Last year’s version of the Cardinals were among the most dangerous teams on the basepaths, and they also showed a significant improvement from previous years. For example, last season the Cardinals stole 116 bases and only got caught stealing 29 times (80% success rate). This gave them the sixth best success rate in the MLB, just 6% below the league leading Diamondbacks who only stole 88 bases. In the previous three seasons, the Cardinals best year on the basepaths was 2017 when the team stole 81 bases (17th in MLB) at a 72% success rate. In previous seasons, the Cardinals had looked apathetic about gaining an extra 90 feet, but that changed emphatically in Mike Shildt’s first full season as manager. But after such a successful year on the basepaths in 2019, the question is now whether or not that success will be maintained this season.
It seems likely that this success will at least be maintained, but there is also a good chance that the Cardinals improve on the basepaths and steal even more bases next season. The top four base stealers for the Cardinals last season were Kolten Wong (24), Tommy Edman (15), Marcell Ozuna (12), and Harrison Bader (11). Among these four, three are returning as Ozuna joined the Braves in the offseason. However, it should not be difficult for the Cardinals to replace his stolen base production. Bader’s sprint speed of 29.5 ft/s ranked 17th in the MLB last year, so it seems reasonable to bet on him to improve his totals this season. Additionally, he will likely receive more than 406 plate appearances this season, especially if his bat recovers from a disappointing 2019 season. His ability to run is an advantage for the Cardinals and it should pay off on the basepaths in 2020. It takes more than just speed to be a threat on the basepaths, but there is nothing to suggest that Bader does not have the ability to do this.
Additionally, with Ozuna leaving the team, his spot in left field is likely to filled by a younger, faster player such as Lane Thomas or Tyler O’Neill. I previously wrote an article highlighting the blistering speed of this pair as well as Bader, and it is likely that either Thomas or O’Neill can more than adequately replace Ozuna’s stolen base production. According to Baseball Savant, Ozuna ranked in the 63% percentile in sprint speed, while O’Neill ranked in the 99th percentile and Lane Thomas ranked in the 98th percentile. Both of these players should be more than capable of improving upon Ozuna’s 12 stolen bases last season. Additionally, a full season’s worth of plate appearances for Tommy Edman should give the utility infielder ample opportunity to finish the 2020 season with more than 15. Edma proved to be an adept base stealer as he was thrown out just once in 16 tries. If he can maintain a success rate of this level, or close to it, then he could be another young weapon for the Cardinals on the basepaths.
All of this stolen base success last season contributed heavily to the Cardinals finishing second in the league in Fangraphs BsR statistic (14.4). By all measures, the team had an impressive season in terms of baserunning. While the large quantity of stolen bases were important, it was the Cardinals high success rate on stolen bases that truly allowed them to have such a successful season. This will need to be sustained this season. The increase in speedy young players has given the Cardinals a much higher ceiling for baserunning success, but these players need to not only be aggressive, but also good. It is one thing to steal a lot of base, but also get thrown out a lot. This does not add nearly as much value. The Cardinals will need to be good at stealing bases and smart at choosing when to run. However, they proved that they could do this last season, and with the prospects of more plate appearances for the previously highlighted young players, it appears that the Cardinals improvement on the base in 2019 was real. They should continue to be a threat on the basepaths in 2020, and they might even manage to be the best baserunning team in the league if everything goes right.
This baserunning improvement under Mike Shildt certainly makes the team more fun to watch, but it also creates much more value. This is key for a team that plays in such a tightly contested division, and it should allow the Cardinals to gain an advantage over the Cubs, Brewers, and Reds this season.