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Run smarter, not faster: Ozuna and the Cardinals are evolving on the basepaths

After years of middling base running, the 2019 Cardinals are building on the success of last season

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals teams of recent years have not run well.

That’s true either way you look at it. Since 2012, the Cards are ahead of only the Orioles in total stolen bases with 441. At the top of the list, the Brewers have more than doubled that amount.

The other base-running metric used often today, FanGraphs’ Base Running (BsR), encompasses all aspects of activity on the basepaths to give a bigger look at a team’s ability, represented as runs above or below average. In the same time frame as above, St. Louis is 25th in the majors with -27.5.

The team seems to be leaning more toward speed than it has in a while. In 2015—the first year of Statcast sprint data—just eight of 18 Cardinals with at least 10 competitive runs had sprint speeds higher than the league average of 27 feet per second. Last season, it was nine of 16.

That may not seem like a big increase, but it’s more of a case of addition by subtraction. One more above-average runner, and higher marks across the board, mixed with the loss of two who were below average.

It’s paid off quite a bit. That 2015 ranked 15th in BsR with 0.9. Last year, the Cardinals were third in the majors with 12.9, behind only the Yankees and Cleveland.

It isn’t that the Cardinals are stealing more bases; they still ranked in the bottom third of MLB in that category last year. Instead of running more, they’re running smarter. Marcell Ozuna has already exemplified that strategy well this season.

Let’s get it out of the way—Ozuna got nabbed at first last night on a throw in from right fielder Alex Verdugo. What should’ve been runners at the corners with no outs became a runner at third with one out. That play was more of a credit to Verdugo than it was a mark against Ozuna, though. He threw a perfect strike behind Ozuna at the bag. There’s a reason it doesn’t happen often.

Ozuna has had above average sprint speed every year of his career. It’s decreased with age, but he’s still in the 66th percentile so far this season at 27.3 ft/sec. Not necessarily Oso Rápido, but not Oso Lento by any means.

He’s never been much of a base-stealer. The highest total he’s logged in a major league season is five, which came in his 70-game debut in 2013. Other than that, the max has been three. He had that many last year.

At this point, 11 games into the 2019 season, Ozuna already has two stolen bases. Both were steals of third.

Let’s keep looking last night. Ozuna slices a double that’s 106 mph off the bat and finds himself at second with no outs. On an 0-1 pitch to Yadier Molina, with the infield back, he takes a massive lead and is almost given third base.

Kenta Maeda wasn’t paying him much attention from the mound. The infield wasn’t concerned with keeping him on the bag. A strong throw from Austin Barnes wasn’t enough, and now Ozuna is 90 feet from home.

Molina hits a weak grounder to third baseman Justin Turner, who looks toward home before taking the out at first. He had no play on Ozuna, who broke to the plate almost immediately. With the infield still back, he had a big lead that ensured he would score on nearly any ball in play. That’s a manufactured run that came from awareness more than speed.

We have to go back to March 30 in Milwaukee for Ozuna’s first stolen base of the season.

This one starts out with a single. Molina hits a fly ball to the warning track in straightaway center and Lorenzo Cain makes the play. Ozuna tags and takes off for second, advancing as the ball comes back into the infield.

It surprised Milwaukee a bit. They threw to first to appeal that he might’ve even started running early.

Nope. He’s in there.

In a much different situation than last night, Ozuna is dancing around the base near second, just trying to draw attention to himself as the Cardinals are down 4-1. He can’t find anyone who will give it to him. The shift is on, with just one infielder on the left side.

So, what does he do? He takes what he’s been given. Ozuna breaks for third and the throw isn’t close. Travis Shaw has to cover nearly as much ground to catch the throw from Grandal as Ozuna does to run from second.

It’s pure speculation to say Ozuna influenced the at bat, but Dexter Fowler ends up drawing a walk after that. Kolten Wong hits a double, Ozuna scores. Another manufactured run.

It isn’t just the stolen bases that indicate Ozuna is making heads-up plays on the basepaths. It’s those moments where he tags up on a deep fly ball, or scores from second on a single, or creates a distraction for the pitcher.

We’ve seen several Cardinals tagging up more aggressively this season. Matt Carpenter has had a few of his own, going from first to second on a fly ball.

Ozuna’s history as a baserunner is mixed. His first three seasons he posted positive value in BsR, but his last two seasons as a Marlin were the opposite. Interestingly enough, his monster 2017 campaign was his worst year as a runner yet, with -5.2 BsR.

Last season, his first as a Cardinal, Ozuna had 4.4 BsR—more than he totaled in his career up to that point. In this young season, he’s in a 16-player tie to fill out the lower half of the top 30, with 0.4.

The team has steadily improved with sprint speed and BsR as the years have gone on, and a lot of that is owed to roster composition. Harrison Bader’s sprint speed is elite at 30 ft/sec. Tyler O’Neill is close behind at 29.5. Paul DeJong is no slouch at 28.2. Those three figure to be in the longterm plans of the Cardinals.

At the end of the day, though, you can’t teach speed. You can teach how to use the speed you have. The Cardinal coaching staff seems to have developed a new approach, one that utilizes a more calculated aggression. It’s been more about catching the defense off guard and forcing them to pay attention to the runner.

It’s exciting baseball to watch. It isn’t exactly Whiteyball, but it’s an approach to running that seems to complement the the metagame of 2019 Major League Baseball well.

Despite what may happen through the rest of the season, one thing now seems almost guaranteed: We’ll at least see Ozuna crack that personal best of five stolen bases.