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The Royals are attempting to swipe bags at a league-high rate. Is that helping the offense?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken

Did you hear that the 2019 Royals were going to exploit speed? It’s true! And so far these Royals are running. As in trying to swipe bags. Like a lot of bags. All the time.

In games through the weekend, no team was attempting larceny on the base paths quite like the Royals.

Stolen Base Opportunity %

Team SBO%
Team SBO%
Royals 11.17%
Rangers 8.12%
White Sox 7.43%
Mariners 7.13%
Nationals 6.82%

Stolen Base Opportunity (SBO) is defined by Baseball Reference as a plate appearance with a runner on first and second and the next base open. The percentage is simply the rate where the teams take advantage of that situation by attempting to swipe a bag. The Royals are practically lapping the field in SBO%. For better perspective, league average is 5.1 percent. That’s some kind of perspective, more than doubling the league average.

Even though this isn’t particularly a sabermetric stat, it’s one that we can say jives with the eye test. When you’re watching a Royals game and you see a runner on first with second base open, depending on who’s on base, you have a pretty good idea of what’s coming next.

Individual SBO%

Name SBO SB CS SB% SBO%
Name SBO SB CS SB% SBO%
Terrance Gore 11 4 3 57% 63.64%
Billy Hamilton 24 8 3 73% 45.83%
Chris Owings 18 4 1 80% 27.78%
Adalberto Mondesi 34 7 1 88% 23.53%
Whit Merrifield 53 5 2 71% 13.21%
Jorge Soler 28 0 1 0% 3.57%
Hunter Dozier 34 0 1 0% 2.94%
Team Total 358 28 12 70% 11.17%

He may not like it, but Gore is on this team because of his singular, elite speed tool. He’s entered the game as a pinch runner six times. But his overall numbers—four steals in seven attempts—are abysmal. Granted, two of those caught stealings have been classified as “caught stealing—pickoff” and that’s certainly not the same as getting gunned down by a catcher. Still, an out on the bases is an out on the bases. He may be going on first movement, but with his speed, there just isn’t a good reason to flip the afterburners so early. And when the team is reaching base at a rate that’s below the league average, or if he’s inserted into the game specifically to advance a base in an attempt to manufacture a run, those outs hurt just a little more.

Billy Hamilton is one of those on-base-challenged Royals (his current .298 OBP is the exact same as his career rate) but he’s capitalizing on the opportunities he’s had, running just over 45 percent of the time and sliding in successfully at a rate of 73 percent. Overall, his fWAR is at a negative, but Hamilton has been worth 1.8 Baserunning Runs (BRR) according to Baseball Prospectus. That’s the best mark on the Royals.

Adalberto Mondesi and Chris Owings are both running around a quarter of all opportunities and have been, on the average, wildly successful. Mondesi’s current success rate of 88 percent is fantastic. Owings, who has minimal overall value to this team, shows up well in the above table. If only he could, you know, actually reach base.

Steady as he runs, Whit Merrifield is about where you probably would have predicted he would be at this early point in the season.

Here’s where the Royals individually stand on the BRR metric:

Baserunning Runs

# NAME BRR
# NAME BRR
1 Billy Hamilton 1.8
2 Alex Gordon 1.2
3 Chris Owings 1.1
4 Whit Merrifield 0.5
5 Ryan O'Hearn 0.2
6 Cam Gallagher -0.1
7 Adalberto Mondesi -0.1
8 Kelvin Gutierrez -0.3
9 Lucas Duda -0.3
10 Hunter Dozier -0.9
11 Jorge Soler -0.9
12 Martin Maldonado -1.4
13 Terrance Gore -1.5

Interesting that Alex Gordon’s name is missing from the previous tables—he has yet to attempt a steal even though he has a team-high 63 SBO—yet he ranks second on the team in BRR. You don’t have to be a burner or successful at swiping a base to rate highly here. It just pays to be smart on the bases. According to Baseball Reference, Gordon has taken an extra base 58 percent of the time, the second-best rate on the team. (He’s been on first base five times when a double was hit and has scored all five times.) And he owns a .409 OBP, so he’s on base a lot. Plus, he’s made just one out while on the bases. Just another indication of his renaissance.

Gore as last on the Royals in BRR is the result of the pickoffs, a couple of straight caught stealings and a couple of other, slightly more bizarre caught stealings. Like his stolen base success rate, if he remains with the team for a few more months, his BRR will rise. He’s currently the victim of the small sample of his poor decisions.

Let’s focus on another number from the Individual SBO% table above. In the team total line, it reveals the Royals collective success rate on steals is a less than robust 70 percent. Even factoring in the pickoffs and whatnot, that’s less than ideal, especially on a team with as many burners as the Royals.

It’s become a bit of a sabermetric myth that the break-even point on stolen base success is 75 percent. Actually, the rate fluctuates season to season and even on a team by team basis. In fact, in a study published at Fangraphs a few years ago, Bradley Woodrum illustrated how the value of the steal is tied to the amount of home runs hit.

Basically, it’s about how teams create runs. The more dingers, the less the need to swipe a base because, after all, a runner who is on first is going to score on a home run just the same as if he stole second base. That increases the break even success rate on a steal. Conversely, if you’re not hitting a lot of balls over the fence, the greater need (or value) you would have for a steal. Research from Woodrum at Fangraphs revealed that because of this relationship between a home run and a steal, a stolen base break even point isn’t just something that is applied at a league level. It can be broken down by teams.

Traditionally, the Royals aren’t one of those teams who hit a lot of dingers. You know this. It’s in the organizational DNA going back to the wide expanse of artificial turf once patrolled by Willie Wilson, Amos Otis and Al Cowens.

The last two-plus seasons, the Royals have turned that truism on its head.

Royals Highest HR/PA Seasons

Year HR/PA
Year HR/PA
2017 3.20%
2019 3.10%
1987 2.74%
2003 2.60%
2018 2.56%

As their percentage of home runs per plate appearance has increased, their break even success rate on a stolen base has likewise increased. Here’s the same table, but with their break even stolen base percentage based on Woodrum’s formula.

Royals Highest Break-Even SB Success Rates

Year HR/PA Break Even SB Success
Year HR/PA Break Even SB Success
2017 3.20% 69.66%
2019 3.10% 69.32%
1987 2.74% 68.12%
2003 2.60% 67.66%
2018 2.56% 67.52%

The irony here is that while Dayton Moore and the Royals front office set about constructing a roster with speed as its centerpiece, the power at the center of the lineup is slightly reducing the value of the steal. (That’s just a tiny irony and a simplistic analysis. The speed helps in more facets of the game besides just swiping bags and taking the extra base.)

So even while the Royals current (through Sunday) stolen base success rate of 70% seems low, it’s right in line with their current break even point. Could it be better? You bet. Should it be better? In a lineup with Merrifield, Mondesi, Hamilton and with Gore coming off the bench and even with Owings hanging around, it sure feels like their success rate should be at least five percentage points higher.

The green light abounds on this team. They are going to be aggressive on the bases and with that comes the occasional mistake. Given time, that aggressiveness can pay greater dividends than we’ve already seen. Especially if they can channel that style of play with smarter base running.