Stealing the Spring

Spring training occurs every year.  And every year, as we reach the end of spring, people wonder whether we can take anything away from the statistics; every year, the answer should be no.  The results don’t matter, so pitchers spend different starts working on one pitch or another.  Hitters face these pitchers, and they are also spending part of the time working off rust.  There are also minor-league quality players in big league camps for most of the spring, so the quality of competition is not what we would normally see during the regular season.  And of course, players get minimal playing time, so the small sample size is an additional confounding factor.

Yet, here I am to tell you that maybe we should take something from spring training.  This spring, the Brewers rank 17th in stolen bases, with 18.  In the three years since Craig Counsell became manager (he took over at the beginning of May in 2015), however, the club is tied for first in all of baseball.  They, Cincinnati, and Arizona are essentially in their own tier; the Brewers and Reds have stolen 393 bases since 2015, the Diamondbacks have stolen 372, and the fourth-place Astros are all the way back at 321.

We already knew the Brewers had a tendency to run a lot.  In 2016, Jonathan Villar famously led MLB in steals despite getting thrown out five more times than anyone else.  Under Counsell, they have been aggressive on the basepaths, and there was no particular reason to think this would stop this season.  Both Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich can run, and they would have been likely to rack up steals in 2018 given the apparent organizational mandate that stolen bases were a positive.

The tendency towards running did also manifest in past spring trainings.  Because Counsell took over after Opening Day in 2015, we only have two springs of data to analyze.  In 2016, though, the Brewers ranked eighth in steals, and in 2017 they were seventh.  Seventh and eighth are not first, but they are at least in the top third of the league; it reflects the club’s desire to be among the more aggressive on the basepaths.  The fact that they rank 17th thus far in 2018, though, does not indicate a similar goal.

One might think that the difference between this spring and the last two is just success rate, and perhaps the Brewers are running just as much but are less successful.  There is a kernel of truth to that; this spring, the Brewers rank 11th in attempts (instead of 17th in steals).  But in previous years, they also ran more indiscriminately.  In 2017, they were tied for third in spring training stolen base attempts, and in 2016, they were sixth.  There is a clear decline this year, both in efficiency and overall attempts.

It is obviously too early to know what to make of this change.  Because of the small sample size of spring training in general, the difference here could be as simple as who gets on base when.  Perhaps speedsters have been getting on base behind other players, or perhaps the game situation hasn’t dictated a steal.

Perhaps, though, the organization has decided to shift its approach to stealing bases.  Yelich and Cain have just one attempt each, and Villar has only three.  Only Keon Broxton has been running with any regularity.  The sample size difficulties make drawing any performance-based conclusions difficult, but this could be indicative of a philosophical change.  Teams generally spend spring training getting into shape for the regular season, so it would seem unusual that a team known for stealing a lot of bases would suddenly spend the spring not doing just that.  At the very least, this gives us something to watch for in 2018.

Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale, USAToday Sports Images


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