We always remember the extraordinary moments in baserunning, those plays that come late in a game and tend to either win or lose the game. Dave Roberts' steal of second in Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series is perhaps the most memorable baserunning play of the last decade, but Chico Ruiz stealing home in 1964—or Jackie Robinson doing the same on numerous occasions—stand out as well. In many ways, these plays were important because of context. They came in high-leverage situations, often during the pennant race or postseason, and in hindsight we know that they mattered. Indeed, the most memorable baserunning plays are the ones that are necessary and nearly sufficient for victory, like Roberts stealing second. As a win expectancy matter, the most memorable plays precipitously alter the odds.
Looking backward, there is absolutely no reason why these plays shouldn’t take on outsized importance. But looking forward? Baserunning skill best manifests itself in consistency, a virtue that by its very nature only becomes clear over time. Oddly enough, evidence of how useful a player’s speed is collects only very slowly. Part of the reason for that is because of the familiar disconnect between the payoffs of risky baserunning (which are relatively small) and the associated costs (which are significantly larger). But part of it also has to do with the slow accretion of opportunities.
They say you can’t steal first, so of course a good baserunner must be able to get on base. But great baserunning is about so much more than stealing bases, as it also requires a runner to advance on ground outs, fly balls, errors, and hits, too. Opportunities to do those things come in a lumpy fashion and smart baserunners spend a lot of time waiting for just the right opportunity—a window where the context is appropriate, the count is right, and the expected payout is big enough.
Running With the Devil
It is worth asking just how much teams can expect to gain from quality baserunning? One way to answer this is by looking historically at how well the very best and very worst baserunning teams have fared. For this purpose, we will use EqBRR, our run expectancy-based, all-inclusive baserunning statistic, which was developed by Dan Fox. The chart below has two series: one for the best team in the majors (“best”) and one for the difference between the best and worst teams (“delta”). The reason I’ve done it this way is because EqBRR tells us how much better a team has fared than what we would expect a team to do in the same situation, given historical play-by-play data. You can think of “best” as a way of demonstrating what the reasonable limits of what a team can do above average in the baserunning department. On the other hand, think of “delta” as an indication of the maximum impact that baserunning could have on the standings between any two teams.
Let’s make some initial observations, so we can find common footing. First, teams very rarely perform more than two wins (or 20 runs) above average on the basepaths in a season, and no team has done so since the last expansion in 1998. (The only two teams ever to accumulate more than 20 EqBRR in the Retrosheet era—the limit of our data—are the 1979 and 1980 Kansas City Royals.) Most years, the difference between the best and worst teams is not more than 40 runs, or about four wins. That’s certainly enough to shake up standings and influence pennants, but it is of course much less than hitting or pitching and defense (which are on the order of hundreds of runs).
Here’s an example of how the standings can be influenced. The peak of the “delta” series for our time horizon is 2005, when the New York Mets amassed 14.8 EqBRR and the newly-minted Washington Nationals had -29.8. The outcome is noteworthy because the two teams played in the same division, and it just so happened that year that every team in the National League East finished at .500 or above. The Mets finished in fourth place with an 83-79 record, two games ahead of the 81-81 Nationals. Given that the baserunning difference between the two teams was 4 ½ wins, if we hold everything else constant, we can see that the Mets' excellent baserunning kept them out of the basement, and the Nationals cost themselves what might have been their best shot at third place in the entire decade.
Now, obviously we cannot hold everything else constant. We can’t just give Pete Incaviglia the legs of Rickey Henderson or vice versa. Most notably, faster players tend either to be more expensive or worse in other ways. But the point of this exercise is to demonstrate the magnitude of the impact that baserunning can have. It is more than possible that baserunning can put an otherwise second-place team in first, or a fifth-place team in fourth. But it is highly unlikely that baserunning alone can vault a second-division team into first place.
That brings us to the 2010 season. A quick perusal of our Team Baserunning leaderboard will inform you that, just as in 2005, the Mets (7.5 EqBRR) are the leaders and the Nationals (-11.4) are the trailers. Before the season, I wrote that the Mets had the right ingredients for a good baserunning team, and they have so far lived up to that promise. Nevertheless, they find themselves a half-game below .500 and in last place, just a game behind—you guessed it—the Nationals.
The Mets have plenty of problems that have been chronicled accurately and otherwise elsewhere, but let’s focus just for a moment on the baserunning. They have gotten valuable contributions from Angel Pagan (2.7 EqBRR, tied for fourth in the majors), Jose Reyes (2.4, tied for ninth), Jason Bay (!) (2.4, tied for ninth), and Luis Castillo (1.1, tied for 31st). Even Gary Matthews Jr. and Jeff Francoeur, those whipping boys of whipping boys, have each chipped in nearly a run on the basepaths. Although the Mets have not yet been able to run their way to first place, they would undoubtedly be in a worse spot than they are if they hadn’t been such a good running team.
The Nationals, on the other hand, have been playing respectable baseball. They are currently tied for third in the division and stand only four games behind the first-place Phillies. But if they had been even average on the basepaths, it is possible they could be in second place right now. Only four of their players (Josh Willingham, Roger Bernadina, Alberto Gonzalez, and Adam Kennedy) have positive EqBRR. Supposedly one of their best baserunners, Nyjer Morgan, has not been wise with his stolen base opportunities. He has eight steals but has also been caught eight times on the way to a team-worst -2.3 EqBRR.
Question of the Day
Do you think teams overemphasize baserunning? Or perhaps they do not pursue baserunning enough? Which teams have under- or over-performed on the basepaths so far in 2010?