All across the interwebs, many words have been typed and published about the high-powered Red Sox offense. There is obviously good reason for this, as they’ve been the best lineup in baseball. Even with some recent scuffling against the likes of Miguel Gonzalez, Tyler Wilson and Pat Dean (seriously though, let’s stop doing that), Boston’s offense has still scored more runs than anyone else in baseball while also producing the league’s highest wRC+. Obviously, the hitting is the most important part of that. I don’t think that merits more explanation. Base running is a big part of scoring those runs as well, and the Red Sox are among the best in the league in this area as well. Specifically, they’ve been outstanding at stealing bases.
That isn’t to say that they are the best team in the league in terms of total steals, because they’re not. Heading into Tuesday’s action, they are just outside the top-five and trail the number one team by 13 steals. They also don’t steal as much as the other top teams, finding themselves right in the middle of the pack in steal attempts. Of course, when you put those two facts together, you get to the crux of their success: efficiency. The Red Sox have successfully stolen a base on 85.4 percent of their attempts, far and away the highest rate in the league. Cleveland is the second most efficient team in baseball, and they are a full six percentage points behind Boston. In fact, that gap between the top spot and second spot on the leaderboard is the same as the gap between the second spot and the eighth spot. This isn’t just an outlier in 2016, either. The last team to steal bases this efficiently was in 2013, and sure enough it was the Red Sox yet again.
So, with all of this efficiency, it’s only natural to wonder whether or not they should start trying to steal more bases. The easy answer is yes. They’ve proven to be good at it, so why wouldn’t they take advantage of this skill set? Of course, we know it’s not that easy. It’s just as likely that their real talent is picking their spots well, and by attempting in different situations they’d only get caught at a higher rate and not gain anything as a result. It’s a very fine line to walk in situations like these.
The first thing that made sense to look at was who exactly would be stealing more bases. It’s easy to say the Red Sox should try to swipe more bags, but obviously we don’t want David Ortiz to be the one doing it, for example. The obvious answers based on performance this year are Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley. All three have been productive at the plate and on the base paths this year, and all three are young enough to not worry about wear-and-tear during a long season.
The latter can’t be said about Ortiz or Dustin Pedroia. We’ll lump Betts and Bogaerts together, as they’re very similar in this scenario. They have both attempted 12 steals on the season, with Betts being successful 11 times while Bogaerts made it safely 10 times. That is actually a really solid pace, with the former on pace for 25 over a full season and the latter on pace for 23. More importantly, they are both right in the middle of the most important portion in Boston’s lineup. You don’t want Betts getting thrown out in front of Bogaerts, Ortiz or Hanley Ramirez, and likewise for Bogaerts. It becomes very important for them to pick their spots, because them getting caught is a legitimate rally killer.
Bradley is a little different, however. On the one hand, he hasn’t made nearly as many attempts as the other two. So far, he’s only tried to steal five bags, and he’s been successful in all of them. In fact, he’s stolen 18 bases over his major-league career without getting caught. Fun Fact Alert: That is the most steals without a caught stealing of any player since 1948. I think that’s a pretty good sign that he should be more aggressive. Obviously, you don’t want his success rate to fall down too much, but a career success rate of 100 percent is likely more indicative of being risk-averse rather than him being the best base stealer of all time. Additionally, he sort of represents the end of the meat of the Red Sox lineup, hitting in front of the left field and catching spots on most nights. Boston can afford to be more aggressive in those spots as it’s harder to push runs across the plate.
The final point I would like to make involves scoping back to the team level for a minute. In terms of their opponents, the Red Sox are in a unique position to steal bases at a high rate. Since they obviously play most of their games against AL East opponents, they are running on the worst group of catchers in the league, at least looking at their caught stealing rates in 2016. Russell Martin, Brian McCann and Matt Wieters are all below the league average in CS% this year, and Curt Casili is right at it. These are teams against whom the Red Sox should be more aggressive, and they play them very often.
There’s a fine line to walk between being a good base stealing team and one that just compiles a lot of steals while also getting caught a lot. The Red Sox are erring quite far on the side of safety in this area in 2016, and there’s probably some room for them to be more aggressive. The most obvious solution falls on the shoulders of Jackie Bradley, who is still waiting for his first caught stealing as a major-league player. Even speaking more generally, the team could be more aggressive in division games. That means guys like Marco Hernandez, Deven Marrero, Brock Holt and Blake Swihart should take advantage of weak opponents when the opportunity presents itself. Boston’s lineup doesn’t need help scoring runs, but it never hurts to add more wrinkles to an attack.