Baserunning and Leverage
Let’s set the scene.
2004 ALCS. Yankees vs. Red Sox. Game 4. Red Sox down a run, Dave Roberts on first, ninth inning, no outs.
Dave Roberts advanced on a stolen base to 2B.
2007 National League one-game playoff. Padres vs. Rockies. 13th inning tie game, Matt Holliday on third, no outs.
Jamey Carroll hit a sacrifice fly to right (Liner). Matt Holliday scored.
That’s how it looks in the box score, but those two baserunning plays might be the two most momentous swings in baseball over the last five years.
Baserunning statistics are rarely looked at, yet the difference between the best and worst individual baserunners is about 20 runs, or two wins. Pretty significant. Players like Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Ichiro Suzuki, and other efficient baserunners become underrated when this skill isn't accounted for. So is baserunning an underrated commodity in the grand scheme of things?
There are several advanced metrics for baserunning, but my choice for this analysis is Bill James Online’s “net gain,” which takes into account “basestealing, avoidance of the double play, and success at taking the extra base while avoiding being thrown out.” I tend to think of four bases as equivalent to about one run, though I could be off base there. Here's the relationship between runs scored and net bases. Each dot represents a team's single season total over the time span 2002-2008.
The r-squared between runs and net bases is .17, so it’s pretty clear that the least important part out of the four facets of the game—hitting, pitching, baserunning, and defense—is baserunning. The difference between the best and worst baserunning teams in the majors is around 50 runs. That can be compared to 125 run swings in fielding, and between 200-300 run differences in pitching and hitting, depending on the year.
As demonstrated by "The Steal" and "The Sac Fly," mentioned at the beginning of this article, baserunning can at times be the make or break factor in any given game. Tom Tango developed, and statistically quantified, the concept of a leverage index to provide context to any game state. Baserunning, defense, hitting, and pitching can all be leveraged, be it through pinch-runners, pinch-hitters, defensive substitutions, or relief pitchers. I’d like to look at whether good baserunning teams also perform better in high-leverage situations. So, using one of my favorite statistics in fangraphs “clutch” score and one of my favorite types of visual presentations in google’s motion chart, I compared a team’s baserunning to its ability to come through when it matters most. Here's a year-by-year graphic of all 14 American League teams' baserunning metrics plotted against their clutch score.
And now the National League:
The correlation coefficient between net baserunning and clutch score is .12, which isn’t significant, but it’s not zero. Furthermore, going from first to third or scoring from first has a bit of a stronger correlation than avoiding the double play and stealing bases. Strikeout percentage has an inverse relationship of similar strength to baserunning, so there are a couple variables that might weakly relate to how well teams can come through when it matters most.
The average American League team is seven bases a year better than National League teams. I still don’t know what a National League style of play means other than inferior baseball. The Phillies have been the best baserunning team over the time frame, but they have been rather unclutch. The Angels rank sixth in baserunning, right behind the Yankees ironically enough, and the Halos have been twice as clutch as any team in the time period. Meanwhile, the Ozzieball White Sox and Bowdenball Nationals lagged in basferunning, while they put up neutral clutch scores.
How about a leaderboard of the most and least clutch teams since 2002?
I find the bottom five teams on this list interesting. Well, the Tigers .265 winning percentage is interesting too. But the Astros, Cubs, Indians, and Giants were all quality teams that won in spite of bad luck, unlike the Angels and Red Sox at the top who won because of it. Anyway, it looks like the clutch teams are better baserunners, but barely.
People sometimes try to explain the difference between a team’s Pythagorean winning percentage and their true winning percentage by the strength of that team's bullpen, baserunning, and "smallball" in general. But however a team creates or prevents runs, it is accounted for in the Pythagorean record. Then again, in many situations these aspects of the game are leveraged. So I decided to look at the difference between a team’s winning percentage and its Pythagorean winning percentage and winning percentage in one-run games. The results indicated that overall baserunning can’t explain how a team fares in close games at all, despite Dusty Baker's claim that "you gotta have some speed to win close ball games."
I attempted to break the data down further by looking at pinch-runners and performance in different situations, but unfortunately the only data readily available were stolen base and caught stealing scores.
- The Athletics last year had the two most steals from substitute players of any team since 2002, thanks to pinch-runner extraordinaire Rajai Davis. Davis had 42 plate appearances as a sub, picking up 11 singles and one walk, but he pinch-ran so often that he had more stolen base attempts than times he reached first base. Oddly, Davis was a better hitter than basestealer as a sub on the A’s, as he hit to a tune of .341/.357/.561, while he was successful in just 11 of 16 theft attempts. It didn’t really matter for the A’s, who showed unremarkable splits in clutch situations. However, I wouldn't dismiss the idea of keeping a 25th-man on the roster as a specialist pinch runner.
- The Phillies, the best baserunning team in the league each of the last two years, have topped the league in contributions from substitutions on the bases as well. Their sub-baserunners have put up 28 steals compared to a single caught stealing, while in the ninth inning the entire team has recorded 31 steals to one caught. But again, it seemingly makes no difference in the team’s record in tight games.
- The incredibly unclutch Indians of 2005 were 3 for 11 stealing bases in situations with a leverage index above 1.5, and it probably did take them out of a game or two.
The sample sizes in these situations are small, so it’s hard to make conclusions using this data. But I think that the small sample size is a decent conclusion. While baserunning might be under-appreciated in today's game in a macro sense, it might be over-valued in explaining how an individual game is won and lost. Teams can leverage their baserunning to add a few runs over the course of a season, if that. Teams hold constant true-talent levels for baserunning, and it doesn't appear that the better clubs are able to achieve greater success by leveraging the ability at opportune times. Over 162 games, the difference between a team's offensive performance in high-leverage situations relative to their normal run production levels can't be explained by their baserunning.