Commentary

How do lineup spots affect steal attempts?

Updated: February 25, 2011, 11:56 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

I have one word to ease the minds of people who worry that Hanley Ramirez will stop stealing bases now that he's slated to bat third for the Marlins:

Don't.

Traditional thinking has a way of tainting even the most knowledgeable baseball mind. It always has been assumed that players who bat atop the order are the ones who steal the bases, while the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters are the ones who knock 'em home, with no exceptions. Even those who casually browse the statistics might point out that among all major league teams in 2008, the average team produced 30 stolen bases out of 38 attempts from its leadoff spot, while its No. 3 hitters averaged 11 out of 14.

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The problem: Without examining who was responsible for said numbers, there's no clear way to discern whether batting order has any bearing whatsoever on a player's tendency to steal bases. Here's a neat little nugget for you: In 2008, the Toronto Blue Jays squeaked an MLB-high 29 stolen bases out of their No. 3 lineup spot, 17 more than they got from their leadoff men, that differential again tops in the game.

That was primarily the result of the team's most effective base stealer, Alex Rios, who occupied the 3-spot on 131 occasions. He swiped all 29 of those bags in that lineup slot, a total greater than 18 other teams got from their leadoff hitters, and attempted one steal per 16.3 plate appearances hitting third. Out of the leadoff spot, which he occupied 20 times, he managed but three steals and averaged one attempt per 22.5 plate appearances. (Though, to be fair, his on-base percentage was 55 points lower hitting first than third.)

Still not convinced that when it comes to speedsters, lineup spot is mostly irrelevant?

Seeking greater accuracy, we solicited the help of the Elias Sports Bureau, looking to examine a cross section of players who qualified as "speedy" types and spent significant time in more than one spot in the lineup in the past two seasons. The criteria we used: a minimum of 20 stolen-base attempts in the given season and a minimum of 100 plate appearances in at least two different lineup spots.

During a two-year span (2007-08), only six players fit the criteria with the first and third lineup spots as the ones with 100-plus plate appearances. Four of the six actually attempted to steal bases more often as No. 3 hitters than at leadoff, and the six as a whole averaged one steal attempt per 16.4 plate appearances out of the No. 3 hole, compared to 16.7 at leadoff.

Let's take a closer look at each, complete with 2009 fantasy implications.

Batting first: 211 plate appearances, 15 stolen-base attempts, 14.1 PAs/SBAtt
Batting third: 302 PAs, 32 SBAtts, 9.4 PAs/SBAtt

Not a lot to discuss, as Byrnes is slated to serve as a fourth outfielder for the 2009 Diamondbacks, meaning he'll probably slide in as a middle-to-bottom hitter in the games he plays. Coming off a year marred by hamstring troubles, he likely won't run another 30-plus times, though his splits are a particularly encouraging example because he's hardly your traditional speedster, yet didn't change his approach when he changed lineup spots.

[+] EnlargeNate McLouth
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesNate McLouth could be less of a runner and more of a power threat in 2009.

Batting first: 379 PAs, 16 SBAtts, 23.7 PAs/SBAtt
Batting third: 234 PAs, 9 SBAtts, 26.0 PAs/SBAtt

With the Pirates looking to use McLouth more for offense coming off his breakout year, he'll almost assuredly spend every day in the 3-hole. At the rates above, given 600 plate appearances as a No. 3 hitter, he'd attempt at least 23 steals, a healthy-enough number. Be aware he has been successful on 91.9 percent of his attempts for his career.

Hanley Ramirez (2007)

Batting first: 526 PAs, 52 SBAtts, 10.1 PAs/SBAtt
Batting third: 176 PAs, 13 SBAtts, 13.5 PAs/SBAtt

These are the numbers most likely to concern Ramirez's owners, but the fact remains that at a ratio of 13.5 plate appearances per steal attempt ratio, he would attempt 50 steals if he were to come to the plate 675 times. Besides, we haven't even brought up the fact that in 2007, Ramirez lost 74 points of on-base percentage after going from No. 1 to No. 3 in the order, meaning he wasn't on base enough to run as frequently he did as a leadoff hitter. Ask yourself, do you really think he'll keep getting on base at only a .347 clip hitting third (his career number there)?

Alex Rios (2007)

Batting first: 267 PAs, 7 SBAtts, 38.1 PAs/SBAtt
Batting third: 313 PAs, 12 SBAtts, 26.1 PAs/SBAtt

Rios was a more efficient base stealer as a No. 3 hitter than a No. 1 hitter in 2008 and in 2007. For his career, he has averaged exactly one steal per 20 plate appearances hitting in that third slot, one he's almost certain to occupy again in 2009.

Batting first: 675 PAs, 39 SBAtts, 17.3 PAs/SBAtt
Batting third: 103 PAs, 8 SBAtts, 12.9 PAs/SBAtt

Many point to Rollins' career-high .531 slugging percentage of 2007 as reason to move him into more of a run-producing lineup spot, and the Phillies did that at times when Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were hurt that year, sliding him in at No. 3 on 23 occasions. Interestingly, he batted ahead of either Howard or Utley in every one of those 23 contests, yet ran more often in those games than he did setting the table -- as prime an example as any that a quality speedster doesn't stop running when dropped down.

