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March 4, 2013

Baseball Therapy

Of Dogs, Men, and Stolen Bases

by Russell A. Carleton

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This is one of the nerdiest pictures of myself that I have. It's me in 2006 in Moscow, Russia, at Universitet Lomonosov (aka Moscow State University) standing next to a statue of Ivan Pavlov, the man who discovered the stimulus-responses conditioning reaction in his famous experiments with dogs. Every time I look at this picture, I still salivate. How d'you like that?

Pavlov's big idea, which seems obvious now (all the big ones do), was that dogs (and eventually, people) can form associations between a stimulus and a response that have nothing to do with one another. At the time, it was assumed that animals and people reacted to their immediate surroundings. So, when Pavlov, whose real aim was to collect saliva samples from dogs for work on understanding the digestive system (work for which he won a Nobel Prize!), saw that the dogs were salivating "too early", he wondered why. What he figured out was that the dogs were learning that hearing the footsteps of his assistant coming down the hall meant mealtime. And so the dogs started to salivate. Pavlov eventually replicated the experiment with his famous bell (and other noises).

Thus was born the field of classical conditioning. The theory was eventually extended. Reward a behavior, and dogs (and humans) will do it more often. Punish the behavior, and dogs (and humans) will do it less. The more times you do it, the more ingrained the pattern becomes.


Managers have a funny job description, when you think about it. They don't hit or pitch or field, but they do get to make all of the strategic decisions, including whether the runner on first should stay put or try to steal. Often the runner gets the blame or the credit for being safe or out, but everyone knows who gives the sign.

It must feel nice when the steal succeeds. I'm generalizing from when I hit the "steal" button in a sim game and it works, but there's every reason to believe that it feels good in real life too. And it must be painful to realize that your decision just cost your team a baserunner and an out. So, I got to wondering whether managers were a little less likely to hit the "steal" button if earlier in the game, they had been punished for this behavior by suffering a caught stealing.

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
This is a harder question to answer than it might seem. For one, I've shown in the past that you can't just look at how many times a manager pushes "steal." Managers aren't fools and they make an attempt more often when there's a fast runner on first. (For the purposes of this article, only attempts to steal second are considered.) They also do so more often earlier in the game (and if there's been a caught stealing earlier in the game, it is now, by default, later in the game). They also do so more often when the score is close (why steal during a blowout?), and they are also aware of the talents of the catcher behind the plate.

I isolated all instances from 2003-2012 in which there was a runner on first and no runner on second. I did this at the PA level. A batter who leads off with a walk and then stands there while his three teammates make outs had three chances to steal, and his manager went 0-for-3 on sending him. For each manager, I looked at how often he hit the "steal" button overall. This will serve as a control within each manager and more easily allow us to determine whether a caught stealing messes with his tendencies.

I also looked at the speed score (my own home brew) for the runner on first, the inning (entered categorically), the number of outs (entered categorically), and the difference in the score at the time.  Finally, I looked to see whether there had been a caught stealing earlier in the game.

I threw all of these runner-on-first-not-on-second situations into a big logistic regression and found that... managers were actually more likely to attempt a steal if a runner had been caught earlier.

More. Apparently, they didn't learn their lesson. The dogs would not be proud.

Grunt with me
According to Pavlov (and someone out there will point out, B.F. Skinner—I used to teach Intro Psych, I just don't have a picture with Skinner), the managers should be once bitten, twice shy. Why are things clearly going in the opposite direction?

Maybe because managers aren't dogs.

If there's something that I've come to understand about baseball, it's that it's impossible to understand the game without understanding the psychology of the human male. Yes, over time, the rational mind will see that if a strategy isn't working, you should stop using it. However, the human male is not known for feats of rationality, particularly in a case where he has challenged another man and come up short. Men, in general, don't take that sort of thing well, and are more likely to try again. (I was debating whether to make a Tim Allen "More power!" joke, but then I realized that half of the audience here might not have been around when that show aired).

A few years ago, I ran a study looking at how steal-happy individual managers were. I found that there were significant differences between managers, and that once you controlled for extraneous variables, they were pretty stable from year to year in their tendencies. I wondered what the “reaction to a caught stealing” findings would look like if I ran them for individual managers. I selected for all managers active in 2012 and re-ran the same basic logistic regression for each manager's data (going back to 2003 if available), and only for him. I then looked at how powerful the "previous caught stealing" variable was in predicting the chances of a steal attempt being made. In theory, this should tell us how much of an effect a caught stealing has on that particular manager.

For all managers, the effect was positive and significant, but there were variations in how significant. Reporting on the effects of a logistic regression is tough, but here's what I did. I set all of the other variables in the equation equal to a 5% chance that the manager would steal. I then looked at what the simple fact of a previous caught stealing would have.

The managers most likely to try to chase down that first caught stealing?

  1. Jim Leyland
  2. Bobby Valentine
  3. Buck Showalter
  4. Clint Hurdle
  5. Eric Wedge

(Ozzie Guillen was no. 6)

The managers least likely to let that previous caught stealing bother them?

  1. Ron Roenicke
  2. Joe Maddon
  3. Fredi Gonzalez
  4. Brad Mills
  5. John Farrell

Anyone up for some qualitative analysis of those two lists?

