This post would’ve been much timelier on Friday morning, when Mike Trout had just one stolen base through 15 games. However, though Trout’s “doubled” his season total in the game since then, the question posed in the headline is still worth asking and answering:
It’s April 191. Mike Trout has only two stolen bases. Should we be concerned?
Short Answer: No. No we shouldn’t. ~fin~
Long Answer: Worrying over Trout’s stolen bases is a bit like ordering a double chocolate fudge cake and fretting about whether or not it’s going to have chocolate sprinkles. Sure, the sprinkles would be nice to have—who doesn’t love sprinkles?—but their absence isn’t going to make or break the whole cake experience. You still get a shitload of chocolate either way.
If Trout continues to steal bases at his present clip—roughly one attempt for every nine opportunities1—he’ll finish the year with somewhere between 20-25 bags. More likely than not, though, he’s going to improve on his current rate. The fewest SB attempts he’s made in any full month as a starter is four, and his career rate is closer to one attempt every six or seven chances. His rate is going to go up.
What that doesn’t mean, though, is that we should expect Trout to suddenly go back to being a threat to steal 50+ bases. As a leadoff man in 2012, Trout pretty much had carte blanche to take off whenever he wanted, but that green light has faded considerably since moving closer to the heart of the order. Trout made a run for the open bag in roughly 22% of his opportunities in 2012, but last season that rate was nearly halved, dropping to 12.3%. Translated into non-percentages, he had 80(!) more opportunities at a stolen base in 2013, but ended up making 14 fewer attempts. That is a massive shift, to be sure, but one that still allowed him to swipe 33 bases last year. So, essentially, as long as Trout continues to get on base at an otherworldly rate, he’s probably going to be among the league leaders in steals for years to come.
Another thing: Of the five traditional baseball tools for position players—hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, throwing arm, and defense—speed is far and away the least valuable. While searching for the toolsiest player in the game1 earlier this month, noted baseball blogger Jeff Sullivan determined that a player’s speed has little relationship to his Wins Above Replacement, calculating a correlation coefficient3 of merely 0.13 between wheels and WAR. This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense; players without any quicks on the ball field frequently find great success—Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Paul Konerko, etc.—but players who provide speed and little else—Billy Hamilton, Quintin Berry, non-April-2014 Dee Gordon—typically have trouble staying on big-league rosters.
If we look at Mike Trout’s stellar record on the bases, the limited overall value of speed is borne out in rather plain terms. Per Baseball-Reference, Trout has been far and away the best baserunner4 in the game over the last two seasons. At 12.9 baserunning runs above average, he’s just one of two players to be worth double-digit runs on the base paths since 2012. And yet, his value as a runner is absolutely dwarfed by his contributions at the plate. He’s accumulated a whopping 120.2 batting runs above average over the same span, meaning his offensive performance has been nearly 10 times more valuable than everything he’s done on the bases. He could morph into Vince Coleman overnight, swiping 100+ bases, and it would still make only a small ripple. The most valuable single season by a baserunner was Maury Wills’ 1962 season, when his 104 stolen bases helped him accrue 18.6 baserunning runs, or roughly what Trout achieves in the batter’s box in a little over a month.
So, then, should we be worried that Trout is stealing bases less frequently?
No. No we shouldn’t. It’s always going to be fun to dream of Trout (or anyone else, really) potentially stealing 60-70 bases in a season, but it’s not the end of the world if he doesn’t. He’s still an elite baserunner when not swiping bags, so, given what we know about baserunning’s already limited value, a slight decrease SBs will hardly affect the overall utility of his speed on the bases.
1 In this case, “opportunities” are plate appearances that result in the batter being on first or second with the next base open.
2 Spoiler Alert: It’s Mike Trout.
3 A coefficient of 1 indicates a perfect linear relationship between the two variables, while 0 indicates no relationship whatsoever. The other four tools all fell between 0.43 and 0.53, meaning they are much more important when it comes to overall value.
4 Stolen bases being just one fraction of this calculation; tagging up, taking extra bases and all other baserunning shenanigans are also included.