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Running down a dream

When I was preparing for Sunday’s thread it occurred to me that I might have unfairly beaten up Cesar Izturis. In researching the offense and defense of our middle infielders, it occurred to me that Izturis might actually have some offensive value beyond that which I ascribed him. He did, after all, lead the team in stolen bases last year (24) and was successful 80% of the time (24/30).

We know that a success rate above 70 or 75% can add offensive value. In fact, the stolen base success rate is more important to offensive success than the raw number of bases stolen. If you have both – Jimmy Rollins was successful an absurd 47 out of 50 times this season – you’re adding quite a bit of value. So it occurred to me that we ought to see how well the Cards ran the bases last season, not only as an exercise to see how it affected our offense, but also to be fair to Cesar.

12 teams in the National League stole more bases than the Cards’ 73. The Cards were only slightly better, at 11th, with our 69.5% success rate. However, there’s a lot more to base running than stealing bases. There’s advancing on outs, going from 1st to 3rd on a single, scoring from 2nd on a single or from 1st on a double. Fortunately, both baseball prospectus and billjamesonline now have statistics that help us evaluate each base runner and each team’s base running.

It’s important also that we make clear that it’s poor analysis to divide these players into "good base runners" and "bad base runners", necessarily. These are base runners who add runs, compared to the average base runner, or subtract runs, compared to the average base runner. These "base running runs" don’t measure, exclusively, how well players run the bases b/c speed is a huge factor in determining to what degree players help their teams while running the bases. I draw that distinction b/c, as you’ll see, Albert Pujols is, basically, characterized as "an average base runner" though we all know that he is much better than average. However, his speed limits him so, though he runs the bases quite well (usually – though Jose Oquendo knows not to get between Albert and home plate when he throws up a stop sign, lest he become foul-line roadkill), he doesn’t add many runs to the team when he runs the bases, simply b/c he’s not very fast. He does the best he can w/ what he’s got. These "base running runs" are more often a function of team speed more than base running skill. Molina, too, isn’t so much a "bad base runner" as he is slow – and thus costs the team runs w/ his speed.

Compared with other teams, both systems show the Cards to be a below-average base running team in ’08. According to bill james, the Cards -17 (on a +/- scale, similar to their fielding scale) was better than only 5 teams in the big leagues. Using BP’s metric, the Cards’ base running was only slightly better, finishing 22nd in the majors. According to BP, the Cards’ base running was 10 runs worse than the average MLB team. Now, in fairness, 10 runs below average is not a tremendous gap between the Cards and the average team. It’s about 1 win. So, using BP’s metric, their base running was hardly the reason the Cards didn’t make the playoffs. On the other hand, the best base running teams were 22 runs above average – a 32 run difference between them and the Cards. That’s a 3 win difference between the top base running teams and the Cards. The Cards finished just 4 games behind the Brewers in the Wild Card hunt. So, it’s clear that improved base running, though not a panacea, could help the Cards make up the ground between where they are now and where they want to be.

It is apparent, in looking at these numbers, that they are far from conclusive, however. The Cubs, for example, are given a +66 – one of the best in the majors – on billjames’ system but are listed as one of baseball’s worst base running teams by BP. Even so, it’s no secret that the Cards lack speed and shouldn’t be that surprising that both indicators rank the Cards as being close to the bottom in terms of their base running.

Despite the inconsistency w/ which these two systems evaluate the Cubs, their evaluations of the Cards’ players are remarkably consistent. Our "worst" base runners – those who’ve cost the team the most bases and, in turn, the most runs – are Molina, Duncan, Glaus and surprisingly, Izturis. In fairness, billjames ranks Izturis at exactly 0 – league average – the same as Pujols but BP has Izturis ranked second to last on the team! He adds quite a bit when he steals bases but appears to cost the team when trying to advance on outs or on hits. It’s not surprising that Molina has these problems. It is surprising that a guy w/ Izturis’ speed appears to have these problems. He made 8 outs on the bases, aside from the 6 times he was caught stealing. Now, it’s possible, and it’s not broken down by either site, that a few of those 8 (b/c 8’s a lot for a guy w/ his speed!) were on blown squeeze plays. If so, and I’ll admit I’m just speculating here, but in most cases being out on a squeeze play is not the fault of the base runner. Izturis’ numbers may be artificially deflated here b/c of missed signs, bad bunt attempts, or well-defensed squeeze plays.

Our "best" base runners – those who add the most to our offense by running the bases – included Ludwick, Skip, Kennedy and Miles. Both metrics agree on that. Some of our "worst" base runners (I really hate calling them that) – some of the players who cost us more bases than they add to our offense are here to stay, at least for next year, and should be b/c they add much more to our team through their offense and defense than they cost us on the bases. Can you imagine getting rid of Pujols, Glaus, or Molina b/c they’re not fast enough?

On the other hand, while base running probably isn’t our biggest problem going in to the offseason, there are ways to improve it. And if we improve it, we’ll add a win or 3 to our total. Ultimately that might be the difference between making the playoffs and not.