By Alexander Haynes
Part Two to a Two Part Series
The steal in baseball is a derisive analytic. In one regard, steals are partial to luck and human spirit more than any natural play. Projecting steals is difficult as the play is not built on a tenured pattern of batting, pitching, but rather a very specific skill set. That agile skill set is natural to some players, can be coached but it can also be stopped. Throwing from the catcher position to second or the pitcher picking off a player can be trained, but it is also partial to attention of the defense, focus of the umpire and general intensity of the moment.
Hence, some teams do not build runs on steal, citing the risk as too high for the reward. The threat is important, but consistently building runs in this matter leads toward high variation. Other teams, however, view steals as essential to stealing the win. A play called at the right moment when the pitcher, catcher or an infielder in a lull can lead to a game-winning opportunity. This team would argue variation can stay low due to the precision when the steal is called. In other words, using situational analytics to create certainty in an uncertain play.
The Bobcats are a team who would argue and support the latter trend as only Coastal Carolina had more attempted Sun Belt steals than Texas State (88 to 87). Even better is the fact they were caught stealing only 25 times. An 87:25 ratio points to the timing and execution instilled by head coach Ty Harrington and his staff. Furthermore, in studying the individual steals compared to the total run output, there was little correlation.
The steals came as a nice present instead of the offense being wholly reliant on stealing to produce plays. The third-best OPS in the Sun Belt (.790) paints that picture clearly enough. The third most walks at 271 only epitomize the overall discipline of the team at the plate. An efficient team is often disciplined, creating a product that does not vanish over the course of an off-season.
In some regards, that product will only grow as the team grows. With Luke Sherley (39 walks), Ryan Newman (.491 SLG), Jonathan Ortega (.502 SLG, 27 walks) Derek Scheible (37 walks) and Jaylen Hubbard (23 walks) returning in the lineup, the offense should be just as patient. Power can be taught, discipline is hard to engrain and coach Harrington has discipline in his offense. Even players such as Travon Benton can make leaps in his senior year if he refines his swing. Despite a .299 SLG, 34 walks are no mere walk line to scoff at.
The downside of all the stealing, however, is that teams do the same to the Bobcats, delivering a frustrating taste of their own medicine. Raising the run differential will encompass brining that austere plate discipline to fielding and pitching.
First, no team was stolen on more in the Sun Belt than the Bobcats. A mind numbing 134 steals given up is simply egregious and must be fixed. In Bobcats’ wins, teams attempted 1.3 steals per game; when they lost, that level rose to 1.8. While a .5 per game attempt raise does not seem super important, consider that in Bobcats’ wins, teams averaged .8 steals. In losses, that level rose to 1.4 stolen bases against – a raise in attempts directly rose the number of stolen bases which were successful.
The implication is clear: attempt more steals on the Bobcats, produce more chaos on the bases, scoring opportunities increase. Teams who are athletic and opportune enough can take advantage of poor fielding. However, unlike discipline at the plate, fielding can be improved through experience and hard work in the off-season. As the players play together longer, their overall success at caching and disturbing those who steal increase. Catching teams at the plate is a matter of mechanics, refinement and practice.
Steals will be the aspect the Bobcats can turn momentum in a game. Steals have that painful, chaos, invoking premise around them. Yet, at the same time there is a brevity about how often steals can turn into efficiency. A steal for the sake of a steal is fundamentally inefficient.
In totality, the Bobcats’ bats must find more ways to string together plays to get ahead of pitchers. The threat of stealing will distract a pitcher, and speed on second place is incredibly distracting away from the batter at the plate. That fear can assist the goal of extending each at bat and getting to pitchers earlier in the game.
Scouting baseball and pitching tendencies are a fundamental aspect of coaching, but executing on those tendencies is another. The best way to get after pitchers early is extending each at bat and finding when poor tendencies make them vulnerable. Each player has a certain pitch they look for, and by extending those at bats they focus on manipulating each at bat which becomes a goal.
As Bobcat Baseball is opening, the one word which may define their 2018 success is just tenant of fighting pitch-to-pitch: focus.
Featured image by KTSW Multimedia.