Men of steal: LA running free in October

October 20th, 2021

LOS ANGELES -- Really, is there anyone who would know more about taking risks on the bases in the postseason than Dodgers manager Dave Roberts?

It's been more than 17 years since Roberts executed perhaps the most famous stolen base in baseball history, sparking the Red Sox to their remarkable 2004 American League Championship Series comeback against the Yankees.

Now Roberts is overseeing a team that takes those chances multiple times on a nightly basis -- though these Dodgers aren't quite so audacious. Their current stolen-base barrage is more calculated. The risk of L.A. baserunners being thrown out right now is low enough where it doesn't make sense not to go.

The Dodgers, simply put, are gambling in such a way that the odds are hugely in their favor every time they attempt a steal. Through nine postseason games, they are 13-for-13 on stolen-base attempts, including eight in three National League Championship Series games against Atlanta. They're the first team to steal multiple bases in four consecutive postseason games since the 1995 Mariners.

“It's not like we're just slugging and scoring a whole lot of runs, so we have to find ways to manufacture runs,” said Mookie Betts, who has converted all 13 postseason steal attempts in his career -- the most for any player who has never been caught. “Part of my game is stealing bases, so I'm just doing anything I can to help us win.”

In the Dodgers’ 6-5 victory in Game 3 on Tuesday, it was the stolen base in front of Betts that would prove most important. Chris Taylor followed Cody Bellinger’s game-tying homer with a single in the eighth. Then, he took off for second (despite a below-average jump) and slid in ahead of Travis d’Arnaud’s throw.

The next hitter, Matt Beaty, bounced a would-be double-play grounder to second. Instead, Taylor was on third base for Betts’ go-ahead double one batter later.

“CT, I trust the baseball player, the instincts, and Jesse [Chavez] right there was trying to make a pitch and got a little slower, and he took advantage of it,” Roberts said. “He has the green light, and it was a big play, because that could have been an inning-ending double play.”

It's not just one player, either. Those 13 steals have come via five Dodgers. As a team, they're capitalizing on opposing pitchers by getting elite jumps. Against Atlanta, they’ve taken advantage of slower pop times from d’Arnaud behind the plate.

With those statistical advantages tilted in their favor, the philosophy is more or less the same as it was for Roberts when he took off for second base at Fenway Park 17 years ago.

"In the postseason, where things are more magnified, you just can't be afraid to fail," Roberts said. "Careful, in the postseason, doesn't play. … You've got to be all in."

The Dodgers are. Their stolen-base success is simple: They're weighing the odds in their favor, then daring their opponent to do everything perfectly. Catch them if you can.

Let's dive into some of the data from each of their eight steals in the NLCS. The average secondary lead on all steal attempts of second base this season -- meaning the distance of the runner from first base -- was 21.6 feet. The average sprint speed was 27 feet per second (with 30 feet per second considered elite). Juxtaposed with the league averages, it's clear that the Dodgers are getting an advantage.

Second inning, Game 1: Chris Taylor
Sprint speed: 28.3 feet per second (+1.3)
Secondary: 23.8 feet (+2.2)

Fifth inning, Game 1: Trea Turner
Sprint speed: 30.2 feet per second (+3.2)
Secondary: 21.0 feet (-0.6)

First inning, Game 2: Gavin Lux
Sprint speed: 28.6 feet per second (+1.6)
Secondary: 22.6 feet (+1.0)

Fifth inning, Game 2: Mookie Betts
Sprint speed: 25.7 feet per second (-1.3)
Secondary: 26 feet (+4.4)

Sixth inning, Game 2: Chris Taylor
Sprint speed: 27.9 feet per second (+0.9)
Secondary: 24.3 feet (+2.7)

Seventh inning, Game 2: Mookie Betts
Sprint speed: 27.1 feet per second (+0.1)
Secondary: 26.6 feet (+5.0)

Second inning, Game 3: Mookie Betts
Sprint speed: 27.8 feet per second (+0.8)
Secondary: 21 feet (-0.6)

Eighth inning, Game 3: Chris Taylor
Sprint speed: 28.7 feet per second (+1.7)
Secondary: 19.1 feet (-2.5)

No wonder the Dodgers are running wild. On most of their steals in this series, they’ve given themselves a huge advantage, compared with league-average numbers on their breaks and sprint speed.

As Roberts had noted earlier in the series, when facing elite pitching in the postseason, it’s harder than ever to build a rally through singles. But if you can swipe a bag, you can score a run without needing that third single. He pointed to the ninth inning of Game 1, when Ozzie Albies stole second on Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen, who hasn’t allowed three hits in an outing since April. That put Albies in scoring position for Austin Riley’s game-winning hit.

For so long, the smart analysis noted that it wasn’t prudent to steal bases. Why give away outs? Lately, however, teams have begun to work around that dogma. Stealing bases doesn’t have to mean “giving away outs” if you ensure that your chances of success are high enough.

“It's changed over the years, and I think in the right way -- in the sense that some of these arms that you're seeing, it’s hard to build an inning … by getting consecutive hits to score a run,” Roberts said. “So if you can take a calculated risk like Albies did [on Saturday], it just increases your chances. … That’s just a smart baseball play.”

The Dodgers, of course, are taking plenty of those calculated risks in this series. And with a 100% success rate, don’t expect them to slow down any time soon.