In the 3rd inning of last night's game, Matt Carpenter was on first base with nobody out when Tommy Pham hit a high chopper just in front of home plate. Pham was easily thrown out by the catcher, and Carpenter tried to go from first-to-third on a ball that had traveled all of about 4 feet from the plate. Despite his Willie Mays Hayes slide, Carpenter was out at 3rd.
It was the fourth time Matt Carpenter has been thrown out trying to advance to 3rd this year. He's also been thrown out twice trying to stretch a single into a double, and has been caught stealing twice in two attempts. And he's not even the worst base runner on the team.
Base running is a complicated thing to evaluate. It involves the raw speed of a player, but also the decision-making of both player and coaches. When a base runner fails, it's not always possible to pinpoint what exactly caused the failure. So while they may not always tell us who is to blame, the base running metrics we have do a good job of showing us if players/teams have helped or hurt their chances of winning with their base running.
As for the Cardinals, those metrics send a clear message: They are a terrible base running ream.
Fangraphs Base Running (BsR) encompasses everything a player does on the base paths - stealing bases, advancing on balls in play and even avoiding double-plays. By that metric, the Cardinals are last in the National League, having given up 11.4 runs on the base path so far this season.
St. Louis has run into 42 outs on the bases. That's third worst in the NL, behind only Chicago and Milwaukee. And before you jump to the conclusion that the Cardinals aggressive base running has also reaped dividends, consider that their extra base percentage - when a runner successfully takes an extra base - is just 38%, below the league average of 41%.
It's even worse when we look at stolen bases. The Cardinals have been successful on just 58% of their stolen base attempts this year. That's good for a -4.7 Weighted Stolen Base Runs (wSB), again, worst in the National League.
There's no "magic number" for what a stolen base percentage should be in order to make an attempt worthwhile, as the math varies depending on the game situation, etc. But the old rule-of-thumb is 75%. The Cards as a team come in well below that number, and well below the league average of 71%. Individually, the only players to come in above that rate are Kolten Wong (100% on 5 attempts), Randal Grichuk and Yadier Molina (both 75% on 4 attempts).
Stephen Piscotty has attempted to steal nine bases and been thrown out five times.
Matt Adams was thrown out trying to steal third base this season.
However you slice the numbers, it's pretty bad. And for me at least, this certainly jibes with my anecdotal observations: So many fruitless steal attempts and hit-and-runs, guys getting thrown out at third base... I'll be honest, I wrote this post before last night's game, but such is the nature of Cardinal base running that something like Carpenter's TOOTBLAN presented itself as a launching point.
The question that remains then is, why are the Cardinals so bad on the bases? Again, it is a combination of player speed, plus the smarts of both player and coach. Those team stolen base leaders are a good illustration of this: Wong and Grichuk are both speedy, but there too is Yadi, who is clearly using his head on the bases.
Who decides when a player steals a base, or even if they take the risk of going first to third on a single? Even when the player decides, I'd argue that decision still reflects on the coaching staff and the philosophy they've drilled into the team.
The Mets are the 2nd worst team in the NL in terms of giving up runs on the base paths this season. Looking down their roster, you're not going to find many guys you would consider an "asset" on the base paths. And yet, the Mets have given up almost five fewer runs than the Cardinals this season by recognizing that and adopting a more conservative approach. They have attempted fewer stolen bases (and succeeded at a higher percentage), and given up only 25 outs on the bases to the Cardinals 42.
It seems like Terry Collins may have conveyed some important messages to his team, such as "you are terrible base runners," and "don't get thrown out on the bases." Meanwhile, after Carpenter's poor decision last night, voice-of-the-rights-holder Dan McLaughlin praised him for trying to make something happen, the same line we often hear from Matheny himself.
The Cardinals are making something happen with this ill-advised, aggressive base running: They are losing games. Since Mike Matheny became manager of the Cardinals in 2012, the base running decisions have been historically bad.
This would be the third year of Matheny's five-year-term that the Cardinals have ranked last in the NL in BsR. Those seasons also ranked among the worst in Cardinals franchise history, including the worst-ever. 2016 is already the 5th worst, and at the rate they are tracking downward, looks on pace to crush the previous record. Only one season under Matheny have they managed even a positive value in terms of Base Running.
Craig Edwards made a strong case yesterday that Mike Matheny should be fired, and pointed to the poor base running as one of the reasons. We can quibble about how much of the blame should go on the manager, but it would be hard to dispute that Matheny's in-game management has been a major contributor to a historically bad stretch of base running.