It looks like the first list is filled with managers known for being rather fiery gents, while the second has several men who are known to be more introspective types. And while it might seem that this is just a neat little parlor trick with no practical use, I'd argue quite the opposite. Whether or not it's a good idea to be more aggressive with stolen base attempts is an empirical question. But by treating each manager as his own data set, we've empirically shown how a manager tends to react. And maybe this sort of measurement correlates with other things that a manager does. Do high-reaction managers get more out of players? Do more cerebral managers? Or maybe we just have a nice little way to profile a manager's personality. Either way, we might just have a new tool to run some rather fascinating analyses.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

Related Content:  Managers,  Stolen Bases,  Conditioning

22 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links


Just curious- I'm not familiar with the overall SB tendencies of the managers on these lists - but clearly Runnin Ron and Joe Madden are on the aggressive end of the scale while I believe Buck and Bobby V were on the more passive side. Could part of this just be a function of having a fewer number of overall attempts and/or CS, so that SB attempts after a CS make for a higher percentage?

Mar 04, 2013 06:44 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

The model looks for changes in SB attempt rates. Perhaps it's picking up on the fact that those gentlemen run no matter what, whereas the others only run when challenged by failure.

Mar 04, 2013 09:48 AM

Just to clarify, Group A showed a greater tendency to send runners after a CS while Group B showed a lesser tendency (though still greater than their baselines)?

It makes sense to me that in any scenario in which an initial steal attempt is considered, subsequent attempts would be as well. I absolutely see the point that testosterone can fuel double-or-nothing tendencies, but it also makes sense that whichever indicator these managers base their Green Lights upon will endure beyond that first attempt. I'm thinking of proven SB threats, glass-armed catchers, glacial pitchers, etc. I.e. "favorable" tactical aspects which often recur over the course of a game. Disregarding these wouldn't necessarily seem to be a wise move. Speaking of which, can you show managerial success rates on these following SB attempts?

In any case, thanks for the thought-provoking article!

Mar 04, 2013 12:59 PM
rating: 3

I have noticed that umpires often get the call wrong (based on replays) on a steal of second. Do umpires in a sim game perform better?

Mar 04, 2013 06:54 AM
rating: 2

It's always seemed to me that calls at second base are the most erroneous in baseball. (A lot of "in the neighborhood" calls.) Why can't they improve there?

Mar 04, 2013 09:33 AM
rating: 2

I would love to see - next to the actual stats - the "real" SB/CS stats for players based on whether or not the ump blew the call. (For years, it seemed like the guys on my fantasy team were ALWAYS getting bad calls against them, an observation for which I am certain there was no bias.)

In all seriousness - has anyone ever gone back over all SB attempts to figure out the percentage of calls that, upon further review, were incorrect?

Mar 04, 2013 14:39 PM
rating: 1

The headings on the top 5 lists confused me just a bit. When you say "managers least likely to let that previous caught stealing bother them", do you mean they were MORE likely to call a subsequent steal or LESS likely?

Mar 04, 2013 07:08 AM
rating: -1
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Everyone became more likely to call for a steal after a CS. All of them. But, there were some who showed less proclivity to fall into this pattern than others.

Mar 04, 2013 09:49 AM

Very interesting, but i wonder if managers order steals at a similarly elevated rate after a SUCCESSFUL steal attempt. That would tell us whether managers were trying to attone for previous failure (as this very good article suggests), or merely continuing to respond to the stimuli that induced them to order a steal in the first place (eg, bad opposing catcher).

Mar 05, 2013 20:52 PM
rating: 0
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Now I've finally figured out what age BP's audience is, pre-teens. Explains a lot to me. Thanks.

Mar 04, 2013 07:33 AM
rating: -12

Pre-teens who are conversant in game theory, regression and psych. Smart bunch.

Mar 04, 2013 09:29 AM
rating: 4

Thanks for the call out to B.F. Skinner.

He is one of my personal heroes, right up there with Bruce Springsteen and Sandy Koufax!

Mar 04, 2013 08:13 AM
rating: 2

Agreed. BF Skinner's work was on operant conditioning - focusing on voluntary behavior. Pavlov's classical conditioning focuses on involuntary or reflexive behavior. Therefore, Russell was on target in mentioning Mr. Skinner.

Sorry for the mini-lecture, I also teach Intro to Psych!

Mar 04, 2013 12:25 PM
rating: 1
BP staff member Andrew Koo
BP staff

Interesting findings, Russell. The best gamblers always know to step back when they go on tilt instead of chasing their losses. We can't exactly tell though, for that second list, whether it's that level-headedness or if they've become shy on pulling the trigger, can we?

Mar 04, 2013 10:07 AM

Barenaked Ladies reference did not go unnoticed!

Mar 04, 2013 10:09 AM
rating: 1

In blackjack,If you hit on 12 (against dealer's 10) and go bust, then do it again later, is it really being fiery or is it trusting the original information enough to stay with the strategy? It would be interesting to see the success rate of the 2nd attempt vs. the first, before labeling managers with various character attributes.

Mar 04, 2013 16:19 PM
rating: 0

The jeans combined with running shoes clearly label you as a North American on vacation.

Mar 04, 2013 19:50 PM
rating: 2
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Actually, that's just me everyday.

Mar 04, 2013 22:50 PM

If I'm parsing apilgrim's grammar correctly (which I'm doing through my lens of having lived in Europe for the past few years), he meant that North Americans, when on vacation, tend to dress very casually, whereas Europeans in general tend to dress a bit more formally, even on vacation (this general rule is of course not terrible accurate, but has some truth ingrained in it, at least by my anecdotal observation).

Mar 05, 2013 04:38 AM
rating: 1
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

The reason I was even at Moscow State was that my wife was presenting at an academic conference. Everyone else was dressed for a conference. I was... not.

Mar 05, 2013 05:33 AM

Okay, this makes the story even better.

Mar 05, 2013 05:53 AM
rating: 0
John Collins

At the academic conferences I attend (philosophy), the way you're dressed would not make you stand out at all.

Mar 06, 2013 10:55 AM
rating: 0
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