## Thursday, March 4, 2010

### Age Study: MLB Stolen Bases

The two biggest percentage drop-offs come at ages 33 and 36. At 33, there are 54% fewer occurrences of 30+ stolen bases seasons than at 32. At 36, there are 47% fewer occurrences of 30+ stolen bases than at 35. No other year-to-year drop-off has a percentage of over 40%. Why is there such a drop-off at these ages? I’ll leave that question to the mathematicians and instead, I will profile players who will be these ages in 2010 and point out their significant stats from ’09 that should help extrapolate their results for 2010. Let’s start with the old guys:
• Derek Jeter (turns 36 in June; 30 SB in 2009) How much of a difference did hitting first in the Yankees’ lineup affect Jeter’s stolen base opportunities? Jeter had 418 stolen base opportunities in 2009 after having 288 opportunities in 2008 when he hit second. That is a huge difference (just ask Johnny Damon) and let Jeter nearly triple his total of SB from 2008 (11). Those opportunities will still be there in 2010, but there is one stat that leads me to believe that Jeter’s legs won’t be as productive as last year and that is extra bases taken percentage (XBT%). Jeter’s career XBT% is 47% and the 2009 league average was 39%; but Jeter’s 2009 XBT% came in at just 38% which is the second lowest mark in his 14 year career. Need further proof that Jeter’s legs are not what they once were even with the 30 SB in 2009? In 2009 Jeter’s rate of grounding into a double play (GIDP %) was 17% which was 6% higher than the league average and the second highest percentage of his career. Prediction: 18-20 SB (hitting 1st), 14-17 SB (hitting 2nd).

• Bobby Abreu (turned 36 in March; 30 SB in 2009) How’s this for a stat: in 2009 Bobby Abreu became the heaviest player since 1900 to steal at least 30 bases at the age of 35 or older. In fact, he is just one of three players that weighed over 200 lbs. to steal 20 bases (the others were Gary Sheffield and Paul O’Neill). History is not on Abreu’s side for his chances to repeat this feat in 2010 despite last year’s extra bases taken percentage (XBT%) and SB% being in line with his career averages. His GIDP% was at a career high in 2009 while his doubles and extra bases hit percentage (XBH %) were both at career lows. He also seemed to fade down the stretch last year like many others on this list. Abreu had more SB in April and May (15 for 15) than he had in June, July, August, and September combined (14 for 22). The only thing working in his favor over last year actually has to do with the departure of Chone Figgins (and his .393 OBP) from hitting in front of Abreu. The combo of Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis, who will likely split time at leadoff, had an OBP that was about 40 points lower than Figgins’ in 2009. That means Abreu will have more situations with himself on 1st and 2nd base open as opposed to last year when he would be on 1st and Figgins would often be on 2nd,thus preventing a SBO. Prediction: 22-24 SB.

