Hubris, the Science of Basestealing, and the Royals

Allow me to share a story about a friend from highschool. This was a smart guy--a very strong student in math and science and a natural in matters of logic and debate. But he also had a streak of arrogance about his abilities that got him into trouble in certain situations.

One of these situations was online poker. This was at the height of the poker boom a few years back, and he thought he had the psychological state of the online poker player mapped out to a tee and readily manipulable. He'd plot out a flowchart of what to do given XYZ, fire up 10 hands of online poker at a time, and he figured that if he read his opponents properly and played his hands accordingly, over time, he'd come out way ahead.

In practice, players didn't always do what he expected, and the cards didn't turn out the way he thought they should, and the house took a cut of every hand. But he'd make adjustments, chalk poor results up to bad luck, and interpret hot streaks as his true talent. Naturally, he wound up broke.

This, to me, is the story of Ned Yost's steal-happy Royals.

The Royals think that if they do their homework and read the situation right, they’ll beat the house. But the results show that it’s not working and it hasn’t worked for a long time. It’s time for them to accept reality, but instead, they keep trying to game the system, and when they luck into a hot streak, they take that as confirmation that their adjustments have worked, and expect that hot streak to be the norm going forward. Of course, just like my friend wound up broke and believing that he'd been a victim of fate, the Royals will finish the season having given away a ton of outs and convinced that they just had bad luck.

To the Royals coaches and managers, a stolen base attempt is a scientific calculation. You time the pitcher, you optimize your lead, you perfect your technique, and when the conditions are right, you run and you should be safe. If you’re out, some value in the calculation was off—maybe you hesitated on your jump or didn’t execute your slide properly.

But in the minds of the Royals decision-makers, while the values inputted into a stolen base consideration may vary, the formula itself is never wrong. A stolen base is always a matter of cold science where if you optimize your execution and pick your spots, you can be safe almost every time.

But the results tell a different story. How long does reality need to keep banging on their door, yelling that Jeff Francoeur, Eric Hosmer, Humberto Quintero, etc are not good risks to steal before Royals management answers the call?

Things regularly happen in a stolen base attempt that the Royals maddeningly chalk up to bad luck. "Pefect throw—unlucky!" "That pick-off throw should have been called a balk!" "The ONE time they pitched out!" "Just didn’t get a good jump that time—he’ll do better next time."

It’s time for the Royals to accept that their calculations don’t match the empirical results, and to adjust their base stealing philosophy accordingly. If they want to steal with an 80% success rate, they need to limit their base stealing to their personnel that can steal safely even if the catcher makes a good throw, even if the jump isn’t perfect, even if he stumbles into the slide or whatever fraction of a second disruption it is that the Royals don’t account for. Because reality throws curveballs, and if you calculate that if things go right, you'll have an 80% chance of being safe, reality will find ways to turn that 80% calculated success rate into a 40% actual success rate.

It's time for the Royals management to let go of this hubristic notion that if they count cards and play their hand perfectly, they can beat the house and walk away with more runs than their personnel allows. If they would instead play conservatively and limit their steal attempts to Jarrod Dyson, Chris Getz and Alcides Escobar, they'd find that their base stealing will actually be improving their chances to win instead of hamstringing their offense by giving away outs and runners.

This FanPost was written by a member of the Royals Review community. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and writers of this site.

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