The Economics of Base Stealing
7 minute read · Issue Number 26 · July 24th, 2020
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Given that baseball is back this week, I chose to research and write today’s newsletter about a topic in baseball that I found quite fascinating: Stolen Bases.
The guiding questions will be:
What is the risk/benefit of a base theft?
How important is it for a scout to hire a player based on his ability to steal bases?
What impact does base theft have on a team’s winning percentage?
What is the economic impact of such a tactic?
Let’s get to it!
Baseball is considered one of the most statistically-relevant sports, and many sciences have endlessly analyzed it since its inaugural season in 1871.
In baseball, two teams competing take turns in offense and defense. The offense can score points by successfully advancing their team members in a sequence of four bases. An offensive turn is over when three offensive players have been “put out” by the defensive players. Those ‘outs’ can happen in many different ways.
The game is won by the team that added the most points in nine offensive turns for each side (innings). In case of a tie, more innings will occur until one team has the lead at the end of an extra-inning.
The offensive team bats in a pre-set rotation, and the offensive players can advance bases at any time (not only on a successful strike of a pitched ball). An attempt to promote stations without the benefit of a batted ball is called base theft or an attempt to “steal” the base.
One thing that makes the sport so unique is that every play and decision involves two players in a zero-sum game. In other words, in every encounter, there will be a “winner” and a “loser.” It is all about tradeoffs and the “next best alternative.”
Managers, coaches, and players work extremely hard to maximize the team’s probabilities at each encounter.
The famous “Moneyball” strategy developed by the Oakland Athletics is an example of how the team found a way to take advantage of the statistical imperfections in the game of baseball and hired the cheapest, most productive players that could maximize the chances of per-action success. Such a strategy helped one of the less wealthiest teams in the MLB to win the second-most games in the league over a determined period.
Many factors can benefit a team in every specific situation, and that’s what makes the sport rely so much on strategy. For example:
Is one pitch better than another in a particular situation?
Is a left-hand batter more likely to hit a right-hand pitcher?
Is a stolen base a better choice than a sacrifice bunt?
A stolen base is when a player advances to the next base while the pitcher is delivering a pitch. The risk of such action is very high. Still, at the same time, it can increase a team’s offensive production because the pitcher must deliver the throw to the batter while worrying about the chances of a runner successfully stealing the next base.
Pitchers develop strategies to make the theft of a base more challenging by varying the timing, type, and style of the pitch. On the other hand, runners have to rely on surprising factors, speed, and unpredictability to steal a base successfully.
Is it a worthwhile strategy?
A study conducted in 2014 suggests that abandoning the strategy of base stealing altogether was detrimental to a team’s winning percentage. Still, base-stealing as a strategy does not contribute to a team’s winning percentage as much as traditional offensive production such as singles, doubles, home runs, and walks.
In his book, Michael Lewis concluded that unless the player can successfully steal a base on 70% of the occasions, stealing bases is too risky to make it a worthwhile strategy. In other words, stealing a base is difficult, and due to the scarcity of outs per inning, an unsuccessful attempt to take a base will hurt the team’s winning percentage.
Additionally, the higher the base-stealing skills of a runner, the higher the attention needed by the pitcher on such a runner, which then benefits the current batter for his performance. Therefore, scouts will be considering those skills as an attractive complementary skill for a new player.
Given that having a base-stealing tactic may increase the team’s winning chances by a small amount, throughout a tightly contested season, it can make the difference between clinching a playoff spot or not.
If we analyze this further, having a base-stealing strategy in the game plan could mean the difference between competing in the playoffs, then this would have a significant impact on game attendance and revenue potential.
From an economist point of view, better performance equals more revenue, tickets, merch, and concessions sold, a potential increase in the fan base, and a significant boost in local economies (hotels, restaurants, and stores).
Baseball relies mostly on strategy due to the constant zero-sum game encounters;
Teams work hard to increase their chances to have the most favorable outcome at every play;
The “Moneyball Phenomena” placed values on specific skills to maximize efficiency and performance;
A stolen base is when a player advances to the next base while the pitcher is delivering a pitch;
Due to the scarcity of outs per inning, base theft is risky but needed strategy;
The base theft tactic benefits the team’s winning %, but not as much as other offensive production actions;
Base theft skills are attractive to scouts due to its effect on a pitcher’s mind during delivering to another batter;
Michael Lewis concluded that a player should successfully steal 7/10 bases on average to be worth the risk of taking another one;
For a whole season, a small effect on winning percentage may mean the difference between clinching playoffs or not;
The little effect base-stealing has on winning percentage can provide additional benefits for the team, such as average attendance and revenue potential.
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