Can Baserunning Be the New Moneyball Approach?
Running the bases has almost always been seen as a side-dish. Even in the Bitgod (Back In The Good Old Days) view, a player who was in the 99+ percentile for baserunning had to have at least one more tool to get to the majors. A fellow like The Panamanian Express was only on the team because the owner, not the manager, insisted. BTW: I think "¿Who is The Panamanian Express?" is the question to the following Jeopardy answer: One of only two players in ML history with a season's worth of games to have created more outs than he had plate appearances.
The knowledge revealed by Sabermetric analysis, combined with the efflorescence of offense since the leagues juiced the ball in 1994, has relentlessly pushed the running game further into the background year-by-year, both for pragmatic reasons and for religious ones.
I have a collection of 2005-through-August numbers from which I'll deliver some findings. The numbers are not as definitive, nor as granular, as the excellent opus Dan Fox of Dan Agonistes' blog has produced. Fox has some great work on his own blog, and a more recent three-part series at The Hardball Times that starts with this one. Fox suggested his numbers didn't match up well with what Scioscia talked about in my interview, and mine don't either. We both think the Angels do some slicing-and-dicing and are analyzing a sub-set of our data.
In that spirit, let's set up the workbench with some numbers. These are from the 2005 through the end of August, a fair sample. First, Major League frequencies of opportunities, success and failure in three situations: 1st-to-3rd on a single, 2nd-to-Home on a single, and 1st-to-Home on a double.
Extra Base 1st-3rd 1st-3rd 1st-3rd 1st-3rd Opps. Opps. Success % Success Out tryin' 12247 6203 1949 31% 60
Runners try for third on a single about a third of the time, and are only caught once for every thirty-two times they try.
2nd-Home 2nd-Home 2nd-Home 2nd-Home Opps. Success % Success Out tryin' 3846 2590 67% 129
A lot higher frequency of attempts on 2nd-to-Home (clearly longer throws for the LF and CF), and runners get gunned down at a much higher rate (about half again as frequently), though still not very often.
1st-Home 1st-Home 1st-Home 1st-Home Opps. Success % Success Out tryin' 1672 763 46% 62
The benefit/cost ratio of already-safe-at-third versus taking a chance on being out at home is dampening attempts. The failure rate goes up sharply again (out about two-thirds more frequently than 2nd-to-home and about two-and-a-half times more frequently than 1st-to-3rd), yet still only 7.5% of the attempts.
DISCUSSION TOPICS: ¿Are outfielders' arms so lackluster, is station-to-station baseball so popular now as a result of higher run production, have teams equipped with analytical systems been able to optimize who goes when?
Some Team Totals
Here's the MLB numbers restated on one crowded line, with a mean average team line following:
1-3 1-3 1-3 1-3 | 2-H 2-H 2-H 2-H | 1-H 1-H 1-H 1-H opps safe safe out | opps safe safe out | opps safe safe out MLB 6203 1949 31% 60 | 3846 2590 67% 129 | 2198 1010 46% 74 Mean 207 65 31% 2 | 128 86 67% 4 | 73 34 46% 2
Let's run some individual team totals against that Mean team.
1-3 1-3 1-3 1-3 | 2-H 2-H 2-H 2-H | 1-H 1-H 1-H 1-H opps safe safe out | opps safe safe out | opps safe safe out Mean 207 65 31% 2 | 128 86 67% 4 | 73 34 46% 2
Keep in mind as Dan Fox already pointed out that these numbers are very context-sensitive (park effects, roster abilities, team strategies, coaching decisions). Seattle has a lot fewer opportunities than average, but they weren't experiencing many baserunners-on situations, and the Astros had about 9% fewer at-bats with runners on-base than the NL average. Compared to the ML average, the Angels have more opportunities, convert at about the same rate for higher gross yield and are thrown out at about the same rate. So they're not better quality, they are higher-input with higher-output and the same quality. Intuitively, one would assume that as you drive up quantity, your added increment would be lower-quality opportunities. That is, everyone is already sending Chone Figgins or Charles Gipson against Jeremy Reed or Judi Dench, so incremental chances would likely come with less-skilled runners or more-skilled outfielders. ¿What do you think?
