Saturday, December 9, 2017

Dee Gordon's 68 Steals: Speedsters, Sluggers, and a New Approach to Batting Order

Much as he is often praised for stealing bases (and for many other aspects of his game), Dee Gordon is also often disparaged for failing to steal bases. His 60 steals in 2017 led the major leagues—but so did the sixteen times he was caught stealing. Most baseball authorities in recent years have been of the view that, for base stealing to be worthwhile, a runner must be successful at least 70-75% of the time; by those standards (and I don’t say I agree with them), Dee’s 2017 percentage of 78% rates as good rather than great.

But Dee’s base stealing in 2017 didn’t result in just 60 extra bases; it resulted in 68. Eight times during the season the catcher’s throw to second was sufficiently wild that Dee ended up taking an extra base in the error. Those extra bases, of course, are scored as errors, not credited to the runner. I’m not aware of such errors being recorded anywhere as a statistic in connection with individual runners (though I wish such statistics existed). To get the number in Dee’s case, you have to watch a reel of all 60 of his steals on YouTube, and count the number of times it happens; 13% of the time, Dee gets to third base when he steals second. You can also see how often the catcher fumbles with the ball and never gets off a throw. There are a lot of those too; clearly having Dee on the base paths makes catchers nervous.

What’s particularly interesting about those 8 extra bases is how they compare with Billy Hamilton’s numbers. Hamilton stole 59 bases—but only twice did he reach third on an error after stealing second. Why so many more errors when Dee was running? Might there be slight differences in their styles—feints or distractions that Dee has perfected, which have the effect of making catchers more jittery? Perhaps, but it seems to me that the answer is more likely to be found by looking at who was batting behind Gordon and Hamilton.

In 2017 Hamilton batted ahead of various players, many of them towards the bottom of the batting order; the most imposing hitter to bat behind him with any frequency was Zack Cozart (63 runs batted in, 24 home runs). Solid numbers, but they pale beside Giancarlo Stanton’s 132 RBIs and 59 home runs; in a managing stroke of genius, Don Mattingly moved then-slumping slugger Stanton to second in the batting order June 11, and he batted behind Gordon for most of the season. It’s hard not to think that the combination of tremendous speed at first and tremendous power at the plate made catchers particularly nervous, and hard not to conclude that such nervousness would lead to more errors when the catcher has to make a quick throw to second. Having Stanton bat behind him almost certainly worked to Gordon’s advantage, both when he stole and when he took an extra base on those errors.

But that’s only the half of it. It’s not just the catcher who’s likely to be made nervous by the combination of great speedster on base and great slugger at the plate. Nervous pitchers are more likely to miss the plate, and that means hitters are more likely to get ahead in the count, and then get a fat pitch to hit. Moreover, pitchers are likely to throw more fastballs when a speedster such as Gordon is on base; fastballs give the catcher a better chance than would a curve ball to throw the runner out at second. But a slugger such as Stanton loves to hit fastballs; in this way too, having Gordon on base makes it more likely Stanton will get a pitch he can hit out of the park. (I’m indebted to my son Dominic for these points about pitchers and batters.)

What will happen to Stanton’s numbers next season? Stanton hit a homer every 2.69 games this year; previously that number was one homer every 3.69 games. As Neil Payne has pointed out today in his post on Five Thirty Eight (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-much-should-we-fear-giancarlo-stanton-in-pinstripes/), simply on the basis of the regress-to-the-mean principle one would have to expect a 2018 less spectacular than Stanton’s 2017 season (even given that Yankee Stadium is a more hitter-friendly park than Marlins’ Park). But there are other factors involved too. For a change, Stanton enjoyed an injury-free season in 2017. He also changed his stance. But batting behind speedster Gordon may well have played as big a part as anything. Before the change Stanton was batting .262; he had hit 11 homers in 62 games—an average of one every 5.6 games. After the switch he hit 47 homers—an average of one every 2.1 games. Just as Stanton helped Gordon get further on the base paths, Gordon helped Stanton get more hits, and more homers.

As of now, the Yankees don’t have a speedster in their lineup; there is no one they could slot into their batting order ahead of Stanton who would have anywhere near the same effect as Gordon. Unless they acquire such a player (and there are not many of them out there), it’s hard not to think there’s one more reason a decline in Stanton’s performance in 2018 is likely. The Mariners, on the other hand—alone of all major league clubs—now have two speedsters and two sluggers in their everyday lineup. Jean Segura has averaged 29 stolen bases the past five seasons. And Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz are of course among the game’s top sluggers. Conventional baseball wisdom would suggest batting Cano and Cruz one behind the other at 3 and 4 in the order (as they were in 2017). The Stanton-Gordon story of 2017, however, suggests that the Mariners might do much better by alternating speedster and slugger: Gordon-Cano-Segura-Cruz (or Segura-Cano-Gordon-Cruz).

One thing is sure: there was just a one-in-29 chance that my favorite baseball player would be traded to the team nearest me geographically, and it happened this week. I’m a happy baseball fan, and I’ll be making a trip or three from Nanaimo to Seattle next season!

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