Controlling the Running Game Is Overrated

This post isn’t going to be overly long, because the data mostly speaks for itself.

One of the primary traits that scouts look for in a catcher is a strong throwing arm, and catchers who can throw out opposing base stealers are often considered to be good defenders regardless of what else they do behind the plate. And, there’s no question that creating outs and intimidating runners into staying put is a useful skill, and a catcher who can shut down the running game can add value to his team.

However, this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates are proving just how small a part of overall run prevention that throwing out runners actually is. Here are the leaderboards for National League teams in opposing SB/CS:

ARI 21 22 51%
STL 20 13 39%
LAD 36 21 37%
PHI 39 22 36%
SDP 59 25 30%
ATL 40 17 30%
CIN 33 14 30%
SFG 41 17 29%
COL 47 18 28%
LgAvg 41 16 28%
MIA 36 14 28%
MIL 52 17 25%
WSN 37 11 23%
NYM 43 12 22%
HOU 53 14 21%
CHC 53 11 17%
PIT 45 4 8%

The Pirates have thrown out four guys trying to steal all season long, and their CS% is less than half of the next worst team in the NL. Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry have been completely ineffective at throwing out runners, having allowed 41 net steals in the season’s first couple of months.

Despite their complete inability to gun down would-be-thieves, however, the Pirates are allowing just 3.6 runs per game, the third lowest total in the National League. So, despite being about as bad as a Major League team could possibly at this one aspect of defense, the Pirates overall run prevention is actually the strength of their franchise, and the reason the team is still contending for a playoff spot despite an historically bad offense. The story is similar over in the AL, where the Tampa Bay Rays are last in the league in throwing out base stealers (7 CS in 43 attempts), but allow the third fewest runs per game of any AL team.

This isn’t to say that allowing base stealers is good, or that you don’t want a catcher with a strong arm who can keep opponents from trying to take second or third – it’s just not really necessary for keeping opposing teams from scoring, and is more of an enhancement skill than anything. Throwing out base stealers is good, but it’s a very small part of a team’s overall run prevention. The emphasis placed on controlling the running game does not match the impact it actually has on a team’s ability to keep other teams from scoring.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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