Randy Winn (2008)

Batting first: 224 PAs, 8 SBAtts, 28.0 PAs/SBAtt
Batting third: 397 PAs, 19 SBAtts, 20.9 PAs/SBAtt

Not an elite base stealer, Winn nevertheless has been a consistent double-digit performer in the category in each of his past eight seasons, swiping 20-plus bags four times. He'll lead off for the Giants with Dave Roberts gone, as fellow fleet-of-foot outfielder Fred Lewis occupies the No. 3 hole, but Winn's 2008 numbers actually might serve as a good example not to lower your stolen-base projections for Lewis.

Other lineup implications

But it's not only the differential between Nos. 1 and 3 hitters that is of fantasy relevance. Fifty-seven different players -- including the six above -- fit the criteria proposed accounting for any two lineup spots. Totaling the group's numbers, here are the numbers broken down by each of the nine spots in the batting order:

Batting first: 7,947 PAs, 478 SBAtts, 16.6 PAs/SBAtt
Batting second: 5,631 PAs, 376 SBAtts, 15.0 PAs/SBAtt
Batting third: 5,407 PAs, 276 SBAtts, 19.6 PAs/SBAtt
Batting fourth: 3,203 PAs, 156 SBAtts, 20.5 PAs/SBAtt
Batting fifth: 2,027 PAs, 85 SBAtts, 23.8 PAs/SBAtt
Batting sixth: 1,325 PAs, 57 SBAtts, 23.2 PAs/SBAtt
Batting seventh: 694 PAs, 31 SBAtts, 22.4 PAs/SBAtt
Batting eighth: 1,337 PAs, 73 SBAtts, 18.3 PAs/SBAtt
Batting ninth: 1,441 PAs, 80 SBAtts, 18.0 PAs/SBAtt

Differing sample sizes comes into play here, but if we extract the two most extreme rates -- 15.0 PAs/SBAtt in the No. 2 hole and 23.8 in the No. 5 -- we're still talking about a difference of only 15 steal attempts spread across a 600-plate appearance season. And that doesn't account for the fact that some of the players in those Nos. 4-5-6 lineup spots weren't traditional speedsters; not one of the players in the study attempted more than the 28 steals combined that Corey Hart did while batting in those three spots in 2008.

How about any individual stories with intrigue? The numbers put forth by the four players below might have most relevance heading into 2009:

Batting third: 183 PAs, 8 SBAtts, 22.9 PAs/SBAtt
Batting sixth: 114 PAs, 3 SBAtts, 38.0 PAs/SBAtt

One thing to worry about with Martin is that much of his fantasy value is tied into his stolen-base contributions, and much of his performance in the category has been linked to his lineup position. Consider that for his career, he has averaged one steal attempt per 19.4 plate appearances hitting in the upper third of the lineup, but only one per 27.3 in the middle third. All indications are that Martin will slot into the order after Manny Ramirez this season, probably in the No. 5 hole. Another thing to think about is that if Martin has Ramirez on base ahead of him, he won't have as many open bases to try to steal.

Batting second: 140 PAs, 4 SBAtts, 35.0 PAs/SBAtt
Batting sixth: 114 PAs, 6 SBAtts, 19.0 PAs/SBAtt
Batting seventh: 177 PAs, 10 SBAtts, 17.7 PAs/SBAtt

The Brewers as a team attempted only 11 steals out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup in 2008, seemingly refusing to take chances when either Ryan Braun or Prince Fielder was up at the plate. What can be taken from that? If the Brewers are being truthful about batting Jason Kendall leadoff, then Rickie Weeks' steals numbers might suffer slightly because he'd more than likely spend more time in the second than first spot in the order.

Batting first: 415 PAs, 30 SBAtts, 13.8 PAs/SBAtt
Batting 9th: 190 PAs, 13 SBAtts, 14.6 PAs/SBAtt

These numbers are especially encouraging for Gomez, a player who has been slotted into the lineup anywhere from first to second to seventh to ninth already this spring. With a .295 career on-base percentage (and a so-so .336 in his minor league career), Gomez doesn't seem to fit the leadoff-man prototype, but it's good to know that if he bats ninth, probably his most suitable spot, he should run every bit as often as if he bats first. The only drawback: No. 9 hitters come to the plate more than 100 fewer times per year. Can't win 'em all!

Batting second: 137 PAs, 7 SBAtts, 19.6 PAs/SBAtt
Batting 6th: 150 PAs, 4 SBAtts, 37.5 PAs/SBAtt

Although it appears the Phillies plan to bat Werth in more of a run-producing spot in the lineup -- fifth seems likely -- the fact that he was more apt to attempt a steal in the No. 2 hole might warrant some consideration. It's the spot in which he spent each of the Phillies' final seven postseason games, six of them wins. Just something to think about.

Will this hurt Hanley?

Where should they go? Insider
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One final point to alleviate the concerns of the aforementioned Hanley Ramirez owners and people who will certainly be spending a top-three, if not No. 1, draft pick on the shortstop: Going by steal attempts per single, walk or hit by pitch, Ramirez in his career has attempted one steal per 3.14 singles, walks or hit by pitch as a leadoff man; in the No. 3 hole that number is one per 3.78. Apparently getting on base has been his primary issue in the latter spot so far in his young career; it's not his frequency of steal attempts.

So, to reiterate, I have one word for people who claim No. 3-hitting Ramirez is "bound for an inevitable decline in steals": Hogwash!

ESPN.com fantasy baseball analyst Tristan H. Cockcroft is a two-time LABR champion, most recently winning in 2008. You can e-mail him here.