“I think walks are overrated unless you can run. If you get a walk and put the pitcher in a stretch, that helps. But the guy who walks and can’t run, most of the time they’re clogging up the bases for somebody who can run.”–former Cubs manager Dusty Baker

Now that “Sweet” Lou Piniella has taken over in Chicago, Cub fans can begin to put the Dusty Baker era behind them–an era that began full of such promise in a surprising 2003 season. But ever since the fateful foul pop fly that wasn’t caught, the fortunes of Baker and his Cubs headed down a path that culminated in the train wreck that was the 96-loss 2006 season.

Would that the results of the last four years could be blamed on something as simple as a curse. Unfortunately, the explanation for the slide is more complex and involves a series of questionable player-personnel moves and what has proved to be an unrealistic reliance on two injury-prone starters. So begins the judgment of history.

Although Baker did not bring a World Championship to the North Side, he did leave fans with a plethora of entertaining quips like the one beginning this week’s column. I thought about that quote while contemplating the managerial change as my family and I made our way across the remnants of the Western Interior Seaway after a family wedding in Iowa. The major question to me, spurred on by an interesting post and conversation on the blog associated with The Book, was just how frequently runners tended to “clog the bases” for their teammates. It’s hard to underestimate just how little interest my wife had in this question, but for me, much of the final few hundred miles was spent happily crunching the numbers with a laptop.

Advancing and Obstructing

In order to take a look at this question, I used the baserunning framework used to calculate Equivalent Hit Advancement Runs (EqHAR). In particular, we can use the advancement percentages in the following scenarios:

  • Runner on first, batter singles
  • Runner on second, batter singles
  • Runner on first, batter doubles

In each case we can then compare what happens when there is a runner at the lead base (second, third, and second respectively) with what happens when the lead base is empty. I did just that for the years 2000-2005, covering more than 105,000 opportunities. The resulting percentages are shown in the following table:

Lead Runner?          To2nd   To3rd  Scores      OA

Runner on First Batter Singles
Yes                   68.9%   27.3%    1.4%    2.4%
No                    70.1%   28.1%    0.8%    1.0%
Runner on Second Batter Singles
Yes                    N/A    38.2%   57.4%    3.1%
No                     N/A    34.4%   61.0%    3.5%
Runner on First Batter Doubles
Yes                    N/A    52.0%   45.0%    3.0%
No                     N/A    54.8%   42.1%    3.2%

There are several interesting things we can see from this table:

  • Consistent with the clogging theory, runners do advance from first to third on singles more frequently when there is no runner on in front of them, albeit only by a small margin (27.3% to 28.1%). However, they also score and are thrown out more frequently when there is a lead runner.

    At first glance it’s difficult to understand why this might be the case. One guess is that it’s related to the amount of risk the runner and third base coach are willing to take; they might take more chances on plays where a run is already “in the bank,” so to speak. In other words, having already scored one or more runs, they are more likely to risk making an out.

    Another possibility is that the opportunities with a lead runner on occur disproportionately with one or especially two outs, when the cost of getting thrown out is not as high (since the probability of scoring additional runs in the inning diminishes as the number of outs increases). This would encourage runners to take greater risks. In fact, this is the case, since having a lead runner on with nobody out occurs only half as often as having the lead runner on with one or two outs. As the table below shows, that’s not enough on its own to explain the disparity, since–across the board–more runners score and are thrown out with a lead runner on.

    Outs / Lead Runner?       Opp   To2nd   To3rd  Scores      OA
    0 / Yes                  3317   79.5%   18.3%    0.8%    1.4%
    0 / No                  11755   72.5%   25.9%    0.6%    0.9%
    1 / Yes                  6262   73.6%   23.1%    1.2%    2.2%
    1 / No                  14785   70.7%   27.6%    0.6%    1.1%
    2 / Yes                  6938   59.7%   35.3%    1.9%    3.1%
    2 / No                  13620   67.4%   30.5%    1.2%    0.9%
  • Likewise, when a runner is on second and the batter singles, runners take the extra base (home in this case) 3.6% more often when third base is empty. Of course, they also get thrown out a tad more frequently (0.4%).
  • Interestingly, when the runner is on first base and the batter doubles, the runner on first actually scores more often when second base is occupied than when it is empty. Once again, this is somewhat counterintuitive, but the result does repeat for each of the six years that were looked at, and varies little depending on the number of outs (with one out the Scores percentage is essentially equal). Perhaps the score plays a role here, or maybe the fact that the hit being was scored a double has somehow biased the results.

