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August 8, 2013

Overthinking It

How the Mets Got Great (at Taking the Extra Base)

by Ben Lindbergh

It’s a few hours before first pitch at Citi Field, and for now, at least, the National League’s best baserunner is standing still. But in his head, he’s already on the lookout for empty bases to annex. “There is no reason to ever check into a bag,” Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy says. “You always come around every bag trying to get the extra base. It’s kind of the mindset we’ve taken as an offense. When we get on the basepaths, we want to get the extra 90 feet.”

The clubhouse is still almost empty, though batting practice has yet to begin. It’s Wednesday afternoon, and the Mets are only about 18 hours removed from their latest demonstration of what Murphy means. With the team tied 2-2 against the Rockies on Tuesday night, left fielder Eric Young led off the eighth with a single. After the next batter, Daniel Murphy, flied out and failed to advance him, Young got himself to second, tagging up and advancing on another fly to center hit by Marlon Byrd.

That brought up rookie Juan Lagares, with fellow rookie Wilmer Flores—who was making his major-league debut—on deck. Lagares tapped a weak grounder to second, and while D.J. LeMahieu fielded and tossed to first (too late to get Lagares), Young kept right on running, scoring from second to put New York ahead for good.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. A week earlier, the Mets had entered the seventh inning of a game against the Marlins down 5-3. With one out, Young doubled, then scored from second on a single by Murphy. Murphy stole second, advanced to third on a wild pitch, and scored on a Byrd single to center. And finally, Byrd scored from first on an Ike Davis double, losing his helmet as he tore around third and then sliding under Jeff Mathis’ tag to give the Mets a decisive 6-5 lead.

Aggressive running and an ability to take the extra base have helped New York all season. More than any other team, the Mets can win with their legs.

The Mets’ Baserunning Runs total is almost twice that of the Reds, this season’s second-place team.

Team

BRR

Mets

16.7

Reds

8.9

Astros

7.5

Blue Jays

7.4

Cardinals

6.7

Even more interesting, though, is how they’ve racked up those runs. Quick refresher: BRR breaks down baserunning into five components based on advancements on stolen bases (SBR), non-hit balls on the ground (GAR), non-hit balls in the air (AAR), hits (HAR), and other advancement opportunities (wild pitches, passed balls, balks—OAR). The Mets aren’t adept at stealing: they’ve swiped the 13th-most bases at the 17th-highest success rate, giving them an almost dead-even SBR of -0.14, which ranks 15th out of 30 teams. But they’re lapping the field a few times over when it comes to advancing on hits:

Team

HAR

Mets

14.1

Athletics

4.7

Pirates

4.6

Diamondbacks

4.1

Royals

4.1

The Mets are the best team in baseball at advancing on hits. They excel at going first to third and second to home on singles and first to home on doubles, just as they did to edge out their opponents in the innings outlined above.

Category

Mets Performance

MLB Rank

MLB Average

Outs on Base

23

30

37

Outs on Base at Home

5

T-30

12

1st to 3rd rate

32.4%

5

28.3%

2nd to home rate

72.5%

2

60.0%

1st to home rate

52.0%

4

41.1%

Extra Base Taken rate

48%

1

40%

The Mets have made the fewest outs on the bases, and they’re tied for the fewest at home plate (for which third-base coach Tim Teufel deserves some praise). They rank among the most successful teams at going first to third, second to home, and first to home, and they’re the best in overall extra base taken percentage—the percentage of opportunities in which they advanced more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double. And if they can keep it up a little longer, they’ll lay claim to the title of the best team on record at advancing on hits:

Highest Team HAR since 1950

Year

Team

HAR

1996

Twins

16.0

2006

Angels

15.6

2013

Mets

14.1

1965

Twins

12.6

1970

Cubs

12.2

The Mets are about a run and a half behind the pesky mid-aughts Angels of Chone Figgins, Orlando Cabrera, Maicer Izturis & Co., and less than two runs behind the ’96 Twins for the all-time top spot. Although Young is the Met with the most speed, Murphy has the best BRR. His 5.8 tally leads the NL, thanks to a 5.0 HAR that surpasses the second-place player’s (Andrew McCutchen) by two runs. (David Wright has also been excellent.)

It wasn’t always this way. In 2009, the Mets were average or below at everything but advancing on steals, and their decisions drew criticism. Here’s a Star-Ledger excerpt from September of that season:

Murphy's mistake was indicative of a larger problem the Mets have had this season, one that began even before injuries ravaged their roster. Whether it's being too aggressive or just losing focus -- as Angel Pagan did last week when he lost track of how many outs there were -- the Mets have repeatedly been hurt by poor decision-making on the base paths.

Their meager offense has a hard enough time creating scoring opportunities. Too often, when the Mets have created them, they have wasted them.

"We've got issues," [then-manager Jerry] Manuel said.

So how have the Mets gotten so good?

“I’ve got to give that credit to Tom Goodwin,” says manager Terry Collins. “It’s Goody,” Murphy confirms. “It’s all Goody. It was the first thing he said to us in spring training: take the extra base.”

Goodwin has been the Mets’ first base coach, outfield instructor, and baserunning instructor since the start of last season. He also happens to be one of the best baserunners ever. Goodwin ranks 33rd with a career 55.3 BRR, but that stat understates his case. BRR is a counting stat, and the 32 hitters ahead of him all made more plate appearances. Goodwin wasn’t a great hitter—he got on base at a below-average clip, considering the high-offense era he played in—and he came close to playing a full-season schedule only three times. But of the close to 1500 hitters with at least 1000 games played since 1950, Goodwin’s BRR per time on base ranks third, behind only Ron Leflore and Vince Coleman.

