Saturday, March 7, 2009

By Eric Notti - Contributor

I was recently reading through Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends, in which he takes baseball lore and tries to either validate or repudiate the stories that have been handed down by players and writers about the game’s exploits. Of course he has to take his shots at players boasts and statistically prove they were misremembering. One of the targets was Maury Wills’ claim that in 1965 he could have stolen 140 bases, but for a leg injury he suffered in August.

Neyer uses basic calculations to prove that Wills was never on pace to reach that 140 base total, but what got me thinking is how little the stolen base is appreciated. Wills claimed that his dash for the record books changed the face of the game and that without him there would not have been a Lou Brock or Rickey Henderson. I doubt this is truthful; those players were just exploiting their special talents like all of the home run hitters that followed Babe Ruth. In fact Ty Cobb, who stole 96 in 1915, preceded Wills, so it is not as though he invented the stolen base.

What Wills did do, however, is show that a player with good speed could take as many bases as the pitcher and catcher combo would allow, just by being smart. Wills studied the game and then made his skills conform to what the game provided. It was not as though Maury was slow, but he certainly was not Henderson or Brock fast and as such had to read the pitcher rather than rely on his speed.

Getting good reads certainly paid off. In 1962, when he broke Cobb’s long standing record (for a player in the modern era) by swiping 104 bags, Wills was only caught 13 times. Youth was on his side, but even with more spring in his step he had to know when to go. This helped secure his ability to get that extra base that his bat never really provided. His career high for doubles was 19.

Here is the case for the stolen base. When you are primarily a slap hitter, like Wills, the only way to get into scoring position for your team was via the stolen base. The Dodgers in the ’60s were nearly all pitching and scored very few runs without Wills’ help.

In 1960, when Wills became a full time player, the Dodgers scored only 662 runs, with Wills hitting for a respectable .295 average, but a woeful .342 OBP and horrible .331 SLG. His contribution came mainly from taking 50 extra bases through the stolen base, but it was never enough to help the offense that generated little power.

In 1961, the Dodgers offense was a little more potent and scored 735 runs, but it was only good enough for second place. Wills that year stole only 35 bases and remained nearly the same in offensive production at .282/.346/.339.

1962 rolls around and Wills becomes a monster on the base paths. He must know his poor hitting is not going to keep his job intact, so he has to re-invent himself to keep his job. Taking what the pitcher gives him will be the way he secures his place in Dodger legend. With a still pedestrian line of .299/.347/.373, he puts another stat up that is underrated: the stolen base, 104 of them to be exact.

Why would I say they are underrated? Most people don’t recognize what a stolen base really means in terms of offensive production, for both the base stealer himself and the dynamics of the offense that a stolen base creates.

Let’s look at the player that accumulates the stolen base and use Wills as our example. In 1962, Wills had 208 hits, but only 13 doubles. Interestingly he hit 6 home runs and 10 triples that year for a career high, but let’s just focus on hits. If you subtract out doubles, triples and home runs he has 179 singles.

A single is always nice, especially out of a leadoff hitter, and he also managed 51 walks to bring his total to 210 times he was standing on first base over the season. This is a pretty good start for the offense to have their leadoff guy standing on first about 1.3 times per game. But, what if he was standing on second?

Factor in Wills’ steals and this is a completely different ball player and a completely different ballgame for the Dodgers. Instead of standing on first 210 times, he is effectively looking at being on first base 93 times (subtracting the 13 times caught stealing) and standing on second 117 times when you add his 13 doubles to 104 stolen bases.

For convenience I’ve discounted steals of third base and lumped all the steals into taking second base only, but in a quick glance you can see where a player that hits 117 doubles would be the MVP any year if those type of stats were recognized; more on that later.

The stolen base also does not reflect in Wills’ slugging percentage and would change his OPS for 1962, making him a much more valuable player in the stat considerations. Wills’ OPS in ’62 was a meager .720 — far from impressive. That, however, is not a true indicator of his production.

So let’s do the math for Wills and find his slugging percentage when you count all he brought to the game that year. Baseball-Reference has Wills listed as being in all 165 games (we are used to the 162 game season now) in 1962 and having 695 at bats. Factor in the total bases 259, but this time, include 104 via the stolen base and you end up with 363 total bases. Dividing total bases by official at bats and you get a .522 SLG % instead of the paltry .373 SLG % as is recorded.

Now recalculate OPS which is On Base Percentage plus Slugging Percentage and instead of .720 you have a very non 1960’s shortstop OPS of .869. Those are numbers anyone would want at shortstop, 3rd base, right field, etc, etc… all without blasting 30 home runs.

So how did all this equate to a change in the Dodgers offense? By getting into scoring position without the traditional sacrifice and a clean hit, the Dodgers now had the ability to wait for Wills to get to second then have two outs to spare getting him across home plate. Junior Gilliam a veteran and very patient hitter (93 walks in 1962) with a .370 on base percentage, allowed Wills the chances to select his pitch to run on. Then with the infield shifting to cover the steal, Gilliam could either put the ball in play, potential moving Wills to 3rd, or let nature take its course and select another pitch to move the runner with. The end result was Wills crossed home plate 130 times.

Even without the adjusted slugging percentages the scribes recognized his value to the Dodgers and the game of baseball and voted Wills as the league MVP for 1962. The Dodgers went on to win 102 games and scored 842 runs, the most since 1955 when they had a team of sluggers like Carl Furillo, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella.

This unfortunately was not enough to win the pennant, the Giants took the NL with 103 wins and went on to lose the Yankees in the World Series. But Wills brought to the light hitting Dodgers a way to score runs and score them often to support a pitching staff that had weaknesses in 1962. He was another tool for a manager to use in order to make something out of nothing.

Bringing this concept of including all statistical information to the realization of a players worth to the Angels, Chone Figgins adjusted OPS when you factor in his stolen bases since 2004.

2004 OPS .769 Adjusted .828

2005 OPS .749 Adjusted .846

2006 OPS .712 Adjusted .819

2007 OPS .825 Adjusted .941

2008 OPS .685 Adjusted .760

Clearly Figgins and base stealers before him have all been the victims themselves of being undervalued due to stolen stats.

Love to hear what you think!


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