Imagine sitting at a bar last October and mentally replaying the 2016 Chicago White Sox season. It’s quite possibly the reason you’re at the bar in the first place. You might turn to your friend and ask a simple question, such as “Can you guess who led the team in stolen bases this year?”
Somewhere in a shadowy part of the pub, there might be a spectator who knows the answer. The smart money would be on Adam Eaton or rookie Tim Anderson. Maybe a bet exchanges hands, and this onlooker watches with curiosity. It’s likely a question that would bankrupt an unwitting participant on NBCSN’s Beer Money. Why? Because it’s not Eaton, or Anderson, or any edgy guess like Avisail Garcia.
It’s Todd Frazier, with a grand total of 15.
The corner slugger brought in to add thump to the line up just happened to be the de facto leader in team steals. Adam Eaton, a player who had two minor-league seasons of 30+ stolen bases, finished with just 14. He would never crack 20 swipes as a member of Chicago, despite featuring the fastest raw speed of the roster during most of his tenure.
Maybe it was wishful thinking, but after a massive rebuild took shape the following offseason, 2017 looked to be a testing grounds for Chicago base stealers. There was no reason not to push the envelope when lowered opportunity cost was met with an arsenal of speed in Anderson, Adam Engel, and Yoan Moncada.
Instead, 2017’s stolen base leader failed to break the seemingly elusive glass ceiling of 15. Tim Anderson, who had 49 stolen bases at Double-A in 2015, was able to turn in that exact mark over his first full MLB season.
Anderson had an eye-popping success rate of 94-percent (15-for-16), but still failed to even put a two at the front of his season output. Adam Engel, owner of 65 steals in 2015 and 45 across three levels in 2016, didn’t even crack double-digits last season.
Engel was 8-for-9 in attempts. Yolmer Sanchez also finished with eight stolen bags, but had a paltry success rate of 47-percent (8-for-17). Hence, it’s not about advocating for a mindless green light for all Chicago base stealers, but rather recognizing a needed correction for premium runners.
Stolen base totals are invariably a function of opportunity, so it’s certainly notable that the two members of the roster with near 80-grade speed just so happen feature low-OBP profiles. Even so, Engel was underutilized if you consider he had roughly 50 opportunities to run but was only deployed about 20-percent of the time.
Tim Anderson’s deployment rate was even lower, once you eliminate his home runs, triples, and apply a reasonable estimation of an open base in front of him
The situation will largely dictate whether the calculus on a stolen base attempt makes sense. Greg Rybarczyk of FanGraphs wrote an interesting piece in 2013 that posited a move to second with no outs is advantageous if a runner has a SB% over 73-percent.
That said, a coach’s call or a runner’s own discretion on whether to run is ultimately more of an art than a science. Nuances such as catcher pop time, pitcher’s time-to-plate, and nature of the pitch itself are all relevant variables.
This is in addition to any competitive advantage a runner can possess either through fast-twitch movements, recognition of these variables, or elite foot speed.
A Declining Trend
Vince Coleman was brought in for the 2015 and 2016 seasons as a base stealing guru on a mission. Coleman promised sunnier skies ahead, planning to infuse base stealing technique across an organization overflowing with nitrous level speed.
Micah Johnson, the MiLB leader with 84 steals in 2013, was pegged to be one potential beneficiary of the Coleman movement. While a low-OBP and injuries hampered Johnson, he still managed just three stolen bases over 36 games (a season adjusted total of 13) in 2015.
Only Alexei Ramirez has broken the 30 mark with Chicago since Pierre’s exit. In fact, only three players have managed more than 20 steals in a single season since 2011 (Rios, De Aza, and Ramirez).
In the juiced baseball era, small ball hasn’t exactly been at the forefront but Chicago still lags behind the competition. The club ranked 21st with 0.44 steals per game in 2017, according to team rankings.com.
The White Sox were 15th in 2016, 23rd in 2015, and 20th in 2014, consistently falling in the bottom-third of baseball.
The Los Angeles Angels held the top ratio with a trio of 20-baggers in Cameron Maybin, Mike Trout, and Ben Revere. The Brewers ranked 2nd in 2017, with a balanced output led by Jonathan Villar (23). Meanwhile, third-place Cincinnati was propped up by Billy Hamilton (59).
The White Sox were 24th in stolen base percentage, so it’s not as if they were a high-rate club with lower total outputs, but that’s not the point. The bottom line is that any team with plus-plus speed in Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, and Adam Engel should not be in the bottom-third of the league.
Not to mention, suitable utilization increases the value-add of players who possess speed as their premier tool. How can Engel, Moncada, or Anderson play up in their overall value if a crucial component of their game is being tempered.
Moncada running just five times over 50 games is frankly inexcusable.
It’s possible Rick Renteria didn’t want to turn the budding star loose in attempt to maintain his confidence, but this is the same dugout brain trust that lives and dies with the hapless sacrifice bunt.
It’s confounding to see Chicago attempt to reach the same outcome through an avenue that is not only less efficient but plays less to the skills on the roster.
2018 will feature a full slate of games for Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson, two players with top-of-the-line speed. Luis Robert, arguably faster than both, will be headed stateside. If the White Sox want to find sustained success, they will need to instill a culture in the organization that maximizes the strengths of their personnel.
Every time a player with a 75-percent SB% and plus-plus speed stands idle at first base, the White Sox will be more and more likely to lead baseball in stolen opportunity rather than stolen bases.