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BP/BP: Brandon Phillips on the Basepaths

Last season, Brandon Phillips got on base at the highest clip of his career. This was a pleasant surprise, helping give him a greater number of run-scoring opportunities in front of Votto, Rolen, Gomes and Bruce. "Runs scored" is a flawed individual stat because it relies heavily on the quality of hitters batting behind you, but credit Phillips for putting himself out there more often.

While he made outs less often at the plate, he made more in the process of stealing, as a function of a 57% success rate (16-28). His career rate is 72%, right around the "break even point," a mark that attempts to weigh the cost-and-benefits of stealing and identify a rate above which stealing is justified. According to the The Book, that mark is 72% (and could actually be 69%?) Baseball Prospectus set it at 70% in 2009. As near as I can tell, what figure you wind up with depends on whether you’re using win value or run expectancy – on top of the run environment for a given season - but between 70-75% seems like a good range. (Thanks to ken for bringing these various percentages to my attention).

So if Phillips steals closer to his career mark, he could just break even. But if he continues getting picked off and gunned down as he has the last few seasons, he's handing out IOUs and might want to select his spots more carefully. He’s also going to be aboard in front of Votto, who's likely to see more hitter-friendly fastball counts - and who’s more likely to walk, negating the 1st-to-2nd steal.

Even if you think Phillips stealing should be curtailed - which seems, tentatively, like a good idea - giving him an all around red light is a little drastic, due to of the possible advantages the threat of stealing could provide for Votto (pitchers throwing more fastballs in an effort to come to the plate faster) and the need to keep the defense honest (covering bases, which possibly opens up holes for Votto too).

Beyond that, it's worth mentioning that BP was second on the team Equivalent Base Running Runs last season. This is a counting stat, but it seems to suggest Phillips didn't wipe out the value of getting on base more by making more baserunning outs. In all honestly, I don't know much to trust it, but in theory, it measures the value of other baserunning activites beyond stealing:

EqBRR is calculated as the sum of various baserunning components: Equivalent Ground Advancement Runs (EqGAR), Equivalent Stolen Base Runs (EqSBR), Equivalent Air Advancement Runs (EqAAR), Equivalent Hit Advancement Runs (EqHAR) and Equivalent Other Advancement Runs (EqOAR).

Even casting aside the statistical arcana, it seems possible that Phillips is making up for being caught stealing by going 1st-to-3rd more often and generally taking advantage of being on base by advancing farther on the basepaths. If getting caught stealing, and pick-offs especially, are a function declining quickness, maybe he should stay closer to the bag. But to the extent to which lead-offs help him advance on the basepaths, maybe he also sacrifices a little value gotten from being able to take the extra base.

I'm far from being able to roll this all up into a unified analysis, but it's possible what Phillips needs to do is to pick his spots to steal better, to accomodate for whatever deficit he has that's causing him to steal less effectively. Meanwhile, if feints at the steal, he can keep opposing teams on guard, while keeping himself in a position to advance on batted balls.

The critical factor remains staying in good position - whether in a potential pick-off situation or a batted ball. That's something that can improve with experience and, perhaps, the repetition of running in front of the same hitters. But it's also sure to be helped by knowing who you're running against (catchers, pitchers, shortstops, outfield arms) and when it's worth getting that extra jump.

I doubt Phillips is bad as his CS last season indicates, but he'll have to adjust his approach if he wants to take full advantage of increased time spent on the bases. Everyone else can help by hitting a home run every time they come to the plate.