(No) Need for Speed?: Examining Low Run Totals for Aggressive Teams

Why aren't the teams with big steal numbers scoring more runs?

There are a number of analogies which I could use to start off this particular piece. I could talk about the 1994 action-thriller Speed, starring Keanu Reeves. Perhaps drop in the famed line between Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards in the 1986 Cold War classic Top Gun. Surely, there has to be something we can drop in here from The Fast & the Furious.

Instead, I’ll go the buster route, and drop in one of Aesop’s fables: The Tortoise and the Hare. While I prefer the 1943 Looney Tunes iteration, the story remains the same, and doesn’t need a re-hashing here. What is important to note, however, is that the story — in its wisdom about doing things slowly and intentionally — does bear relevance to the 2024 Major League Baseball season.

This is in reference to activity on the basepaths. More specifically, the stolen base. Because there are teams that are extremely active on the bases, and there are even some teams quite literally running away on the stat sheet. But those same teams are having difficulty scoring runs in the larger context of the game. So what exactly is happening here?


“Faster Than Fast, Quicker Than Quick”


The following represent the most aggressive base-stealing teams in the league thus far, as well as the players contributing regularly to the SB efforts:

  1. Cincinnati (79): Elly De La Cruz (30), Spencer Steer (11)
  2. Washington (77): Jacob Young (15), Lane Thomas (11), Trey Lipscomb (10)
  3. Milwaukee (63): Brice Turang (18), Willy Adames (8)
  4. Philadelphia (57): Bryson Stott (12), Johan Rojas (11), Trea Turner (10)
  5. Tampa Bay (54): José Caballero (17), Randy Arozarena (7), Richie Palacios (7)

The gap starts to widen a bit after that. You’ve got Kansas City at 48 and Cleveland at 47. It gets more narrow from 11 to 21, with the Mets stealing 33 against Minnesota’s 25. The remainder of the teams on the lower end are in the low-20s, with only Texas and San Francisco failing to swipe at least 20 bags thus far.

In some of these cases, it’s more of an organizational philosophy. A team like Washington has high stolen base numbers spread all throughout the roster. Whereas a team like Cincinnati is posting gaudy numbers on the strength of one particular player.

Honing in on the top 10 teams specifically, you’ve got the seven named above, then the Angeles, Padres, and Red Sox round out the group. Of those 10 teams, though, only half rank inside the top 10 in runs scored. Of the others, Boston sits 13th and the Angels 15th. The most interesting cases are in the top five in steals, though. Tampa Bay is 17th in runs scored. Cincinnati and Washington are still lower, with the former at 20 and the latter 27th.

It’s these teams, in particular, that are of interest. The Phillies and Brewers are their own offensive machines. Speed is a bonus, considering the potency of each lineup. Kansas City and Cleveland are a bit different, relying heavily on a few sluggers to generate surprising production.

The other teams, though, don’t have the depth or enough quantity of impact offense to compensate. We can use the others as a sort of model. But what teams like Tampa, Cincinnati, and Washington do is steal bases. What they don’t do is score. Which begs the question: if you’re stealing bases at this type of rate, why is it that you can’t generate consistent run production?


“I’m Smarter Than You, Jack!”


The simplest explanation is that speed is not really a primary offensive asset. It’s a supplement. When used appropriately, it can become more prominent, as we saw with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2023. They gained a reputation as a “fast” team, trailing only Cincinnati in stolen bases last year. But what made their activity on the bases so valuable wasn’t in the volume, but the efficiency. And Corbin Carroll.

What teams like the Rays, Reds, and Nationals are doing is volume-centric, however. The aim of stealing bases is to get runners into scoring position. Avoiding double plays is a positive byproduct, as well. This presents us with a main reason as to why these teams aren’t scoring despite the on-base activity. They aren’t hitting with runners on or in scoring position.

The Rays are 23rd in batting average with runners on, at .241. The Reds’ .235 average has them 25th. Washington, though, is at a more respectable 14th (.255). When you shift the lens to runners in scoring position, however, the Rays come in 21st (.238), the Reds sit 15th (.259), and the Nats slip to 20th (.243). That’s not all completely awful, specifically the Nats with runners on and the Reds with the ol’ RISP.

Where we might find at least something of an answer is the actual number of balls being put into play with runners on. Tampa Bay is striking out at the eighth-highest rate with runners on (23.6 percent) and the 10th-highest with runners in scoring position (23.5). Cincinnati is third (24.8) and fifth (24.5), and Washington is 19th (20.0) and 13th (22.4), respectively. In the case of the first two, at least, there’s a clear strikeout issue. All three feature a BABIP of at least .290 in both situations, so it’s not as much of an issue with balls once they’re actually in play. It’s simply getting them into play that appears to be an issue.


“Cole, You’re Wandering All Over the Track”


That explanation almost seems too simple, though. There are some issues hitting with runners on and in scoring position. There are larger issues with punching out in those same situations. Let’s take this just one layer deeper, though: the lineups.

If we take out the three stolen base leaders in Tampa Bay, for example, the rest of the regulars are only hitting .259 and reaching base at a .313 clip. In Cincinnati, if we remove De La Cruz, Steer, and Will Benson, the other regulars are batting .219 with a .288 OBP. Washington’s at .239 and .309. There simply isn’t the length in the lineup to supplement the base stealers in the way they need to be supplemented in order to make it an asset. Each situation is unique, of course. Take the Reds, who are dealing with injuries, suspensions, and struggles throughout what was supposed to be a deep lineup.

The lineup context is important. And it probably speaks more to our questions of why these teams aren’t scoring more than any other possible explanation. If we were to complete that same exercise for Milwaukee, we’re looking at a .280 average & .372 OBP. The Phillies are at .260 and .341. To say nothing of Milwaukee’s .296/.282 average split with runners on or in scoring & Philly’s .264/.278. The lineups are simply better. Which means that their on-base activity is actually resulting in something of value.


Have You Tried Stealing Home?


It’s a long way to arrive at such a simple answer. In an anecdotal sense, in the trio of teams discussed, we’re probably looking at managers trying to force their way to more runs. Whereas teams like the Brewers and Phillies are able to treat stolen bases as more of a luxury, with personnel capable of stealing supplemented by regulars who can drive them in.

Is there more intricacy to be found here? Probably not for our purposes. We could dig into approach or contact types, sure. It’s hard to imagine a different outcome, though, given the context of these particular squads (all three are in the bottom half of the league in contact quality). And this isn’t a commentary about the futility of speed; steals have value. They just become something more empty when they aren’t juxtaposed against a roster that can capitalize.

As far as the above heading goes, stealing home remains an option (sort of). FanGraphs’ Leo Morgenstern wrote a great piece in February of last year about the rise in success rate of stealing home. In an oversimplified sense, the success rate is higher in recent years than it’s ever been. Something for those managers of empty calorie steals to consider.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

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