The stolen base just isn’t sexy anymore.
As the launch angle revolution has taken root and baseball has evolved into a game more about hitting dingers and less about keeping the line moving, larceny on the bases has seemingly fallen out of favor.
That doesn’t mean the steal still doesn’t have it’s place in the game. Especially in Kansas City. And especially in the second half of the season.
Just like old times, speed in general and stolen bases specifically are working to their advantage.
There have been myriad studies done on the stolen base and the success rate that is deemed the break-even point. It fluctuates from season to season and depends on a number of factors, but it generally resides around the 70 percent rate, give or take a few points. Using an equation developed by Bradley Woodrum at Fangraphs in a quest to more accurately peg the break-even rate, the Royals point for stolen base success rate so far this year is at 67.3 percent.
This is positive news, given they are successful around 74 percent of the time. That means the Royals are using the stolen base to advance their offense, which is a very good thing, especially given their first half struggles to generate runs.
For the Royals this year, the steal is largely limited to a couple of players. You know that Whit Merrifield is in the mix to lead the league for the second consecutive season. Alex Gordon has been running more, reaching double digits in swipes for the first time since 2014. Alcides Escobar hasn’t looked the same on the bases since he was taken out by Brett Lawrie at second base on a double play attempt back in 2015, but he’s picking his spots much better and is enjoying a strong success rate this year. Those three have experienced nice success on the bases, but as you are assuredly aware, those three were mainstays in the lineup during the first half of the year while the offense was sputtering.
The most important thief was added to the roster in mid-June, although he didn’t ratchet up the stolen base pressure until the second half. Now, they’re running wild.
The addition of Adalberto Mondesi to the everyday lineup has been a high-octane speed injection the Royals desperately needed.
The Royals like to run, and since the All-Star break, Mondesi has formed one half of a dynamic duo of larceny along with Merrifield. Through games Sunday, they are the sixth-most aggressive team in baseball when it comes to taking advantage of their stolen base opportunities. (A stolen base opportunity is defined by Baseball Reference as a plate appearance where a runner was on first or second with the next base open.) By dividing a club’s number of stolen base attempts (adding successful swipes and caught stealing) by their number of opportunities, we can get a rate of how frequently they look to take advantage. This year the league average team is running in 5.12 percent of their stolen base opportunities and is successful 72 percent of the time. Currently, there are nine teams running in greater than six percent of their opportunities.
Nearly every team at the top of the stolen base opportunity percentage leader board is converting those attempts into a solid success rate. The Royals have moved up the leaderboard in the second half, powered by Mondesi, who has been running with abandon.
Individually, there are 12 players who have attempted to swipe a bag in over 20 percent of their opportunities. It won’t surprise you those players are the current speed merchants in today’s game. All of these burners – save two – have stolen more than 20 bags. However, there is a massive gap between the player at the top of the leaderboard and the number two spot.
Mondesi is running as if his career depended upon it, lapping the field by 15 percentage points in taking advantage of his opportunities to steal. Fifteen percentage points! It’s an astonishing rate, even if his sample size is decidedly smaller than most of the group represented above. He’s stealing almost half the time he’s on base with the next bag open. (The list includes all players with more than 200 plate appearances. That seemingly arbitrary number was selected to include Mondesi, who has 231 PAs through games Sunday.) Merrifield, for reference, is 19th in baseball in utilizing his stolen base opportunities, running 16 percent of the time.
In the first half of the season, the Royals scored an average of 3.5 runs per game. In the second half, they’ve upped their offense and their running game, plating 4.3 R/G. The Process 2.0 is still just getting started, but it’s easy to feel better about what we’ve seen since the All-Star Break. It’s not a coincidence that this run of moderate late season success has come as the team jettisoned some veterans and turned their attention to youth. And speed.
Mondesi is the primary motor of the moment. He’s hitting the ball hard, playing strong defense and running wild on the bases. This is the glimpse of the future we were hoping we would find in 2018. It’s amazing what some regular playing time and a little confidence can do. Along with his partner in base stealing crime, Merrifield, these speedsters are creating a helluva threat at the top of the order. Speed doesn’t slump and if the table setters at the top of the order can continue to reach base, the near future suddenly doesn’t look so bleak.