Can Old Players Rejuvenate Flagging Stolen Base Totals?

Tis the season to make New Year’s Resolutions. Lose 15 pounds, read more books, watch less television, get outside more often, or in Ian Kinsler’s case, steal more bases, as the second baseman recently told Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press. Until 2013, Kinsler had stolen at least 21 bases in each of his full seasons but swiped just 15 last season. He missed some time with a rib injury, but Kinsler blamed how he was managed by Ron Washington as well.

“…and when he did steal, many times it was as part of a hit-and-run in front of the strikeout-prone Elvis Andrus, Kinsler said in a teleconference after he was traded from Texas to Detroit in late November.

“A lot of times that didn’t work out for the team and I got thrown out by two to three steps,” he said. “So those necessarily have to go down as a stolen base attempt but those necessarily in my mind aren’t a stolen base attempt. I’m moving because of the hit-and-run.”

It is human nature to blame others for your shortcomings. It’s not my fault I gained 10 pounds or only read two book last year. It isn’t my fault that I logged 100x the hours on my laptop than I did a treadmill. It is my kids’ fault because their schedule is very busy. It is my wife’s fault because of the long honey-do lists she leaves me on a daily basis. The truth is, all of those things are my fault because I did not manage my time more efficiently.

The fact Kinsler did not steal 20 bases is also his fault. Amazingly, Kinsler did not hurt himself on his infamous face-flop slide in mid-May, rather, he claims he initially hurt himself on a slide earlier that month. Funny thing, the game logs show zero attempted steals for Kinsler in the series in Houston the previous weekend. Perhaps it was his slide into second when he took Robbie Grossman’s one-hopper throw from left field into the ribs.

The game logs also show that Andrus was only involved in failed hit and runs in three cases, which exceeded the times Kinsler was picked off at first base by one. The fact remains that the time Kinsler missed with his rib injury plus a handful of botched hit and run plays PLUS his age worked against him in 2013.

As much as we try to delay the inevitable, we all age. For baseball players, this means declining bat speed as well as declining foot speed. While faster players do tend to age more gracefully than slower ones, all players eventually lose speed. Kinsler is 31 and will turn 32 years old in 2014 and players at that age typically do not steal 20 or more bases. Since the league expanded to 30 teams, just 32 players have stolen 20 or more bases at that age at least one time in a season. Since 2009, 21 players have done so, and Ichiro Suzuki and Juan Pierre are the only players to do so in each of previous five seasons.

Unless we watch games with a stopwatch, it is tough to visualize a player losing their foot speed. Thankfully, we have Bill James’s work on Speed Score (Spd) to help us statistically track the loss of speed. Visually scouting players with a stopwatch is still the best way to see whether or not a player is slowing down, but Spd at least allows us to focus in on which players to time because even MLB organizations need multiple scouts to track all of the players in the sport. In Kinsler’s case, the numbers are a cause for concern.

Kinsler’s Spd score has declined each of the three previous seasons from 6.5 in 2011 to 5.9 in 2012 and just 4.7 in 2013. 4.5 is considered league average. Spd is graded on a 0-10 scale.

Rating Spd
Excellent 7.0
Great 6.0
Above Average 5.5
Average 4.5
Below Average 4.0
Poor 3.0
Awful 2.0

Kinsler’s score had dropped three tiers from a near-elite score to one that is barely above league average. He is not the only big name player in this category, even at his position, as Ben Zobrist is in the same boat. Zobrist’s Spd score has fallen from 6.2 to 5.3 to 4.4 over the past three seasons while his stolen base total ha declined each of the past four seasons. Whereas Zobrist was a 20/20 thread a few years ago, he was barely a 10/10 threat in 2013 as he finished the season with 12 home runs and 11 steals. Both players certainly have the odds stacked against them in their desire to end those statistical slides.
In terms of ending the three-year slides in Spd, the odds are actually quite good. Previously, there have been 232 players since 1960 that demonstrated three-year slides in Spd. 197 of those players ended three-year slides in their Spd score at age 30 or later, but that did not guarantee them a return to stolen base glory. In fact, just 10% of the players that ended the slide stole as many as 15 bases in that season.

Brady Anderson 31-34 7.7 5.8 5.5 5.8 21
Chuck Knoblauch 29-32 6.3 6.0 5.6 6.1 38
Darrell Evans 30-33 4.0 2.9 2.8 3.5 17
Dick Allen 27-30 5.0 4.8 3.6 5.2 19
Dickie Thon 27-30 6.6 4.5 3.4 3.9 19
Hank Aaron 30-33 5.4 5.2 5.0 5.2 17
Jimmy Rollins 30-33 6.7 6.5 5.8 6.7 30
Juan Pierre 28-31 7.7 7.6 6.3 7.9 30
Kenny Lofton 28-31 7.6 6.9 6.0 7.5 29
Lou Brock 37-40 7.4 7.0 5.3 6.0 21
Luis Aparicio 35-38 6.7 5.8 4.3 5.7 24
Paul Molitor 34-37 7.9 7.0 5.1 7.0 18
Randy Winn 31-34 5.2 4.8 4.1 5.5 25
Reggie Sanders 27-30 7.6 6.1 5.8 6.5 18
Scott Fletcher 30-33 3.4 2.9 2.0 5.7 17
Steve Finley 34-37 5.8 5.4 4.7 5.4 16
Vada Pinson 29-32 6.0 5.0 4.8 5.6 21
Vince Coleman 28-31 8.8 8.2 6.5 9.1 38
Willie Wilson 32-35 8.5 8.4 7.1 8.0 20

Juan Pierre is an interesting case because his Spd score dropped in year five, but his stolen base total went up to 68 under lead-footed skipper Ozzie Guillen. That introduces the wildcard in this situation as well. For Zobrist, he is still under Joe Maddon’s green light approach to steals, so any upturn in his production would be of his own doing. For Kinsler, he is under first-time skipper Brad Ausmus who has no previous managerial experience outside of a stint leading the Israel national baseball team in the World Baseball Classic. We simply do not know how aggressive or passive the rookie manager will be with the running game.

There is a chance that either or both Kinsler and Zobrist will once again break the 20-steal plateau in 2014. We’re taught that once a player displays a skill, they own it, but that doesn’t always mean they can keep it the same forever. The odds are greater that neither player will steal 20 bases. That will force fantasy players to adjust how they value the multi-category players. Kinsler and Zobrist are annually $20+ players in auctions and last season, Kinsler’s ADP was 29 while Zobrist was 55. There is a good chance both players finish outside of the top 60 in their final 2014 dollar values despite the fact both players are likely to retain the top 60 ADP slots.

Kinsler and Zobrist were the third and fourth second basemen off the board in drafts last season behind Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia. Zobrist once again has dual-eligibility as he can also be drafted as a shortstop, but the competition is getting close behind the two. Jason Kipnis’s 2013 season could very well springboard him to third place on the ADP chart for second basemen as he displays the skill that is eroding from Kinsler and Zobrist.

Cano and Pedroia should still be your top two choices for the position, but who should be drafted in the third position is up for debate. Quite likely, it will not be two of the names we have grown accustomed to in recent years.

Thanks to John Benedetto for his help in gathering the data

One Response to “Can Old Players Rejuvenate Flagging Stolen Base Totals?”

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  1. Elias says:

    I can see a good argument for Pedroia at #2 in a standard 5×5 league, but Kipnis is pretty clearly #2 in an OBP league. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kipnis went #2 in a lot of standard leagues, too. Pedroia’s 20-20 upside is all but disappeared, so his value is really tied to him maintaining a high average. I’d rather count on Kipnis’s HR and SB totals.