Are the Nationals trying to steal too many bases?

The Washington Nationals box score last night was nothing out of the ordinary.


The Nationals had a lot of hits, left a lot of runners on, and quite frankly the team got outscored. Unfortunately another eye-sore which I have seen pop-up all to often in the Nats box score showed up yet again yesterday as Nyjer Morgan got caught stealing for the seventeenth time this season (6th as a National).

The Nationals have had relatively successful offensive output in some categories this season. They are fifth in the majors in on base percentage (.348), and they are tied for sixth in the league in batting average (.268). Yet the Nationals are only 18th in runs, and 30th in wins.

It is clear that the Nationals have been unable to turn their base runners into runs scored and wins...


In fact, the Nationals are arguably the leagues most underperforming team in the standings. The Nationals have a -7.1 Pythagorean O/U, and that’s after an 8 game winning streak. That means that according to the Baseball Pythagorean Theorem the Nats should have seven more wins than they have now based on the runs they have scored and the runs they have allowed. To put that in perspective, the team with the second worst Pyth O/U are the Blue Jayres, almost 2 wins below us at -5.6. Only three teams have a -5 Pyth O/U, and none have a -4. To put it simply, the Nats are in a class of their own.

That number might be even higher however if the Nationals just scored runs at the rate they get on base.

This brings me back to the box score.

The Nationals have been caught stealing 32 times this season. That number is good for eighth most in the league, however every team that has more runners caught stealing than the Nationals have significantly more successful steals than the Nats. This is the case for the Tampa Rays, who have 156 steals to 37 failed attempts, and the L.A. Angels who have 114 steals to 44 failed attempts. The Nationals only have 56 stolen bases.

That number 56 is 24th in the league, and their stolen base percentage is second to last at 63.4 percent. The Cubs, the only team with a worse stolen base percentage, have a 63.1 mark, but they have 23 less attempts.

Those stolen base numbers get even worse when you realize that Nyjer Morgan has considerably raised them in the 36 games he’s been a National. Without Morgan’s 20 steals to six failed attempts, the Nationals would have 36 stolen bases to 25 times caught stealing. That’s an abysmal 59 percent.

That success rate is abnormally high for Morgan as well. In his career before Washington he only stole bases at a 63 percent success rate, as opposed to the 77 percnet rate he has stolen with the Nationals during a hot streak that has seen him bat 63 points above his career average as well.

Sabermatricians have long claimed the stolen base and other small ball tactics aren’t efficient means of scoring runs, and that teams that rely on them will never be successful. Essentially they’ve argued that an unsuccessful steal is more discouraging to scoring a run than a successful steal is to promote it.

Essentially, stealing bases help, but getting caught stealing is way worse.

Bill James (the man who invented Sabermetrics) went as far to say in his 1983 Baseball Abstract, “Nobody ever has (won a pennant by stealing bases), nobody ever will. It cannot be done. It is an argument that cannot be won, a position that cannot be defended.”

He made this argument after looking back at teams from 1969 to the date of the books publication and compared them head to head. Teams that had a better slugging percentage vs. teams that had more stolen bases won time after time. He also found that teams finishing higher in steals had an average worse finish than teams finishing higher in any other major offensive category.

These findings of course weren’t necessarily because steals hurt he ball club, but teams that steal many bases, attempt to steal many bases, and therefor get caught more often, stripping them chances to earn a run.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is Rickey Henderson. Baseball Prospectus took a look at the career of the all time leading base stealer in their book, Baseball Between the Numbers, and found that the stolen base king’s steal total did not significantly contribute more wins for his team than any other player in history. This is because the base stealer also holds the record for most times caught stealing.

It seems then that the Nationals are doing themselves a disservice by attempting to swipe so many bags, especially if they are not being successful. The club is built to be successful based on major sabermetric principles. They have a strong on base percentage as a club (.348) , and they have players who can slug for power in Willingham (1.009 OPS), Zimmerman (.906 OPS), and Dunn (.975).

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