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Nyjer Morgan’s Reckless Base Stealing

Last season was a rude and abrupt awakening for those thinking that Nyjer Morgan had made a step toward stardom. In 2009, Morgan combined above-average hitting with a UZR love affair to produce a breakout 4.9 WAR season. But Morgan couldn’t maintain the historic +28 UZR he posted in 2009 and, at the same time, his batting line dropped off sharply as his BABIP fell down to earth. Still, despite the catastrophic fall on offense and defense, Morgan still had one point of value to cling to: baserunning. Speed doesn’t slump, as they say, and it didn’t for Morgan in 2010. The speedster compiled another 34 stolen bases after posting 42 in his first full season in 2009.

Of course, just as batting average doesn’t tell the whole story of hitting, stolen bases don’t tell the whole story of baserunning. The caught stealing can be a costly result for a team, so much so that a player needs to succeed at least three times as often as he fails for the stolen base to provide value. And despite all of his speed, somehow Nyjer Morgan has failed to provide value via the stolen base over the course of his career.

As mentioned above, we can use a rule of thumb of at least three successful steals per caught stealing for the stolen base to provide value. Over his career, Morgan has successfully stolen 92 times and been caught 42 times, a 69% success rate which falls six percentage points short of our threshold – close, but no cigar. But for a more scientific measurement, we can use a statistic from Baseball Prospectus: EQSBR, or Equivalent Stolen Base Runs.

EQSBR confirms our rule of thumb. Morgan has a total EQSBR of -5.09 runs for his career, including an abysmal -2.91 mark for the 2010 season, when Morgan stole 34 bases but was caught 17 times. A closer look at the Baseball Prospectus statistic report for 2010, however, shows 58 stolen base opportunities (SB_OPPS), not 51, as his 34 SBs plus 17 CSs would suggest. This reveals another black mark on Morgan’s running record: he was picked off seven times (PO – PCS under the Baserunning header) by opposing pitchers. Instead of 34 successes against 17 failures, that shifts Morgan’s record to 34 successes against 24 failures, an unacceptable mark which suggests that the Nationals would be better off with Morgan staying put.

Interestingly enough, Morgan isn’t a bad baserunner overall. With other baserunning events taken into account – advancing on batted balls and other events such as passed balls and wild pitches – Morgan grades out as an above average baserunner. Despite the subtractions from his basestealing failures, Morgan’s career EQBRR – overall runs above average from baserunning – comes out to +3.9 runs. That’s nearly nine full runs above average from baserunning other than stolen bases.

Throughout his career, Morgan has provided excellent value on the bases as long as he’s not trying to steal. But Morgan just has too much raw speed to tell him to stay at home every time he reaches base. It’s clear, though, that Morgan has to change something in his approach. Either he’s stealing too often, or he’s making his steal attempts too obvious (which would help explain all the pickoffs). Fixing Morgan’s basestealing woes will be one of the easiest ways for the Nationals to recoup some of the value Morgan provided in his excellent 2009 season. It should be the first item on the agenda for Washington’s baserunning coach, as the status quo is an unfortunate waste of Morgan’s blazing speed.