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A more balanced lineup could improve Cardinals’ value on the bases

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The Cardinals may not have been as reckless on the bases in 2016 like we all thought. They were possibly just very slow. 

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

If you ever played Ice Hockey for regular Nintendo you’re familiar with their simplistic version of lineup construction. For four available slots, you could pick a very skinny guy (hard to catch on the ice, lousy in fights), a fat guy (slow, powerful slap shot, good to have around in a melee), or a hybrid of the two. I usually chose four skinny guys or four fat guys because each configuration lent well to a certain style of play and because moderation was boring.

The 2016 Cardinals were the equivalent of an NES Ice Hockey team of fat guys. They led the National League in home runs, they were slow and frustrating on the bases, and, though luckily we never found out, they probably would have handled themselves quite well in a bench-clearing brawl.

But, to repeat, they did not run well at all. There was a lot of handwringing about the Cardinals’ ineptness on the bases and it was justified. According to FanGraphs, the Cardinals were the least valuable team in the NL on the bases. Across the league, only the Orioles, who sunk to near-historic lows, stole fewer bases, and the Cardinals had the worst stolen base percentage (57%) in all of baseball. For context, the Red Sox swiped 48 more bases than the Cardinals and had two less would-be base stealers thrown out.

Base running is not the most important thing in baseball but it does matter. David Cameron noted on the most recent FanGraphs podcast that notoriously poor runners like Prince Fielder or Adam Dunn could dock themselves a win over the course of an entire season. Those are the extreme cases and the Cardinals didn’t have nine Prince Fielders in the lineup but they didn’t have a regular mild threat to create runs on the bases either.

However, aside from the dismal stolen base percentage, there’s also evidence that the Cardinals weren’t as reckless on the bases as roundly perceived and their poor performance was merely a product of design or lineup construction. Rob Mains of Baseball Prospectus wrote an interesting piece (pay wall) on Tuesday about the lack of aggressive base running all across the league. As Mains noted, in 2016’s high-home run environment it made sense to not risk the extra base and simply wait to be knocked in by the home run. That’s pretty much what most of the league did - especially the Cardinals, who scored 45% of their runs via the long ball while the league average was around 40%.

That doesn’t excuse the Cardinals’ base running last year. But there was a perception that they were overly aggressive on the base paths (rather than just “bad” at it) and a cursory glance at the stats doesn’t necessarily bear this out. See below:

(Key: SBA2b = attempts to steal 2B

SBA3b = attempts to steal 3B

1stS2% = % of runners on 1st advancing only to 2nd on a single

2ndS3% = % of runners of 2nd advancing only to 3rd on a single

1stD3% = % of runners on 1st advancing only to 3rd on a double

OOB = outs on the bases

XBT% = extra bases taken %)

(All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.)

The Cardinals took an extra base at a rate below league average in 2016 yet produced the exact number of league average outs on the bases. But other than that, I was expecting these numbers to be uglier, which is likely because the easiest TOOTBLANs to remember are the ones committed by your own team.

The Cardinals ranked fifth in stolen base opportunities in the NL yet rarely tried to steal. (Although given their results, they still tried too much.) And runners on second were held at third following a single at a rate well above league average. Not taking an extra base is difficult to judge without context of the particular play. It could be strategy, or the player might just be slow, or a bad base runner, or a slight mix of all of the above. But overall it appears that the Cardinals were actually more cautious on the base paths when compared to their peers, and that’s probably how they should have played it with their 2016 “fat guy” lineup.

Even so, all of those home runs didn’t produce the desired end result. It’s easy to magnify everything when you finish just a game out of anything like the Cardinals did in 2016, but calls to add a “skinny guy” or two to the mix in 2017 seem pretty reasonable if, for nothing else, to make the team a bit more competent (and exciting) on the bases.

I’ve personally advocated for both Dexter Fowler and Andrelton Simmons, which is something you’re allowed to do when it’s mid-November and the Winter Meetings are still a few weeks away. FanGraphs had Fowler rated eighth in MLB in base running value in 2016. While Simmons was slightly below league average on the bases, he still rated better than every Cardinal with at least 450 plate appearances with the exception of Randal Grichuk and (somehow) Brandon Moss.

Speaking of Moss, it’s very likely both he and Matt Holliday will not be on the Cardinals in 2017. It has been a long time since Holliday added value on the bases and Moss is typically below average. More speed and athleticism could come by way of addition by subtraction. That’s probably trivializing the loss of offensive production from Moss and Holliday a bit too much, but a more balanced lineup in 2017 is probably what’s needed to improve the Cardinals’ base running metrics and ensure that they don’t have to wait for the home run to score runs.