Don’t Be Silly, The A’s Don’t Steal Bases

That’s what Moneyball said, but in 2008 that doesn’t appear to be reality. While doing some precursory research on Rajai Davis I stumbled upon his 35 stolen base attempts. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but Davis reached base only 61 times in 2008. That works out to Rajai attempting a steal 57% of his time on base. That doesn’t tell us how many times Davis was used as a pinch runner nor how many of those steals were with Oakland, but a quick glance at his gamelogs does.

31 of his attempts came with the A’s and only 10 attempts as a pinch runner. I took away those 10 pinch running attempts, and yet Davis still attempted a steal 41% of the time he got himself on base. That’s a lot, in fact, that’s the second highest percentage in baseball for those in the top 100 of stolen bases. Fluke, right?

Well, not too far below Davis name sat Eric Patterson, who attempted steals in 26% of his times on base. Eight of Patterson’s 11 steal attempts came with the Athletics, and three as a pinch runner. Impressively Patterson wasn’t caught in his eight Oakland tries. Even a little further down the list was Matt Holliday (12%), putting three somewhat recent Athletics acquisitions in the top 60.

After looking merely at team attempts, the legendary conservative Athletics ranked 19th in stolen base attempts, higher than “more athletic” (no pun intended) teams like Cleveland, Texas, Florida, and even Arizona. It’s worth noting the Athletics boasted the second best success rate just behind the Philadelphia Phillies. Not only did they run about as much an average team, but they chose their spots to maximize success.

Come draft day, keep this in mind. Just because Holliday is an Athletic, doesn’t mean his baserunning value is going to waste.

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The idea that the “A’s don’t steal bases” is just another in the long line of misunderstandings regarding the entire Moneyball concept (just as the idea that Moneyball = OBP is a misunderstanding).

Moneyball is not about acquiring a certain kind of player, or employing a certain offensive strategy. In fact, it has nothing do to with baseball at all. Moneyball is a business strategy that involves finding opportunities for arbitrage. If OBP is undervalued, then Moneyball would tell you to sign players with high OBPs. If defense is undervalued, then Moneyball would tell you to sign good defensive players. If speed is undervalued, then Moneyball would tell you to sign a base-stealer.

Similarly, Moneyball does not dictate that a team shouldn’t steal or bunt. All it says is that a team should only steal or bunt when doing so increases that team’s chances of scoring. In the case of the A’s, they generally weren’t willing to incur the risk of stealing bases when they had a bunch of plodding, high-OBP sluggers (this, of course, makes sense… if you can only be successful 60% of the time, it’s not smart to steal). However, now that the A’s have more players with higher SB-success rates, they will steal because the risk is worth the reward. The idea that the A’s, as an organization, have decided that stealing bases is too risky, is simply a misunderstanding of the entire Moneyball concept.

People need to stop associating “Moneyball” with specific strategies, and understand that Moneyball is a guiding principle that the A’s (and many other teams) use to form their specific strategies.