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.

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21 comments

  1. Richard

    September 14, 2010 07:58 AM

    Obviously one cannot discount age as a factor, but it seems the simplest explanation for this season is the injuries. As you note, Rollins and Utley have missed a lot of time. It takes a while to get back in the swing of things, and, indeed, Rollins did begin to run a lot in August, and quite successfully. As for Utley’s and Werth’s aggressiveness? Why would attempts decline precipitously in just one year because of age? Frankly, that makes little sense. Now, going forward, yeah, I think we’re likely to see less and less and running from this group, but it seems a little hasty to assign age as the primary reason for one season (except insofar as age might be related to Rollins’ injuries, which is open for debate).

  2. BS

    September 14, 2010 08:08 AM

    Chase’s 2009 seemed like an outlier to me. And actually his PA/SB this year is pretty similar to pre-2009 years (and in some cases better)

    Rather than age, I wonder if part of the reason Werth’s attempts are down is because his contract concerns, trying to play it safer to avoid injury.

  3. Jon

    September 14, 2010 08:15 AM

    The offensive troubles have led to a slowdown as well, since teams run more when they’re up then when they’re down.

    Given the way everyone seems to treat Davey Lopes as a miracle worker with the Phils’ baserunners, I don’t think it’s impossible that Dom Brown’s success rate will go up quite a bit next season, assuming Davey sticks around.

  4. Bill Baer

    September 14, 2010 08:28 AM

    Davey Lopes has, in my opinion, definitively increased the Phillies’ efficiency rate as shown in the THT article. I don’t think Lopes has much of a say over aggression when two of the key runners have been injured and the team has declined a bit offensively. So, the Phillies are likely not to reach 2007-09 levels of aggression again but should see relatively similar success rates.

  5. Kellie

    September 14, 2010 11:17 AM

    Does Werth’s success rate take into account pickoffs? If not, will Brown really be a huge downgrade, considering Werth’s tendency to get picked off?

  6. Bill Baer

    September 14, 2010 11:21 AM

    Werth doesn’t have a “tendency” to get picked off. He’s been picked off three times this year. Last year, Jimmy Rollins was picked off five times and Shane Victorino four. In 2008, Victorino was picked off four times, and Eric Bruntlett and Rollins three times each. None of them had a “tendency” to get picked off; it’s a product of aggressive base running.

  7. Rich

    September 14, 2010 11:29 AM

    Also, is it just me or do most minor leaguers have horrendous success rates with stolen bases?
    Maybe running like crazy without regard to actually making it is encouraged in the minors.

  8. Dan

    September 14, 2010 11:52 AM

    In regard to Werth’s “tendency” to getting picked off:

    That’s confirmation bias. It seems like people are just looking for reasons not to like Werth. Why? Because he’s a premier FA and we likely won’t be able to resign him? Don’t hate on the guy just because he’s doing what’s best for him in the long run. Just be thankful for what he’s done for us.

    Also, Utley got picked off yesterday. he got to second without any trouble, but he was still picked off. Why isn’t he getting any flak? Oh, that’s right, because Utley will likely be a Phillie forever. I love Utley, but he is definitely not better on the base-paths than Werth is. Utley is a presence, Werth is a distraction.

  9. Dave Clark

    September 14, 2010 01:12 PM

    It is also Werth’s one big payday, so maybe he’s not as interested in potentially getting hurt stealing second. Remember both Utley and Howard were hurt at second base . . .

  10. schmenkman

    September 14, 2010 01:27 PM

    Bill, when I looked a couple of days ago, since July 1 the Phils led the NL in steals (as you say Rollins came off the DL 6/22).

  11. schmenkman

    September 14, 2010 01:49 PM

    Since July 1, they are 3rd in attempts, 1st in SBs, and 12th in CS.

    Attempts:
    1. Mets 71
    2. Padres 65
    3. Phils 62
    3. Rockies 62
    5. Dodgers 59
    5. Nats 59

    Steals:
    1. Phils 50
    2. Mets 49
    3. Padres 47
    4. Nats 46
    4. Rockies 46

  12. Richard

    September 14, 2010 02:15 PM

    Pretty much my point, though I’d forgotten the stat about them leading since 7/1, which was mentioned the other day on tv; thanks schmenkman (love your TGP stat notes, BTW).

  13. micah

    September 14, 2010 04:57 PM

    Werth got picked off in the world series.

  14. Jon

    September 14, 2010 05:28 PM

    Yes, but pickoffs are a necessary result of being an aggressive, base-stealing player.

    The pickoff by the catcher a couple weeks ago when he was on second, THAT is worthy of being called out for – in a private meeting, between him and Charlie, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And I don’t see why it will.

    For whatever reason sports fans seem to have an expectation that no player has the right to ever make a mental error. I’ll take the guy who’s excellent but with an occasional boneheaded play over David Eckstein any day.

  15. micah

    September 14, 2010 05:44 PM

    David Eckstein plays good defense up the middle and he gets paid a song. Therefore his salary to WAR ratio is outstanding. Has this blog taught you nothing?

  16. bill

    September 15, 2010 12:33 AM

    Utley was rumored to have some lingering minor knee issues earlier this season, so that might have cut down his stolen base attempts as well.

    Not only that, but for a long period the offense was just generally doing a poor job at getting on base, which will lead to fewer chances.

  17. Austin in PA

    September 15, 2010 09:58 PM

    I don’t have the stats in front of me, but I seem to recall reading in Bill James about the majority of Werth’s steals in 2009 being of third base and not of second. Anyone have that data handy, and how does that alter anyone’s view? Personally, I think it makes the drop in attempts even more perplexing, especially given Jayson’s huge increase in doubles this season over last.

  18. schmenkman

    September 15, 2010 10:42 PM

    As Richard and others said, much of the apparent reduction in aggressiveness is due to injuries and the reduction in playing time.

    If you look at attempts per 162 games, this is how the regulars’ 2010 compare to their 2008-2009 average (excluding Polanco):

    Rollins: -14
    Utley: -2
    Howard: -3
    Werth: -10
    Ibanez: +1
    Victorino: +1
    Ruiz: -4
    All Regulars: -32

    Even so, however, as noted above, the Phillies have been 3rd in the NL in attempts since July 1, and have led the league in steals over that period.

  19. Asher

    September 16, 2010 10:04 AM

    I think you have failed to consider opportunities. This crew has been on base a lot less this year than in years past, not just because of injuries but also because of performance. I believe their on-base percentage is down across the board in 2010.

  20. schmenkman

    September 16, 2010 04:50 PM

    OBP is lower, but not by much:

    As a team: .334 last year, .330 this year

    For the stealers:

    Rollins UP from .296 to .324
    Victorino DOWN, .358 to .330
    Utley about same, .397 to .388
    Werth about same, .373 to .379

  21. Dave Mendonca

    September 16, 2010 06:03 PM

    Regardless of the Phillies’ poor base running aggression and injury problems this season, they are getting hot at the right time. As a Blue Jays fan, it’s great to see Roy Halladay is about to have a 20 win season for you guys. He deserves to play in the post season. Quite frankly, I see you guys going to the World Series again this year. The other potential playoff teams — Braves/Giants (wild card), Reds and Padres don’t impress at all. The Phils have most of their core back except for Rollins. You guys are slicing through the NL yet again. Good luck to the Phils!

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