Stolen Bases And Rex Hudler

Last night on the Kansas City Royals game, announcers Rex Hudler and Ryan Lefebvre briefly discussed Sabermetrics and the stolen base. I want to make a point about what they were saying without (I hope) insulting either one of them. Ryan is a friend, and while I don’t know Rex I hear that he’s a very nice guy.

Ryan made the point that there are studies that seem to show that the stolen base is not as effective or important as people used to assume. Ryan will tell you he’s not especially a fan of some of these advanced statistics, but he’s also an open-minded guy and we have had some fun discussions and disagreements through the years. Anyway, I think he was simply making the fair point that while statistics may show that attempting steals is not necessarily a prudent play -- and he concedes that this absolutely might be true -- he wonders if maybe the statistics do not pick up on some of the psychological force of the stolen base and its threat, such as how it can distract a pitcher and stress out a defense.

This could make for a very interesting discussion. Unfortunately, Rex Hudler took it in kind of a different direction.

First, Rex asked if these studies about the stolen base not being as effective or important were “Sabermetrics.” I don’t know, I found that kind of funny. He said it as if “Sabermetrics” is actually a person. Ryan just said that there were such studies out there that questioned the value of the stolen base. At the time, I should add, the Royals had runners on first and third.

Then Rex Hudler basically said this: If the guy on first (Alcides Escobar) stole second base, he would be able to score on a single. If he stayed at first base, he would not be able to score on a single. But if he made it to second base, he would be able to score on a single. Which he would not be able to do if he stayed on first base. So it would be better if he was on second base. That way he would be able to score on a single. He couldn’t do that on first base. But he could on second base.

“What’s wrong with that?” he asked.

Thus endeth the dissection of stolen bases.

I do not bring this up to knock Rex Hudler but to say that this often -- way too often -- is the level of argument among the old school. And, I really wish, it wasn’t like that. Old school doesn’t have to be wrong. Old school doesn’t have to be clueless. There are many, many sabermetric thoughts about the stolen base -- most of them weighing the value of an extra base against the possibility of an out* -- but best I can tell not one of them is, “A runner on first base is better than a runner on second base.”

*Most studies I’ve seen suggest the break even point is about 70%. Rex Hudler was successful 71% of the time.

This is why I wish former ballplayers and managers and people around the game would learn a little bit about Sabermetrics -- not so they would AGREE with various arguments but so they would know what the point is and could make interesting and strong arguments why they DISAGREE. That’s what makes for interesting conversation.

I love compelling arguments for things I totally disagree with … I think those sorts of arguments open the mind. If you want to quote a pitcher or two saying that they really were distracted by a fast runner on first and often made bad pitches because of it, please do. That would be interesting. If you want to say that being a running team keeps players heads in the game, it keeps them aggressive, and you would sacrifice a few extra outs for that aggression, hey, go for it. If you want to say that the stolen base is exciting, and fans like it exciting, and in the end you are playing for fans, make that argument. LIke I say, I don’t care if it’s an argument I disagree with. I do care if it’s an argument against nothing.

And the “stolen bases put runners in scoring position” is an argument against nothing. It is like saying the sacrifice bunt is good because it moves the runner to second and then the next guy singles him home. It is like saying the intentional walk is good because the next guy hits it into a double play. It’s like saying asking a woman out in a bar is good because you have a great date afterward and then get married and stay married for 50 years. The best case scenario isn’t an argument. It’s just the best case scenario.

So that’s my plea to Rex and some other baseball folks out there. Just learn a little something about Sabermetrics. Maybe it’s stupid, yucky math stuff figured by the pajama-wearing nerds and it sucks the heart and soul out to the game. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s something in there to talk about.