• Ichiro (turned 36 in October 2009; 26 SB in 2009) Thanks to an ulcer to start the season and a calf injury later on, Ichiro’s 26 stolen bases were his lowest since joining the Mariners in 2001. But even when he was running, Ichiro wasn’t as efficient as he was in the past. His SB% was 74% which is lower than his career percentage of 82% (entering 2009). It was also just above the league average of 72% for 2009 and one would hardly consent that Ichiro is just a “slightly above-average” base stealer. The arrival of Chone Figgins into the #2 hole will both help and hurt Ichiro. It helps because Figgins is a patient hitter who sees lots of pitches (ranked 4th in AL in pitches per plate appearance) and that will give Ichiro more opportunities to steal a base. But his arrival also hurts because Figgins is also a speed demon and he will be expected to relieve some of the base running burden that has been on Ichiro’s shoulders over the past 9 years and that will likely keep Ichiro from ever reaching 30 steals again. Prediction: 22-25 SB.
• Johnny Damon (turned 36 in November 2009; 12 SB in 2009) Damon hasn’t reached 30 SB in a season since turning 30 seven years ago but he should certainly increase his mark of 12 steals last year. Damon will likely bat second for Detroit as former Yankees’ top prospect, Austin Jackson, is expected to bat first. That will decrease his SB opportunities as it did last year with Damon behind Jeter but in ’09 Damon posted some of the best metrics of his career. He was 12/12 in SB attempts and his XBT% of 52% was 13 points above the MLB average. There’s also the Yankee Stadium factor: what was a homerun last year in New York may only be a double or even a single this year in Detroit which will give him a few more chances at a steal. The only meaningful number that fell off this past season was Damon’s infield hits. In 2005 he led the AL with 35 infield hits but by 2009 that number had been cut in half to 18. Nonetheless, expect an increase over last year’s total of 12 but 20 SB may be a little too much to ask for. Prediction: 15-17 SB.
Now onto those players who will be 33 this season:
• Carlos Beltran (turns 33 in April; 11 SB in 2009) After returning in September from his knee injury, Beltran did not even attempt to steal a base. Perhaps he was still worried about the lingering effects of the bone bruise that knocked him out 69 games. This is significant because Beltran just had surgery in January 2010 and he will likely be going through the same mental barriers that he went through last year. Expect him to be like A-Rod last year following his hip injury in which he started off cautiously in running and then picked things up once he felt comfortable with his legs. Looking at his ’09 metrics, Beltran had a noticeable increase in GIDP% (14%) which was at nearly twice his career average of 7.5%. That percentage was the highest of his career and he grounded into 9 double plays (in 357 PAs) after grounding into just 11 double plays in 2008 (706 PAs). Another thing going against Beltran in 2010 is his spot in the batting order. After spending most of his career batting 3rd, he will likely slide to 4th or 5th as David Wright will hit 3rd and Jason Bay could hit 4th. That means fewer plate appearances which translates into fewer opportunities to reach base and attempt a steal. Prediction: 14-17 SB.
• Scott Podsednik (turned 34 in March; 30 SB in 2009) Podsednik is similar to another famous KC athlete, Priest Holmes, in that they were both productive in their 30s due to not having much tread on their tires in their 20s. Podsednik didn’t become a starter until he was 27 so he has fresh legs on his side. Another advantage he has is that now he will be an everyday player for the Royals after not playing at all in April in ’09 and yielding playing time to Alexis Rios in August and September with the White Sox. Podsednik’s 2009 XBT% and GIDP% were both par for his career and he even set a new career high in infield hits last year so his legs are definitely still there. He’s never had fewer than 30 steals in a season in which he’s had at least 500 at-bats and I don’t see that streak ending this year. Prediction: 30-32 SB.
• Juan Pierre (turns 33 in August; 30 SB in 2009) Even though he won’t be 33 until August, I decided to put Pierre on this list because he’s the active leader in SB and at this point, that stat is the only thing fantasy players will draft him for. Pierre is a high volume guy when it comes to SB; he steals a lot and he gets caught stealing a lot (led league in caught stealing 5 times). Now that he’s in Chicago he gets to be an everyday player again and in the 7 years in which he’s had at least 500 ABs, he’s reached at least 45 SB all 7 times. There was no noticeable decline in his play or metrics last season as his XBT%, SB%, and GIDP% were all in par with his career percentages. Don’t be surprised by a slow (running) start for Pierre as he has traditionally not run as much when the weather is cold in April and May as it was when he played for the Rockies and Cubs. But he should pick things up over the summer and will once again be among the league leaders in steals. Prediction: 40-42 SB.
Glossary
GIDP % - Grounded Into Double Play %: The rate at which a batter grounded into a double play.
XBH % - Extra Base Hit %: Percentage of all plate appearances ending with a double, triple, or home run.
XBT % - Extra Base Take %: Percentage of times the runner advanced more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double.
SB % - Stolen Base %: Stolen Bases/(Stolen Bases + Caught Stealing)