With Age, Phillies’ Base Running Aggression Fades

In late March, I wrote a preview of the 2010 Phillies for The Hardball Times, answering five questions on various topics. While I’m pretty happy with my prognostications, one question sticks out like a sore thumb, and it has to do with the Phillies’ base running. I wrote:

In 2010, the same group of runners — Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, and Jayson Werth — will be back and they have replaced a poor base runner in Pedro Feliz with a good base runner in Placido Polanco. Expect them to once again be the best in the game at swiping bags with efficiency.

In terms of overall stolen bases, the Phillies have 86 compared to the National League average 82. That is a clear drop in aggression as shown in the tables within the THT article. However, the Phillies are just as efficient as ever, successfully stealing in 83 percent of their attempts compared to the league average 71 percent. In fact, the Phillies dwarf the competition in base-stealing efficiency as second-place Florida has a relatively meager 78 percent success rate.

Why has there been a drop in aggression?

% of team’s SB attempts
Player 2008 2009 2010
Rollins 31% 27% 17%
Victorino 29% 22% 34%
Utley 10% 16% 9%
Werth 13% 16% 12%
TOTAL 83% 80% 71%

Since 2008, the Phillies’ main base-stealing threats have revolved around a foursome that includes Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, and Jayson Werth. The table to the right shows the percentage of the team’s overall stolen base attempts for which each player is accountable.

The name that jumps out at you is Jimmy Rollins. His aggression has nearly been cut in half in comparison to 2008, and the obvious explanation is his calf injury. Rollins has played in just 83 of the team’s 145 games and logged 374 PA in comparison to 625 and 725 in 2008 and ’09 respectively. Prorating Rollins’ 18 attempts over 625 PA, we come up with 31 attempts, which is eight fewer attempts than he had last year, even though his on-base percentage is about 30 points higher.

Rollins was injured on April 12 and did not return until May 17. He quickly went back on the disabled list May 21 and did not return until June 22. From May 17 to July 5, Rollins did not attempt one stolen base. He finally stole a base on July 6 but would not attempt another one until July 17. That’s a span of 26 games with just one attempted steal. Since July 17 (49 games), Rollins has attempted 15 stolen bases, 14 of them ending in success.

Given the combination of Rollins’ offensive struggles (his OPS is still below .700) and his calf strains, it is understandable why he hasn’t been attempting to steal as much.

Chase Utley‘s aggression on the bases has also decreased, now accounting for nine percent of the team’s stolen base attempts compared to 16 percent last year. Like Rollins, Utley missed a lot of time due to injury, playing in 99 of the team’s 145 games. However, Utley’s injury wasn’t in the lower-half of his body so his legs clearly aren’t the issue. But Utley has still been less aggressive than usual. Prorating his nine attempts over last year’s 687 PA, we come up with just 14 attempts, which is nine less than his total attempts in ’09. His OBP is only twelve points lower.

Jayson Werth‘s lack of aggression is even more perplexing. He hasn’t been injured thus he’s been in the lineup almost every day, his OBP has actually improved, and he generally hasn’t strayed from his #5 spot in the batting order. It is strange that he is on pace for only 14 attempts this year if we prorate it to last year’s 676 PA. That is a drop-off of nine attempts. The best explanation I can find is that five percent more of his hits have gone for extra bases this year compared to ’09, meaning that more of his stolen base opportunities are second-to-third rather than first-to-second. Still, I don’t think that explains a 40 percent decrease in attempts.

Overall, as the table above indicates, the Phillies have had fewer of their stolen base attempts coming from their best base runners. That is somewhat explained by injuries to two of their key runners, but the Phillies have otherwise still become more passive on the bases. As I wrote last week, the Phillies as a group are getting rather old. Just as bat speed decreases with age, so too does foot speed. The run-and-gun Phillies offenses of 2007-09 clearly wouldn’t persist forever, and I think this season is a rather poignant example of why offenses need to be constantly evolving.

In 2011, there is only going to be one new face in the everyday lineup and that is Domonic Brown, who stole 13 or more bases in each of his five Minor League seasons with an overall 72 percent success rate. He will be replacing Werth who has had comparable aggression but was much more efficient with an 87.5 percent success rate. I don’t think even one can call the exchange break-even in terms of simple base-stealing. Unless the Phillies bolster the bench with a pinch-runner type like Jason Bourgeois, or introduce some new schema, the offense will continue to slowly stagnate.