Inside the Numbers
The 2003 book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball, garnered a lot of attention by baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike. On one level, people enjoyed the book because it gave a glimpse behind the scenes of the running of a major league baseball team, the Oakland A's. On another level, the story behind the scenes was interesting in that we got to see a drastically different approach to building and managing a baseball team. Lots of little nuggets of information will stay with you if you have read the book. One that sticks with me is that unless your team has a 75% success rate at stealing bases, your team should, as a general rule not steal, as it has a negative effect on run production. So then it stands to reason, that if you let your opponents steal at a rate of 75%, you are letting your opponent have a positive effect in their run production.
The Phillies pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan is reknown for his philosophy on holding runners on base (or not). His theory is that if a pitcher spends too much time paying attention to baserunners who might or might not steal, it takes the pitcher's focus away from the batter at the plate. The distraction could then result in giving up hits and walks that wouldn't normally be given up if the pitcher was focusing only on the batter. For instance, Kerrigan's thinking would be that using a slide step in order to shorten the pitchers delivery time would alter the pitcher's well-practiced delivery causing decreased pitch velocity and erratic control. Kerrigan might also say that multiple pick-off attempts prevent a pitcher from concentrating on pitching. The thinking goes that the damage that is done by the opponents running game is far outweighed by the better pitches that will come from the mound. Seems to make sense.
Until you watch a Marlins/Phillies game.
This season, the Phillies defense has thrown out only 20% of the runners attempting to steal a base, ranking dead last in the majors (incidentally, the Moneyball-A's rank first at 41%). Twenty percent does not seem terribly far off from the benchmark set forth in Moneyball, but over the course of a 162 game season it just might be important, and if Kerrigan is indeed right, it might not be important. But more specifically, lets look at the Marlins running game against the Phillies. Time and again, we see Juan Pierre (or Luis Castillo or Mike Lowell or Alex Gonzalez) get on first base, get virtually ignored by Phillies pitchers (but you can bet Mike Lieberthal notices), steal second, and eventually score. Statistically, the Marlins have stolen 12 bases against the Phillies this year and have been caught only twice (86%), a rate far above the 75% cutoff. Juan Pierre has half of those stolen bases and has only been thrown out once (those of you scoring at home, that's 86%). These numbers are quite out of line for the Marlins success rates against the rest of their opponents. Against their other opponents, the Marlins have a 65% success rate (Pierre is at 58% !).
Additionally, the Marlins are hitting .291 against Phillies pitchers (.263 against major league pitching overall). I'd hate to see what average the Marlins would hit for if the Phillies pitchers weren't so focused on the batters instead of the baserunners (insert tongue into cheek here).
If one believes Joe Kerrigan, you ignore Juan Pierre dancing off first base. If one believes the sabermetrics espoused in Moneyball you pay attention to Juan Pierre and keep him close to the bag. If you've watched any Phillies/Marlins game this season (or last), which school of thought do you believe?