By Christopher Heun
In his first half-season as an Oriole, Corey Patterson has 31 stolen bases and has a chance to break the team's single season record of 57, which Luis Aparicio set in 1964.
This is noteworthy because of his possible place in team history, but also for another reason that's not so uplifting. The stathead crowd says stolen bases are overrated. In other words, the thing that Patterson does best really isn't that valuable in today's homer-happy game.
My heart doesn't want this to be true. As the recently released Luis Matos can attest, Patterson is exciting to watch: not just the steals, but his ability to bunt for a hit in one bat and then homer in the next. Despite that, though, his stats aren't as good as you might think: his on-base percentage is just .307 and his slugging percentage is .413 for an OPS of .720. Decidedly average.
The low on-base percentage, which trails all other regulars in the lineup except Jay Gibbons, is the reason why Patterson should not bat at the top of the order, even though it's tempting to put him in the No. 2 spot, given his speed. He hasn't walked since June 24 and has drawn just 14 free passes all season. He's also hitting just .197 against lefties in 76 at bats.
Still, Patterson, who is four steals behind the American League leader, Chone Figgins, has only been caught six times and was successful in 26 of his first 27 attempts. Brian Roberts has been even better; he's swiped 24 and only been caught four times.
That high rate of success is important, because the "break even" point for steals is about 73 percent, according to the sabermatricians. So, a runner who gets caught more than once every four tries is hurting his team.
For his career, Patterson has always been successful in 75 percent of his attempts. This year is no different: he’s bagged 31 in 37 tries, an 83.8 percent rate. His next steal will tie his career high set in 2004.
But all that running doesn’t add up to much. In his essay, "What If Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviglia’s Legs?" in the book "Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong" by the writers at Baseball Prospectus, James Click writes: "The stolen base may be exciting, but even the best base-stealers in the game are producing only marginal gains for their teams in the recent offensively dominated era."
This is how they figure it. They calculated the number of runs a team can be expected to score based on the distribution of baserunners and the number of outs in an inning. In 2004 a stolen base was worth an average of .1593 runs; getting caught cost teams even more – .3687 runs. That means so far this year Patterson has added 4.9383 runs but given back 2.2122 for a net gain of 2.7 runs. (Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post wrote about Patterson and the declining value of the stolen base earlier this year.)
Click points out that Rickey Henderson's 130 steals in 1982, the major league record for a single season, added 22.2 runs for the A's, but since he was caught 42 times, that subtracted 20.6 runs for a total gain of 1.6 runs for the season. (In case you're checking my math, the value of the steal changed from 2004 because scoring increased).
The verdict is even worse for Juan Pierre, Patterson's replacement in Wrigley Field this year. He stole 45 bases in 2004, third in the majors, but was caught 24 times, so instead of helping the Marlins score he actually cost them 1.7 runs.
Corey Patterson makes an interesting sabermetrics case, because last year he rated the absolute worst, and next to worst, respectively, in two of the offensive statistics Baseball Prospectus designed, VORP and EqA. (We're not statheads here, but let's be honest: VORP, EqA and another new BP stat, WARP-1, all sound like the work of a bunch of guys who stumbled out of a Star Trek convention and happened to turn on "Baseball Tonight.")
Click does allow that in certain situations an extra base can be very important. A steal late in a tie ballgame is worth much more than a steal in the early innings, and thus the margin for error is higher in the later innings of a tie game. The best example is Dave Roberts' steal of second in Game Four of the 2004 ALCS. He went on to score the tying run of the game and the Red Sox won in extra innings. Seven games later, The Curse was history.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom about the importance of "manufacturing" runs for a weaker offense, "The decision to steal should be driven more by the inning and the run differential than by the team’s run scoring potential," Click writes. The stolen base is most valuable to a home team down by one run and more generally when either team has a one-run lead or trails by two runs or less.
Click sums it up this way:
"We can confirm the long held notion that stolen bases and extra bases are worth exponentially more in the later innings, especially in close games. More importantly, the game situation – inning and run differential – is more significant than the team’s scoring tendencies when it comes to attempting the extra base."So what does all this mean for Corey Patterson? He is clearly the center fielder of the immediate future now that Matos will be roaming cavernous RFK for the Nationals and Val Majewski and Jeff Fiorentino, the only outfield prospects above Single A, are not hitting this year.
Here's how The Sun's John Eisenberg described Patterson recently:
"He isn't an All-Star, but he is a pleasant surprise offensively, his speed is welcome and his defense is above average. He and Markakis would give the Orioles two-thirds of a strong defensive outfield. (Remember defense?) His contract is up after 2006, but he won't break the bank."I say let Patterson steal as much as he wants, whenever he wants, as long as he keeps succeeding in four out of every five attempts. Let's not overstate their value, though; I'd trade the steals for something a lot less glamorous: walks. "You can't steal first base," the old saying goes. The Orioles' first manager, Jimmy Dykes, once wrote a book with that as the title.