March 31, 2007 7 Comments
Who are the most dangerous baserunners in the league? Why don’t we ask the people who see them up close, Major League pitchers. I suppose that I could go and ask them myself, but that would take a lot of travel and stalking, neither of which I’m really up for now. Thankfully, though, we already have a little bit of data on the subject. It might be the most boring event in baseball, because it usually results in… well… nothing. At least to the naked eye. With a runner on first, the pitcher turns and throws a nice soft toss over to the first baseman, who occasionally feigns a tag on the runner, who is almost always safely back to first. So, if the play is so useless, why does it still happen so often in a game?
In 2006, there were 16,654 throws, 16,349 of them by pitchers, to “check on” a runner at first who had an open second base in front of him. The conventional wisdom is that pitchers do this in order to “control the running game” and although it rarely happens, to pick the runner off. Sometimes, a runner draws a few throws before the first pitch is even made. Sometimes, the first baseman doesn’t even bother to hold the runner. The reason is fairly obvious: the pitcher wants to keep the runner close to the base so that he can’t get too long a lead and take off to second.
So, which runners drew the most throws last year? Well, first let’s do some set up work. I took the 2006 PBP database from Retrosheet and isolated all instances in which a runner was on first base, but second base was un-occupied. This means that he could, theoretically, steal second base (about 44,000). I counted how many throws to first were made by the pitcher (or catcher) in that case and whether the runner received any throws at all (coded as zero for no, and one for yes), and how many times he made a break for second (whether he was caught stealing, stole the base, or the batter fouled the ball off). I eliminated instances where the runner ran on a 3-2 count with 2 outs. Next, I identified how many events were “duplicates.” This would be a case where a runner singles to start the inning, but the next three hitters strike out without him leaving first base. This way, he gets credit for only one time on first, rather than three.
So, who gets the most throws his way to first base per time that he’s on (with a minimum of 20 appearances in this situation)
- Ryan Freel – 1.54
- Dave Roberts – 1.52
- B. J. Upton – 1.41
- Nook Logan – 1.30
- Juan Pierre – 1.29
- Chris Duffy – 1.29
- Curtis Granderson – 1.26
- Jose Reyes – 1.20
- Chone Figgins -1.17
- Willy Tavares – 1.15
Reyes, Pierre, and Roberts were 1, 2, and 4 (respectively) in the NL in steals. Figgins was 2nd in the AL. The rest all have reputations as speesters. For those interested, the bottom 10 includes such fleet-footed folk as Frank Thomas, David Ortiz, Ryan Howard, and Mike Piazza.
Does throwing to first keep these guys, or anyone, from running? I ran a chi-square testing the association between whether a throw was made and whether the runner ran. There was a significant association such that a runner was more likely to run if there had been a throw to first. (More likely: a pitcher threw to first when it was occupied by a runner who was more likely to run.) Runners only tried in 8.5% of the instances in which a throw had been made to first, but 21.8% of the time when the pitcher had thrown over. So throwing over certainly isn’t a deterrent from running. Nor, is making more than one throw. Using a binary logit regression, I regressed whether or not the runner made an attempt on the number of throws made. This explained about 1% of the variance. In other words, throwing over more than once didn’t work to stop the runner from going.
But, does throwing over affect stolen base rates? Yes. When a runner makes an attempt for second (and the ball is not fouled off), he is successful 76.8% of the time if there has not been a throw and 65.4% if there has been. So, throwing to first shaves 11.4% off the stolen base success rate. Looks like throwing to first is a defensive maneuver that actually works.
Or does it? What about the throw that gets away? Does throwing to first affect the pitcher’s ability to pay attention to the batter and thus pitch to him effectively? But then again, what about the pickoff? What about the possibility that the runner might not “steal” third on a single or home on a double? All told, is throwing to first an effective strategy?
You’ll just have to read Part II.