This is what Goodwin looked like in full flight:

That clip comes from 2000, when Goodwin stole 55 bases. He topped 50 four times, and once stole 66. But he was smart as well as speedy, and he rated well in every aspect of BRR, including a +17-run career rating in hit advancement.

“When I brought Tom on board,” Collins continues, “I felt I really made sure he understood that one of the things I thought was very, very important was to be aggressive on the bases.” Goodwin, for his part, is quick to give Collins credit, saying, “It starts from the top, it starts with TC. He gives us the okay to be aggressive out there, and there’s not a whole lot of consequences if we happen to make a few outs.”

The Mets don’t have a lot of hitters with Goodwin’s natural speed. But to hear him tell it, baserunning isn’t about posting the fastest 40 time.

“Speed helps, but it’s just being aware,” Goodwin says. “Being aware of when it's a good time to run…I tell them, it always starts out of the box when you're hitting. If you can turn a single into a double, it starts out of the box. It doesn't start when you get to first base…That aggressiveness is what we're looking for all the time, and it’s going to help us a lot more times than it's going to hurt.”

Goodwin wants the team’s default setting to be testing the defense. “I'm not saying we always have to go when a ball is in the dirt,” he says, “but I'd like to have some momentum going to second and be like, 'Okay, I can't make it.' At least now I know your head is in the game as far as baserunning. It's not just as soon as the ball hits the ground I'm going back to first base or going back to second base.”

At this point in the season, the team doesn’t require constant reminders; the focus on baserunning is self-sustaining. That’s largely attributable to a team-wide competition created by Justin Turner, in which players fight to record the most positive plays. The fierce internal baserunning rivalry keeps everyone engaged, in a perfect example of a cohesive clubhouse enhancing on-field performance.

“It's hustle plays, it's first-to-thirds, it's scoring from first on a double, obviously stolen bases are in there, running on a dirt ball,” Goodwin says. “Any type of play, if you break up a double play. Yesterday EY tagged up at first and went to second, that was the first thing that he did and got us in that position. That's just one of those things where it's debatable if you get a point, but once his run scores, then you almost have to give him a point. So it's been fun for the guys and everybody can get involved. It's not just the guys who are starting, it's the guys who might come in and might play twice or three times a week.”

At the end of every month, the team meets to anoint a new winner. The most recent meeting took place after the Mets’ series in Kansas City from August 1-4; Young won. In fact, Young has been so tough to beat since coming over from Colorado in mid-June that the Mets have had to change the rules to keep the competition going. “He had the majority of the stolen bases, but he also picked up the other side of it. Now we call him game-changer, because we've had to change the game for him, like Tiger-proof the course...So now stolen bases are a category and everything else is a category.”

Goodwin is the arbiter, but keeping score is a collaborative exercise. “I might ask a player whether he thinks that's a point,” Goodwin explains. “The guys are really into it and you'll see everybody pointing like, 'Point, point, no point, no point.’”

Goodwin won’t divulge what the prize is—“It’s nothing ridiculous, but it’s fun”—but he will say that it works much the same way as a similar arrangement in the Red Sox system, where he served as the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator from 2008-11.Whoever got the points or best percentage got a big league spread. They'd sit you down with whatever it was, steak and lobster. For a minor league team, that's a big thing.”

Murphy—whom Goodwin calls a “student of the game” who “takes a lot of pride in how he runs the bases”—says that baserunning “kind of feeds on itself. When you see somebody else running the bases hard, it makes you want to do it too.” “There’s no better way that you can go about it than to have guys sitting around here and talking about baserunning on the bench,” Goodwin professes. “Knowing it’s not just offense and worrying about whether I get a hit or not, but actually thinking about how to get an extra base.”

Goodwin learned to appreciate the importance of making smart decisions on the basepaths from Maury Wills, who held an equivalent instructional role with the Dodgers when Goodwin was coming up. Now he’s passing on that knowledge to the next generation. “I loved to run the bases when I played,” he says. “I try to get them to see it that way without being in their face all the time.” His efforts seem to be working. In Goodwin’s first season, the Mets finished fifth overall with 6.7 BRR. In his second season, no other team can compare. Hitting and pitching coaches aren’t the only ones who might be worth some wins.

“Due to the fact that we've been aggressive on the bases, we've kept ourselves in some competitive states and some competitive games where instead of scoring a tying run, you get beat by one,” Collins concludes. “I just think baserunning is another edge that sometimes is overlooked, but is still a very important part of our team.”

New York is 51-60 and 10.5 games behind the Reds in the race for the second wild card spot, so while a win or three on the bases might make the Mets more fun to watch, it doesn’t turn them into contenders (though they are within 1.5 of Washington). Baserunning can’t put the Wilpons’ bank account back together. Aside from Matt Harvey, the rotation is thin. And injuries have exposed the lack of depth elsewhere on the roster. With David Wright on the DL, Murphy is hitting third; with Bobby Parnell injured, LaTroy Hawkins is closing. But the Mets can pride themselves on being great baserunners, and in an otherwise subpar season, maybe that matters. It might matter even more a few years from now, when the Mets hope to have a competitive core. Then those extra bases could add up to October.

Thanks to Chris Mosch for transcription assistance.

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

Related Content:  New York Mets,  Baserunning,  Tom Goodwin,  Brr

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