Saturday, September 5, 2009

No Matter How they Fare, Riggleman Will Keep Sending the Runners

Since Jim Riggleman took over the Nationals, he has turned them into one of the more aggressive base-running teams in the league.

Compared to a league-average a bit under 0.85, the Nationals have attempted 0.96 per game, which would rank 9th in MLB for the season. Under Manny Acta, the team attempted just 0.62 stolen bases per game, which would rank 25th in the league.

Unfortunately, the aggressiveness isn't helping. To generate a net positive impact on scoring, the stolen base success rate needs to be around at least 73%. If you're lower than that, you'd basically be better off never attempting a steal at all. That's because the run value (the average runs added as a result of a particular event) of a stolen base is 0.175, while the run value of a caught stealing in -0.467.

The Nationals have attempted 46 stolen bases in Riggleman's 48 games, getting thrown out 18 times for a dismal 60.9% success rate, worse than any team in baseball this year except the Cubs and the notoriously overly aggressive Lou Piniella. Under Acta, the team had a still bad but less awful 66.7% success rate.

Perhaps more telling is that of the eight teams that have attempted steals more frequently than Riggleman's Nationals this year, the average success rate is 73.8%. Only the Rockies (64.7%) come close to Riggleman in terms of running so much, so unsuccessfully.

The net impact of all that running is -3.51 runs, enough to cost the team a full win. Ouch.

Of course, a lot of the difference in stolen base attempts comes from Nyjer Morgan. Without a major base-stealing threat like Morgan, Acta of course ran less.

Unfortunately, even Morgan hasn't helped all that much. Since Riggleman took over, Morgan's success rate is 72%, basically the exact breaking point between helping and hurting. All that flash and excitement, and he might as well be stealing as much as Dmitri Young. (Morgan was 6-0 stealing in his brief time with Acta.)

And what does it say about a manager that he gets significantly poorer performance in the running game while being given substantially better base-stealers?

Riggleman defenders can also point to Elijah Dukes, who has been an exceptionally bone-headed on the base paths this year, getting himself thrown out a whopping 10 times in 12 attempts this year. However, Dukes is responsible for only 3 caught stealings since Riggleman took over. Even if you take Dukes out of the equation totally the team would have a 65.1% success rate, still worse than all but four other teams in the league and bad enough to cost the team 2.1 net runs in 48 games.

And then there have been the suicide squeezes. Suicide squeezes are the kind of low-percentage, one-run strategy that should be avoided except in the rarest of close, late-game situations with poor hitters at the plate. As Riggleman himself said "It's kind of the luck of the draw. You hope you can get a pitch the guy can handle."

So it's not verboten, but you want to do it only when you're tied or down one very late and have few other good offensive options. And really it's never with less than two outs because you can score so many different ways in those situations.

Riggleman, in his 1-for-3 suicide attempts, has done it in these situations:
  • Sixth inning, one out, up four with Alberto Gonzalez hitting.
  • Second inning, one out up four runs with Nyjer Morgan hitting
  • Fourth inning, up two, again only one out with Wil Nieves batting.
Riggleman has avoided too much attention by calling this play in games with big leads, but as we've seen all year, the Nationals have the kind of bullpen that means no lead is every safe, and the team should almost always play for the big inning, not the one-run.

Riggleman's running is hurting the team right now, and especially now that Morgan is out and so much of his scoring is coming from the long-ball, he needs to take a lesson from Earl Weaver, shelve the small-ball, and embrace the three-run homer.

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