If I asked you to name the Cubs’ offensive strengths, in terms of tools, how would you go about that?
On-base skills, power, smart base-running, etc.? Those are certainly all things with which you can credit the Cubs’ offensive core.
Base stealing, however, would probably not be among your first answers.
After all, their 66 stolen bases in 2016 was 20th in baseball (despite all those on-base opportunities), and that doesn’t figure to improve in 2017 – after all, they’re essentially swapping out the team leader in stolen bases, Dexter Fowler (13), with Kyle Schwarber at the top of the lineup. He’s … not likely to steal many bases.
But is that even a problem? Is it something the Cubs should try to improve upon? Nah. At least according to Joe Maddon.
“We’re not going to steal bases,” Maddon told the Chicago Tribune. “Everybody knows that. If you’re going to advance scout us, why would you even try? We don’t have those guys in the lineup.”
That’s not just a humble, yet strategic sentiment. Maddon is being transparent. Why would the Chicago Cubs, a team full of sluggers and on-base machines, risk being thrown out on the bases just to try to “make things happen?”
In general, theory suggests that if you’re going to be a “base-stealer” you need to do so with roughly a 75% success rate to break even. Meaning that, so long as you make it safely in 3 out of 4 attempts, you’re better for the effort. Dip below that and you’re actually hurting the team.
Now, to be more precise, that number actually shifts between 70-75% for stealing second base, depending on how many outs there are, and between 69-88% for third base as well. But, for today, we’ll stick with the generally accepted 75% (if you’d like to read more, this FanGraphs article is exactly what you’re looking for).
Now, if you had to guess how many teams exceeded that 75% threshold last season, what would you say? I’ll bet your first instinct is higher than reality.
According to ESPN, just seven teams in MLB – Diamondbacks (81.6%), Indians (81.2%), Red Sox (77.6%), Royals (77.6), Yankees (76.6), Brewers (76.4), and Nationals (75.63) – stole bases successfully more than 75% of the time. That means that, in general, 23 teams (including the Cubs) would have been better off not even trying. Indeed, the Cubs’ 66% success rate landed them among the bottom six in all of baseball. Not worth it.
So many of these teams were simply costing themselves runs. Moreover, that necessary success rate of 75% is probably even higher for a team like the Cubs, who tend to get on base and slug more often than the regular team. In other words, if a Cubs’ hitter is more likely than the average hitter to move a runner along, then the value of stealing a base decreases while the risk increases (he would have scored at a greater rate than the average team anyway).
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Cubs will never steal a base. Because of course they will. The only difference is that there will have to be a very specific set of circumstances.
“There are certain guys you can force to attempt it with,” Joe Maddon said. “For me, if the guy is a really good pitcher you’re facing, and you’re just not going to get three, four, five hits in a row, and there might be a breaking ball situation in the dirt, maybe their catcher is a little bit below average, that might be a situation you take a chance.”
Did you get that? The perfect Cubs stolen base situation is if …
- The right Cub is on base in the first place,
- They’re facing a really good pitcher,
- Maddon/the batter is expecting a breaking ball, and
- The catcher is a little below average
In that scenario the Cubs *might* take a chance.
And in the end, Maddon sums up his thoughts on stealing bases (for the sake of stealing bases) quite aptly: “you’ll continually shoot yourself in the foot.” That’s exactly what the Cubs did last season, albeit in limited attempts, but I wouldn’t expect them to do quite as often this year.
It may not be traditional, but nothing about Maddon ever is.