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.
2007 National League one-game playoff. Padres vs. Rockies. 13th inning tie game, Matt Holliday on third, no outs.
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.
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.
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 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.