’re better off never going at all.”

That number will vary depending on in-game situations adding or subtracting leverage or import to that equation, but the thinking behind that cut-off point remains more or less the same over seven years later. Having successfully stolen 33 bases in 43 attempts (76.7% success rate) means the Jays are above water so far. Of course, this does not account for the claw-full of steals credited on what were essentially busted pickoff plays, such as the one mentioned above with Rajai. In this play, after singling in the Jays’ first 2011 at-bat, Davis was promptly caught leaning before a pitch was made to the second batter, Yunel Escobar. Davis turned the dirty dancing into a rundown, making it safely back to first only by dint of a poor throw from the Twins’ second sacker. According to baseball-reference.com, Jays baserunners have been picked off six times so far (league average thus far is five), with one extra that was marked as a caught stealing, as the runner was only tagged trying to get to the next base after his return to the original was cut off.

Further cutting into the Jays’ running game has been their frequent inability to judge when best to go for an extra base, being cut down a surprising 11 times thus far, third most in the American League. This sorry stat is sadly mirrored by their lowly success rate in taking an extra base on hit in a mere 33% of opportunities, below the league-wide mark of 39%.

I could re-hash more numbers, but they are mostly affected by a limited sample and they are mostly available on baseball-reference.com or on more mainstream sites. What I’d like to do instead is spend some time looking over the bastard stepchild of running metrics, the in-game events that even that paragon of baseball statistics, everyone’s favourite online reference, deems beneath its all-seeing eye. I’m talking about the pick-off. We only make note of the times they add an out to a pitcher’s tally, such as the three times when opposing runners were picked off by Jays’ hurlers as well as those six lost outs by wandering Jay baserunners. Sticking only with the times when a Jay was on base, nowhere else but in this spot can you learn that the Jays’ were not picked off on 156 different pickoff attempts against. That’s right – I scoured through the pitch-by-pitch play-by-play of every game in April and found each mention of a pickoff or pickoff attempt. There were 162 in total from 105 combined plate appearances.

Now, I have both a job and a wife, so I have not repeated the exercise for other teams, meaning we’ll have to look at those numbers without context. I don’t know if 162 pickoff throws over 28 games is a lot, average or few. I don’t know if being caught six times in 162 throws is to be expected or not. But what we can do is look at how the man waiting patiently in the batter’s box was able to perform while both he and the pitcher are distracted from their core duties by the presence of a friendly baserunner. Not including Sunday’s game, every single Blue Jay who reached first base except for David Cooper (only one occasion by the end of April) was kept honest by a jittery pitcher. Jose Molina was pushed back to first base twice, Juan Rivera on three occasions and J.P. Arencibia once. Considering how often he reaches base – over 50% of all plate appearances – Jose Bautista is the unsurprising leader in pickoff attempts with 20, six more than the runner-up, Yunel Escobar.

The biggest question I faced after spending a few too many hours pouring over this information was how do I analyze this? What can I learn from these pickoffs? How can I differentiate signal to noise in the data?

Tell me what you think:

-          In 13 victories, opposing pitchers attempted 88 pickoff throws on Jays’ baserunners. In 15 losses, those pesky pitchers attempted only 74 pickoff plays. What I am not controlling for here are the number of baserunners in each case. There is a clear selection bias in these numbers, as the Jays – like all teams – tend to have more baserunners to force back when they are scoring runs than they have when they are not scoring.

-          In innings wherein which opposing pitchers attempt to pickoff Blue Jay runners, the Jays have scored 54 runs. Another thing I did not control for is how many runs they scored in innings where they had baserunners, but pickoffs were not attempted, or compared to scoring ability in innings with runners but no pickoffs.

-          Batters in the box when pickoffs were attempted have 23 hits in 92 at bats, plus seven walks and a sacrifice bunt. Two home runs. That works out to a batting line of .250/.300/.380. Compare:

Situation Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Percentage
All Plate Appearances .256 .329 .412
With men on .270 .348 .427
With RISP .247 .342 .388
After pickoff attempts .250 .300 .380

As could be expected, the Jays hit better when ducks are already on the pond. Makes sense, right? The pitcher is obviously not at his sharpest if he’s already allowed one or more base-runners. The drop in slugging percentage with runners in scoring position (RISP) is odd, but it is something I expect we’ll see change over the coming months. Odder still is the cratered batting line when pickoff throws are made. It seems that the occasions where the pitcher gets rattled (A.J. Burnett, anyone?) get a lot made of them, but they are few and far between. I plan to continue monitoring these events to see if and how these numbers evolve.

-          Jose Bautista. Can I really write a blog post without finding some odd but exciting factoid about the man with the most interesting facial hair in the world? Nope. In addition to the 20 pickoff throws on a dancing Bautista – he represents half of the Jays’ six runners picked off – seven of Bautista’s plate appearances were interrupted by throws to the bag (I guess there’s less danger for a pitcher to throw over to 1st base than to pitch to Bautista). In those seven plate appearances, he flew out to CF once. Another time, he earned a walk. He also hit three singles, one double and one home run. 5-6, with a walk. Small sample size be damned! While the Jays as a team are hitting .250/.300/.380, Jose Bautista is putting up a line of .833/.857/1.500.

-          So that’s our lesson for the day – if a runner (Davis, Escobar, Jack Layton, whatever) is on base when Bautista steps to the plate, he should be dancing. The pitcher is already sweating – might as well make him drip.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2011 1:19 pm

    Don’t forget teams will steal more with a small lead than if they are several runs behind, therefor I would expect more pick-off throws in games that the Jays won.

    An explanation for the lower OBA when pick-off attempts are made may be due to that pitchers are more apt to make a pick-off attempt when they are ahead in the count. That is just a guess, but it seems quite possible.

    • May 3, 2011 10:34 pm

      John – thanks for commenting. I don’t know that teams steal more when they are ahead by a small amount more so than they run more when run expectancy is lower. As for the other point, I did not include that in my controls, but will add that to my number crunching moving forward. Worth finding out.

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