What we’re really interested in is seeing whether and/or how fast runners are affected by “clogging.” To address that question, we can compare and contrast some of the fastest runners with some of the slowest. We’ll select the top and bottom five runners (by EqHAR) from 2000-2005:

Leaders and Trailers in EqHAR for 2000-2005
Name                 Opp      OA   EqHAR    Rate
Juan Pierre          315       4   15.22    1.41
Luis Castillo        331       6   14.64    1.32
Rafael Furcal        272       3   12.09    1.33
Ray Durham           249       0   11.87    1.37
Mike Cameron         188       2   11.59    1.37
Edgar Martinez       178       3  -12.50    0.58
Rafael Palmeiro      231       9  -11.50    0.63
Dmitri Young         181      10  -11.04    0.60
Richie Sexson        153       6  -10.83    0.53
Juan Encarnacion     201      12  -10.73    0.66

The following tables aggregate the performances of these ten runners using the same categories as those shown above.

Lead Runner?            Opp   To2nd   To3rd  Scores      OA

Runner on First Batter Singles
5 Best
Yes                     244   64.8%   31.6%    2.9%    0.8%
No                      792   58.0%   40.0%    1.3%    0.8%
5 Worst
Yes                     270   71.1%   24.4%    0.7%    3.7%
No                      574   77.9%   20.6%    0.7%    0.9%

Runner on Second Batter Singles
5 Best
Yes                     126    N/A    30.2%   65.9%    2.4%
No                      511    N/A    28.2%   69.5%    1.2%
5 Worst
Yes                      97    N/A    44.3%   53.6%    1.0%
No                      354    N/A    42.9%   49.2%    7.1%

Runner on First Batter Doubles
5 Best
Yes                      59    N/A    37.3%   61.0%    1.7%
No                      204    N/A    47.5%   49.5%    2.9%
5 Worst
Yes                      88    N/A    62.5%   34.1%    3.4%
No                      175    N/A    66.9%   26.9%    6.3%

With a runner on first, good baserunners advance more frequently when the batter singles and there is no lead runner (40.0% to 31.6%). That advantage is reduced, however, by the fact that they also score less often (1.6%). Poor runners, on the other hand, actually make it to third less frequently (20.6% to 24.4%) when there is no one on in front of them than when second base is empty. This is likely because of the times they can sneak into third by taking advantage of a play being made on the lead runner.

When a good runner is on second and the batter singles, you can see that the advantage is still there, though it’s smaller–69.5% to 65.9%. This is shrunk further by the fact that they are thrown out 1.2% more often. Once again, we can see that slow runners actually score more often when there is a runner on in front of them. What is so damaging to these runners’ teams is that they’re thrown out a whopping 7.1% of the time when there is no lead runner.

Finally, as we saw in the overall numbers, both good and bad baserunners score more frequently when they are on first and the batter doubles with second base occupied. Interestingly, both fast and slow runners score even more frequently with a runner on in front of them than the rest of the player population does. As mentioned before, it’s hard to understand why this is the case.

The Bottom Line

Given that the case when the batter doubles with a runner on first is somewhat anomalous, we’ll consider only the cases where a runner is on first or second and the batter singles. We’ll also use the percentages and totals in the previous set of tables. We can estimate that, given that a good baserunner gets 40 opportunities per season in the first case and 25 in the second, if there were no lead runners, the baserunner could expect to pick up at most just one additional base per season. There simply aren’t that many opportunities where the next base is occupied, and the differences in advancement percentages are not that great. In some of these cases the lead runner “clogs” the bases through no fault of his own, but simply because they are unsure of whether the ball will be caught.

In the end, this analysis doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: baserunners are good, more baserunners are better. Baker’s premise is wrong.

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