A jackrabbit problem
When baseball announced its rule changes to allow for bigger bases and limited pickoff throws in 2023, I did not think much of it. After all, the One-Win Team had shown themselves quite adept at stealing bases last year in the smorgasbord of regular-season excellence.
It’s almost unfair.
As of Monday, the Dodgers had successfully stolen 78 bases this season with 14 misses — the second-highest tally in the majors. They’re on track to bag a total of 105 steals in 2022, their highest since Dee Gordon stole just about every base he could for L.A. in 2014. With a power-hitting lineup and an uncanny ability to work the count, why would the Dodgers add stealing bases to their collective résumé?
It turns out that the 2022 Dodgers ended up collectively stealing 98 bases, which easily eclipsed the 64 bases that Strange-Gordon stole for the Dodgers in 2014. Did base-stealing help in the end? No — one cannot (generally) steal if one strikes out.
As has been discussed at length, there have been significant personnel changes for the Dodgers in 2023. It would be unfair to expect a similar result this year as the team is not set up for that offense and the prevailing wisdom in baseball for the past few years is to not steal bases.
As such, the Dodgers’ offense over the past few years has never been about stealing bases or small ball tactics, much to the annoyance of some, including yours truly. To be fair, the Dodgers have raked the past few years, setting records for offensive margins last year and in overall offensive production in 2019.
But what I do not think that anyone counted on was a new inefficiency arising in the face of the new rules, even with the change in personnel, right in front of us. The stolen base is actually back, and the Dodgers look suddenly...slow, even in the face of players not known to steal bases.
Suddenly, the Dodgers’ past success with the running game looked like sluggers before Ruth or runners before Henderson, or two-way threats before Ohtani: a lot less impressive.
Where the Dodgers were sneakily speedy last year, this year so far, as of the completion of play on April 25, they are now 28th in the majors (and 14th in the National League) with eight stolen bases. Only the Rockies and Twins have swiped fewer bases. In contrast, the Guardians already have 29 stolen bases in 24 games!
Over a season, assuming the same rates of stealing, those trends respectively project that the Dodgers will steal 54 bases this year, compared to the Guardians’ 196 stolen bases, using figures from the completion of play on April 25.
Apparently, the Yankees have brought back a base-stealing technique from fifty years that basically relies on Newton’s First Law of Motion, an object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at constant speed in a straight line unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
Or put another way, there’s a shuffle step before taking off to steal a base. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (paywalled) covered the leap/vault movement in early April and noted that other teams were following suit to take advantage of the new baserunning rules.
Yankee’s Anthony Volpe demos a leap/vault movement before action steal. With the disengagement & pitch clock rules, we are going to see a lot more of this pattern. It is based on predictable pitching tempo. With movement before action, the pitcher’s leg & the catcher’s pop time pic.twitter.com/4OTDmC8M4I— Jerry Weinstein (@JWonCATCHING) March 31, 2023
If that observation were all, we would not be here. After watching all these games against the Diamondbacks, I thought I noticed a troubling pattern, which has become a trend as the month has gone on.
The Dodgers keep getting burgled
The Noah Syndergaard era has not gotten off to a good start in Los Angeles. Frankly, it’s been pretty terrible. In five starts, he has gone 0-3 with an ERA of 6.58 over 26 innings. He has given 32 hits and 19 runs (all earned), with 5 home runs. He has walked four and struck out 21.
But this essay is not a “Syndergaard needs to exit from the rotation” essay, as I will leave that one to Estevão or Eric. But the results of the eye test have been pretty clear so far. A sinkerball pitcher who leaves the ball up is not a sinkerballer, he is pitching unplanned batting practice. I am not a pitching coach, but a sinker should not be that high in the strike zone as you can see from the spray chart of Syndergaard’s most recent start.
Syndergaard has been outright bad in one particular area that is starting to become a problem in this new, speedier league. Moreover, it is a known problem that Syndergaard has been absolutely terrible at holding runners on during his career. For his career, prior to the start of the season, would-be base stealers have been successful 169 out of 190 times, which is an 89% success rate.
Prior to the start of this season, the League average for a base-stealer is 73%.
To the Dodgers’ credit, they knew about this problem and at least planned to address the problem during Spring Training. Dave Roberts on February 24, 2023:
“We’re watching it. With Noah, right now he’s really trying to focus on some things mechanically that he wants to kind of get that foundation. But, the fact is he’s got to continue to get better at holding runners.
“How do we do that? There’s varying times, there’s increasing delivery times to the plate, because at some point giving up 90 feet isn’t going to be helpful for a guy that can put the ball on the ground and potentially get a double play.
When watching Syndergaard, it is pretty clear, this issue magnifies his general ineffectiveness, as he leads the league in allowing stolen bases. From that point, the situation becomes a numbers game. More chances to score means it is more likely that opposing teams will score. We are about 25 games into this season, but I think we can safely call it.
The word is out; you can also run on these Dodgers, Syndergaard in particular.
Dodgers allowed 28 stolen bases this season, most in MLB. This is game no. 24— Eric Stephen (@ericstephen) April 25, 2023
Last year: 9 SB through 24 gms
It's not all Noah Syndergaard, whose 8 SB is tied for the MLB lead (he led MLB in each of his last 4 full season)
Rest of staff: 20 SB in 25 tries. Relievers gave up 13
Syndergaard allowed another stolen base after this tweet on Tuesday.
Two of the Dodgers’ five caught stealings are pickoffs. Of the three caught stealings actually thrown out by LA catchers, temporary fill-in Austin Wynns has two of them.
The Athletics have allowed the most stolen base attempts (35), catching eight, meaning 27 stolen bases allowed, including four against the Angels on Tuesday night. The Dodgers have 34 stolen base attempts against (catching five) meaning 29 stolen bases allowed. The worst offender is Syndergaard with nine stolen bases allowed, with Michael Grove (four), Caleb Ferguson, Shelby Miller, Julio Urías, and Alex Vesia (three each) in the top 33 in the National League of this statistic. Conversely, the Tigers have allowed eight stolen base attempts, catching one.
At the current trend, the Dodgers are on pace to have 230 stolen bases attempts against them this year, catching 34, meaning 196 stolen bases allowed. Conversely, the Tigers are on pace to have 59 stolen bases attempts against them with seven stolen bases allowed.
As with both trends discussed in this essay, I would be remiss to argue a trend from less than a month of play as an ironclad fact. By that logic, Cody Bellinger would have hit over .400 during the 2019 campaign (he did not). But just by watching the Dodgers, it seems likely that they will have to do what they did against the Pirates: out-slug them and any other speedster opponent.
How do the Dodgers fix this problem? I genuinely have no idea. Even if I did, I would not say, because one does not give one’s labor for free unless it is a hobby. But in all seriousness, while April 25th’s game was extremely entertaining in the King of MLB Ballparks, these 2023 Dodgers are starting to show something that their immediate predecessors did not: True Grit. This team kept fighting and had productive outs until they clawed back to win. Hopefully they keep that fight up.
If the Dodgers could start showing some emotion or look like they are having some fun (I’ll say it, the Dodgers’ longstanding victory formation is boring) or if the outfielders, other than Mookie Betts, can start reliably producing, then we might have ourselves a fun summer in 2023. But as of now, these final topics are discussions for another day.