The numbers show that the Brewers were less aggressive on the base paths in 2020, a fact that probably didn’t help their already struggling offense.
In the bottom of the third inning of a home game against the Cubs on Friday, September 11th, 2020, Brewers center fielder Avisail Garcia drew a one out walk against Chicago starter Jon Lester. Two batters later, he stole second base for his first and only steal of the season and Milwaukee’s 15th on the year.
That stolen base would be the team’s final one for the entire 2020 season. At 15 steals, the Milwaukee Brewers would finish second to last in all of MLB for the year, above just the 14 bags that were swiped by the Minnesota Twins.
You have to go all the way back to the 2015 season to find a Brewers team that didn’t finish in the top 10 in the league in stolen bases. Milwaukee speedsters stole over 100 bases in each of the four seasons prior to 2020 in which they finished among the ten best teams in the statistic.
Obviously the Brewers were bound to have less actual steals than previous years due to playing less than half of a season in 2020. But what could have caused them to drop so far down the league’s stolen base rankings?
What do the numbers say about the drop in steals for the Brewers?
To steal a base, one has to first get on base. And with how bad the Milwaukee offense was in 2020, they naturally suffered a drop in on base percentage. Last year’s Brewers squad put up a .313 OBP compared to .329 in 2019.
But is that enough of a change in on base opportunities to go from 7th in stolen bases in 2019 to 29th a year later? It wouldn’t seem like it.
So next it’s worth looking at the ratio of attempts versus times getting on base and that’s where things are a little more eye-opening. Here, we’ll be looking at stolen base attempts against the team’s sum of hits, walks, and hit by pitches, or, the three components of OBP (for the sake of this exercise, we’ll be leaving off times where a batter reached on error or fielder’s choice).
In 2019, the Brewers attempted 126 steals versus 2067 combined hits, walks, and HBPs, good for a 6.1% attempt rate. Last year, the ratio was 26 to 685, dropping their attempt rate to 3.8%.
So yes, Milwaukee was also generally just trying to steal less bases during the 2020 season. The question is exactly why that might have been.
What did the Brewers personnel have to do with it?
While taking a look at what the numbers have to say is useful, it’s also worth it to consider the players in studying the team’s drop in stolen base production. In doing so, the picture becomes even clearer.
Milwaukee’s leaders in steals the last two years have been former MVP Christian Yelich and veteran center fielder Lorenzo Cain. The two had 52 and 48 stolen bases, respectively, over the 2018 and 2019 seasons combined.
So then it certainly didn’t help the team’s ability to steal bases when Cain ended up opting out of the 2020 season and Yelich experienced arguably his worst season as a pro. In fact, Yeli’s OBP dropping from .429 to .356 certainly makes a case for fewer stolen base opportunities.
Third on the team in steals in 2019 and with double digit steals in 12 of his 13 pre-2020 seasons was Ryan Braun. Lingering injuries hampered a good portion of his 2020 season, though, and the team likely kept his activity on the base paths to a minimum at times to accomodate.
It’s hard to say whether the drop in attempts was a result of a generally poor-performing offense or the key speedsters having rough (or non-existent) seasons. In the end, it was likely a combination of both.
Taking advantage of opportunities on the base paths has been a key part of the Brewers offense in their recent seasons where they’ve found success. Should the offense bounce back in 2021, there’s a good chance the steals return with it.