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Thursday, August 25, 2011
A look at team baserunning

By Christina Kahrl

One of the guilty pleasures of listening to Chicago White Sox broadcasts when Hawk Harrelson and Tom Paciorek were in the booth during the 1990s was their discussion of "team speed." They sometimes even nonsensically talked about individual players who possessed good team speed. I'm not quite sure how one guy could have good team speed, but you trust that Hawk and Wimpy would mull the possibilities. It was one of those things a team wanted. In the absence of hard data, speed could get reduced to a question of who was successfully stealing bases frequently.

Cameron Maybin
Cameron Maybin and the Padres have been rewarded for their fleet-footed ways this season.
But there’s more to it than that. Happily it’s also the sort of thing that Baseball-Reference.com and other outlets capture and report. So this year, we can see that no team is helping their offense more with effective basestealing than the San Diego Padres. This is not just because they lead the majors in attempts (185) or steals (150), but because they’re also stealing bases at an MLB-best 81 percent clip.

However, that isn’t the only thing that Bud Black’s team is doing well on the basepaths. The Padres also lead the majors in equivalent baserunning runs (EqBRR) with 17.8. This is Baseball Prospectus’ aggregate stat of runs accrued by stealing, advancing on fly balls, grounders, extra bases taken on hits -- or basically any other opportunity a player might have for getting extra bases at the risk of additional outs. EqBRR was developed by Dan Fox before he became the Pirates’ director of baseball systems development, and it's a nice aggregate stat. But there's also plenty to find rooting around in B-Ref's raw baserunning info.

The Pads’ stolen bases (an MLB-leading 5.5 runs) accounts for only a third of their baserunning runs. They are also better than almost everyone advancing on hits or outs. It’s also a team effort -- Cameron Maybin may lead the team with 6.5 baserunning runs, but eight different Padre players have chipped in 1.6 or more, while their worst menace, the lead-footed Ryan Ludwick (minus-2.8), has already been dealt away to a life of Piracy.

The next-best teams when it comes to boosting their offense with stolen bases are the Dodgers -- another high-percentage stealing team at 80 percent -- and the Boston Red Sox, but neither club runs as often or as well as the Pads. However, the teams best at stealing bases aren’t automatically the best teams when it comes to helping themselves on the basepaths in other ways. Consider the New York Yankees, who lead the American League. They run a little more frequently than other teams, but most of their team total of 9.5 baserunning runs is due to advancing on fly balls (2.4 runs) and grounders (9.3).

The Los Angeles Angels are a team that doesn’t execute all that well on stolen bases, despite their oft-avowed preference to push defenses. They are successfully stealing 74 percent of the time (slightly above the MLB and AL average of 72 percent) but that doesn’t net them any more runs. Their opportunities lost to being caught slightly outweigh the benefit of the extra bases snagged -- a cost to the Angels of a little more than a run (minus-1.22, to be precise). The Angels’ tendency to lean hurts them with a league-leading total of outs on base, Baseball-Reference’s tally of plays where runners get thrown out attempting to advance on outs, wild pitches/passed balls, or balls in play.

This makes it sound like it’s best for the Angels to stand pat, right? Wrong, because the Angels get a small return on their aggressive baserunning. Forty seven percent of their runners take an extra base on hits. That puts them among the leaders in equivalent runs on hit advancement (EqHAR) with 6.56 second only to the Texas Rangers at 6.6. The Angels’ risks add up to a modest benefit, 5.5 runs in the black on the season, their best mark since 2007 after several seasons in the red. Mike Scioscia accepts the risks to try to make the most of the hits he does get while putting pressure on defenses.

If that sounds like a lot of work to generate a fairly modest benefit on offense, sitting still comes with penalties, even working with an experienced roster. In a lineup stocked with a few heavy-footed boppers, the aging St. Louis Cardinals are baseball’s worst team at stealing bases with 42 taken on just 73 attempts (58 percent). They’re not good at it, so they don’t run very much, but that still translates to 5.7 runs lost to straight steals and busted hit-and-runs and whatnot. But that lack of speed in the lineup hurts them as well when it comes to avoiding double plays on ground-ball outs, which contributes to the loss of another 12.7 runs on grounders. That adds up to almost 18 total runs lost on baserunning, MLB’s worst mark. And like the Padres, it’s a team-wide feat, with nine different players chipping in marks of minus-1.6 runs below zero or worse.