At this point, you’ve no doubt heard about the Cardinals and baserunning. They were really bad at it last season. They’ve tried to improve things in the offseason with mixed results. Over the weekend, Ben Markham took a closer look at the Cardinals attempts to steal bases this season and came to the conclusion that the Cardinals should pretty much stop trying.
Within Ben’s piece on the subject, he put up a run expectancy chart and then found the breakeven point for a steal—what percentage a runner should be successful in order to try a stolen base. The run expectancy doesn’t just apply to steals. It also applies to taking extra bases, and getting thrown out on the basepaths. To illustrate just how that works, let’s examine the very brief career of Magneuris Sierra up to this point.
On Sunday, Magneuris Sierra got a single in the sixth inning and was no doubt pleased with his first major league hit. In terms of run-expectancy, he greatly improved the team’s chances of scoring. Let’s take a look at that run-expectancy chart.
Base-out Run Expectancy Chart.txt
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When Sierra came to the plate, the run expectancy was 0.243. By getting to first base, it moved up to .489. Then, he got picked off, reducing the run-expectancy down to .095. Not a lot of runs are expected when there are two outs and nobody on so Sierra simply getting out at the plate would have been a negative .148. Instead he went positive .246 then negative .394 to end up negative .148. As far as baserunning goes, he cost the team roughly four-tenths of a run. While I won’t go through any quantification, I will note that Sierra’s speed likely played some role on the error that allowed him to reach base in the 14th inning right before Tommy Pham hit the game-winning homer.
On Monday, after a single that loaded up the bases, Carlos Martinez hit a bases clearing double. Part of the reason those bases cleared was that Sierra, who started on first scored easily, ran around the bases very quickly and scored. That might not seem like a big play, but only 39% of baserunners make it home from first when a double is hit and this double, being down the line as opposed to in the gap, was likely more difficult to score in.
If Sierra makes the safe, typical play and makes it to third with two outs, run expectancy is .413. If he is thrown out at home, it is zero, but by scoring, he puts up a run, plus the run expecctancy for two outs and nobody on is .095. Mad Mags’ dash home added .682 to the Cardinals run expectancy and .423 over the average play in that situation.
In the fourth inning of that game, Sierra singled, then advanced to second on a wild pitch. When Martinez singled, Sierra scored from second. Again, scoring from second on a single might seem a fairly normal result, but it happens just 59% of the time. If Sierra had stopped at third, the run expectancy is 1.14, but with Sierra’s run plus .489 run expectancy after the run, Sierra added .349 to the Cardinals run expectancy and .188 over the average play.
On Tuesday, Sierra walked in third inning, and then was caught stealing second base. As with the pickoff, this move cost the Cardinals .394 expected runs. Then in the eighth inning, Sierra made a daring move to go to second base when Marcell Ozuna threw the ball back into third base on a single. This play was lauded by the Cardinals broadcasters when it happened. Going to second increased the Cardinals run expectancy from 1.798 to 1.92, an increase of .122. He later scored on a sacrifice fly that went 359 feet so while a small factor, his speed didn’t play too big of a role.
Then in the ninth inning, Sierra reached on a single and made it to second on a throwing error, again, one he likely factored into. Dexter Fowler singled and Sierra barely beat an incredibly strong throw from Giancarlo Stanton. Like in the play on the fourth inning the night before, Sierra increased the Cardinals run expectancy by .349 and .188 over the average play.
Last night, Sierra was at it again. After walking and Kolten Wong was hit by a pitch, Sierra tagged up on a deep fly to center. Wong, also a good baserunner, tagged up as well. Then, both runners scored on a Gyorko single. While this was technically station to station baseball, speed helped the runners advance home more quickly than they otherwise might have.
When he got on base in the sixth inning, he scored in Dexter Fowler’s triple so no real added runs on the bases. When we add up the numbers for plays where I calcluated it above, we have negative .788 for the pickoff and caught stealing and positive 1.502 with positive .921 over the average play. All of that means that despite a pickoff and a caught stealing and not successfully stealing a base, Sierra has been a net positive on the basepaths in his brief MLB career.
This is just a rough illustration of how smart baserunning helps and poor baserunning hurts. Those extra bases are important. Being aggressive can be a good thing, but the cost is high. All of Sierra’s good plays in the aggregate are only slightly better than the two outs he made. This applies to Kolten Wong. This applies to Stephen Piscotty. Whe we talk about someone being a good or bad baserunner, it’s important to look at all of the bases taken and all of the outs made, and then understand that those outs and bases matter when it comes to evaluating players.