How big should a lead be when teams should stop stealing bases?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There was a brouhaha in the Red Sox-Rays game over the weekend, and it had to do with a stolen base. Let's investigate.

The unwritten rules do not take holiday weekends. The unwritten rules are not barbecuing meats and drinking canned alcohol. The unwritten rules are watching, forever watching. Over the weekend, Yunel Escobar stole a base with a five-run lead.

Oh, you're out of your chair, angrily pacing. Please, sit. This infraction was dealt with immediately.

This is a tough one to deal with because I just wrote about the unwritten rule of stealing with a big(ish) lead, with Jed Lowrie and the Astros as the subject:

There is no room in baseball for a team to stop trying to score by any means possible when there is even a scintilla of doubt about the game's outcome. There's no clock in baseball. That's one of its most beautiful attributes. A team down 12 runs in the third inning can come back.

That's the long and short of it. Fights started because of improperly timed stolen bases are almost always stupid. So our job today isn't to judge whether the Red Sox were being sensitive dinks -- they were -- but to hazard a guess at the tipping point for appropriate/inappropriate stolen bases. What does the score need to be when a stolen base moves from "helping a team win" to "showing the other team up"?

The Red Sox were offended because of a stolen base with a five-run lead. The answer probably isn't "five-run lead." Let's look for a game in which the Red Sox won late after being down five. It's going to take a while, searching through Play Index to find something like that, and, oh, here you go, it's from a month ago.

Or, to dumb it down:

4/20/14: Orioles have a five-run lead in the sixth inning against the Red Sox, lose

5/25/14: Rays have a five-run lead in the seventh inning against the Red Sox, are expected to stop trying so hard

Man, baseball people are silly people. Except there are two pieces of context, here. The first is that Yunel Escobar was the player with the stolen base, and he's kind of a secret Pierzynski. People don't seem to get along that well with him, and I'd assume that he can get under the skin of rivals who have to see him 18 times every year. You would yell at Jeffrey Loria stealing a base in a softball game more than you would at Patrick Stewart, because you've been waiting for a reason to yell at Loria.

Second, that game was eventually the 10th straight loss for the Red Sox. A graph:

Screen_shot_2014-05-26_at_9.33.17_am_medium

Teams in the middle of a 10-game losing streak are apt to think "Wait, wait, wait, are you stealing on us when you have the lead? You already have a one-run lead, and you're looking for more? You animals." So maybe this isn't the best example with which to ask the question above. Still, I'm pretty sure a five-run lead isn't enough to impose international unwritten sanctions on a team.

Six runs? No, that's still a game with an outcome in doubt. The Rays lost one of those last year. A couple weeks later, the Cubs lost one.

Seven runs? Getting closer, but a comeback is still possible. Hey, look, the Rays again, this time against the Blue Jays. Within the last 385 days or so, the Rays have blown six-run and seven-run leads, despite being a generally excellent team. You can see why they might be touchy.

Eight runs? Closer still, but if a horrible team like the 2011 Cubs can come back from eight down, shouldn't the 2014 Rays keep trying against a better team?

Nine runs? The Braves did it in 2012. The Nationals probably wish they scrapped a little harder for runs early in the game.

The answer is 10. When a team comes back from 10 runs, it leads to phrases like "recorded the longest comeback in (team) history." If you're stealing a base when up by 10, you're probably being a jackass. That's true for anything after, oh, eight runs, by my estimation, but 10 runs is when Little League teams call the game. It's when they call games in the World Baseball Classic. It's when your game of Baseball Stars ends, and you can cash in on the relative popularity of the Lovely Ladies. It's an accepted screw-this margin.

The larger point of the unwritten rule is worth repeating: If you're stealing a base when up by 10, you're probably being a jackass. The proper punishment is for this jackassery is for the other team to say, loudly, "Wow. What a jackass" after throwing the player out. If they cannot throw the player out, they should attempt to get the batter out and when the inning is over, return to the dugout and say, "Did you see what that jackass did? What a jackass" before continuing their efforts to win a game in a sport with no clock. At no point should fists or beanballs factor in the punishment.

The only thing I do know is that stealing with a five-run lead isn't even close to breaking an unwritten rule. It's not worth a single chirp from the dugout. Edward Mujica never looked the runner back. The runner took the base he was given. Look the runner back or be satisfied with him on third, you weenies.

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