There's a universal Truth, known to many as Angus' Eleventh Law, that whatever asset becomes debunked as overvalued will become undervalued before it finds its homeostatic set point. If that's in operation here, it may mean that there's a little edge in aggressive baserunning "the market" of MLB teams currently undervalues and, therefore, makes it some opportunity for others willing to pursue it. And if opponents aren't used to seeing such naked aggression, until they do, their immune response will be somewhat impaired. It may be that the alterations teams make to the Scamperball approach disadvantage them in minor ways we can't track through isolating baserunning: perhaps pitcher or infielder concentration, perhaps fielder positioning, or other things. ¿What do you think?
Some Individuals' Totals
Here are some individual players' numbers we can chew on. I consolidate all three situations (1-to-3, 2-to-Home and 1-to-Home) because breaking up individuals' segmented opportunities into three very small piles of data means a single additional opportunity or out radically changes the outcome. The ML average was 34% of opportunities converted into safe advances. Here are the baserunners who had the highest number of opportunities:
Opps Safe Safe Out Johnny Damon Bos 66 38 58% 1 Manny Ramirez Bos 63 21 33% 1 Bobby Abreu Phi 63 32 51% 2 Derrek Lee ChC 61 31 51% 1 Brian Giles SD 61 28 46% 1 Miguel Tejada Bal 59 31 53% 1 Derek Jeter NYY 59 27 46% 2 Alex Rodriguez NYY 59 25 42% 2 Miguel Cabrera Fla 58 20 34% 0 Jason Bay Pit 58 32 55% 0 Ichiro Suzuki Sea 58 27 47% 2 Mark Teixeira Tex 57 30 53% 1
What earns you a place on the list is a (a) high OBP after subtracting homers and, concurrently, (b) players coming up after you who are likely to hit singles and doubles. Very, very context-sensitive, and one has to think that Damon and Ramirez are the poster-kids for this particular Jimmy Fund. There's a decent spread of high- and normal success percentage runners in this table. There is no bell curve distribution for percentage attempted (no surprise...there's almost nothing in nature that manifests as a bell curve outside the minds of the early-20th century researchers who invented the bell curve). The 90th percentile rank for safe% is 60% and the 10th percentile rank for safe is 29%.
Here are the top runners by percentage of opportunities converted into safe advances (minimum 25 opportunities).
Opps Safe Safe Out Figgins LAA 50 34 68% 3 Miles Col 25 17 68% 0 Hardy Mil 25 17 68% 0 Sullivan Col 28 19 68% 1 Hairston ChC 31 21 68% 0 A Boone Cle 43 29 67% 2 Beltran NYM 45 30 67% 1 Barmes Col 30 20 67% 0 Crisp Cle 44 29 66% 0 Podsednik CWS 32 21 66% 0
Not too many catchers or over 40s on this list. Two words that should strike fear into right-fielders and recreational hoops players everywhere: Aaron Boone.
Boone looks as out of place on this list as Ted Nugent would at a Friends meeting. Here are the trailers by percentage of opportunities coverted into safe advances. The local commuter trains (minimum 25 opportunities):
Opps Safe Safe Out Ortiz Bos 49 6 12% 1 B Molina LAA 32 4 13% 0 Berkman Hou 30 4 13% 2 Thome Phi 33 5 15% 3 T Martinez NYY 25 4 16% 2 Ward Pit 36 7 19% 2 Zaun Tor 45 9 20% 0 V Martinez Cle 44 9 20% 1
Too many catchers on this list. What ever happened to speedburners like Choo-Choo Coleman? I'll nominate Jim Thome as the least useful baserunner with his low percentage and extra outs. Who would you nominate?
There are a lot of questions to be answered. I haven't begun to ask them all. I ask you to view this as a first cut at a foundation for discussion. Of things we might find out based on the data we have access to, what are the most important ones we can discover; ergo, what are the next logical questions?
Jeff Angus is a management consultant specializing in knowledge management and change management, and the stats columnist for The Seattle Times during the baseball season. He writes the Management by Baseball weblog. His current book is "Management by Baseball -- A Pocket Reader," and he has a book coming out in May from HarperCollins, called Management by Baseball: The Official Rules for Winning Management in Any Field.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]