Base-Running: What Went Wrong

Defense and base-running have been major disappointments this year and a few days ago in the comments I looked at which positions had seen declines in improvements from last year.

Arreglo de Gimnasio asked me to do base-running ext, specifically Base Running (BsR), which is Fangraph’s all-encompassing stat that estimates the value of all things on the base path. Last year, the Cardinals collectively were 10th in the Major Leagues with a 4.7 BsR, and this year they are 25th with a -6.6 BsR. That’s bad; it’s the kind of bad that might help explain why the team is underperforming expectations, how they seem to be coming up short.

The first thing to know about the BsR stat is that it is simply the sum of three different statistics which for now I will characterize as stealing basis, avoiding double plays and all other base-running. I’ll be examining each component in more detail later, but for now I’ll make a few observations common to each. First, zero is always average for the league in a given year, so there is always the possibility of some shifts from year to year being the result of league average changing, not player performance. Second, good events (stolen bases, avoiding a double play) accumulate positive value and bad events (not tagging up to take a base) accumulate negative value. Obviously players will mostly likely have good and bad outcomes over the course of the season which is why I think statistics like this are valuable to see the overall trends. Third, the numeric range is slightly different for each stat. Last year, the best generic baserunning team in baseball, the Arizona Diamonbacks, accumulated 18.4 UBR, while the best base-stealing team, the Miama Marlins, accumulated 7.4 wSB. I think this mainly has to do with frequency. A batter on first base has to choose whether or not to steal, but once a ball is put in play, whether it’s an outfield fly ball, or grounder to short stop, the player has to perform. In both cases, there is stat to evaluate whether that performance is below or above average.

Small print: Whenever I refer to 2023 stats, I am referring to the projected year-end totals based upon the assumption that the performance to date (about 60% through the season when I pulled the numbers) continues at the same rate to the end of the year.

Quick Summary:

Cardinals 2022: 2.0 UBR + -0.2 wGDP + 2.9 wSB = 4.7 BsR

Cardinals 2023: -2.9 UBR + -0.5 wGDP + -7.8 wSB = -11.1 BsR

1. Universal Base Running (UBR) This stat measures all non-stolen base-running. Think of it as taking that extra base, tagging up and advancing on a fly ball, or avoiding the double play when running from first to second base on an infield hit. An excellent base-runner is +6 and an awful one is -6. The Cards were thirteenth last year in total UBR and this year are twenty-third. Two of the worst base-runners on the team did not return: Pujols (-4.0 UBR) and Molina (-3.5 UBR), so there should be some addition by subtraction though we also lost Bader (2.6 UBR). Contreras (-1.9 UBR) has replaced some of Molina’s base-running "skill." This year, the team’s worst base-runner is . . . Tommy Edman, who has gone from 3.8 UBR (great) to -2.7 URB (below average or poor). That 6.5 point drop in Edman’s UBR is more than enough to explain the team’s 4.9 drop in UBR. It’s not necessarily fair to lay all of this decline on Edman, but if Edman had maintained last year’s UBR production, this would be a top 5 team in this stat.

Besides Edman, the greatest declines in UBR were Carlson (3.6 UBR to -0.5 UBR) and TON (1.5 to -1.9 UBR). The greatest improvements were Donovan (-0.2 to 3.7 UBR) and Goldy (0.6 to 2.2 UBR)

2. Weighted Grounded into Double Play Runs (wGDP). This stat measures a batter’s propensity to hit into double plays or avoid them. Note that UBR evaluate’s a runner’s propensity to avoid the double play, this is about the batter. The Cards were 15th last year and 16th this year with an insignificant 0.2 drop in wGDP. This is not where the Cardinals have meaningfully got worse.

But a few interesting things popped up. An excellent wGDP is 2 and a poor one -2.5. As I write this, Gorman is the number one player in all of baseball in this stat, set to hit 3.2 wGDP this year. This points to an oddity about this stat; it certainly includes some aspects of a player’s batting profile, and we don’t need to speculate widely why Gorman, despite numerous opportunities to do so, doesn’t tend to hit into double plays. The worst players for this stat over the last two years were Pujols (-1.7 wGDP) and Molina (-1.1 wGDP). Last year Goldy (1.8 wGDP) had the best score, while speedsters like Bader (0.1 wGDP in 2022) and Edman (0.0 wGDP both years) have been average.

For players on the team both years, the largest declines have been Goldy (1.8 to -0.7 wGDP) and DeJong (0.4 to -1.0 wGDP). The largest increases have been Gorman (0.8 to 3.2 wGDP), Donovan (-0.3 to 1.7 wGDP) and Knizner (-0.9 to 0.8 wGDP).

3. Weighted Stolen Bases (wSB). This measures the value of bases stolen and from being caught stealing. Values tend to range between -3 and +6 for full time players per Fangraphs. There are no poor base-stealers, just runners that wait for the ball to be put in play. Last year the club was 7th in the majors with a 2.9 total wSB and this year the club is 29th and on a pace for a total -7.8 wSB. Yikes. Even though wSB has a relatively smaller impact on the overall BsR stat, this year wSB accounts for two-thirds of the team’s decline in BsR.

Edman is the team’s best base-stealer for both 2022 and 2023, but there has been some decline from 4.6 wSB to 3.2 wSB. He success rate is higher this year, but it looks like he’s made fewer attempts. He might be more cautious or he might have fewer opportunities because there are runners in the base path in front of him. Edman is not the issue here though one wonders. There were three rule changes this year that made base-stealing easier: larger bases, fewer pick-offs allowed and (informally) renewed enforcement of the balk rules. He could also be losing some ground if league averages are rising.

Turnover is a factor. The team lost Bader (1.9 BsR), but also Pujols (-0.9 BsR). Walker has been bad this year (-2.5 BsR) so one can see some downward shift from changes in the team. Notably Molina provided positive value in base-stealing (0.2 BsR), showing that one doesn’t need to be speedy to steal bases if one is smart and selective. But turnover isn’t sufficient to explain the decline here. From top Edman (4.6 to 3.2 wSB) to near bottom, Arenado (-0.8 to -2.5 wSB) most players score declined. Last year there were seven players with positive wSB scores, this year there are four. There are four players on the team both years that saw improvements: Knizner (-0.7 to 0.1 wSB); Donovan (-1.4 to -0.7 wSB); Noot (0.1 to 0.7 wSB); and Carlson (-0.3 to 0.1 wSB) These are young players, but not rookies. Donovan has been listed here under all three stats as among the most improved, and probably representative of the age/experience where we are most likely to see improvements. Nonetheless, the changes are probably aren’t significant in and of themselves, they are just bucking the trend.

The underlying data is informative. As of the day I am writing this, the team had attempted 82 stolen bases and succeeded 72% of the time for a total of 59 SB, while one year ago the same day the team had attempted 77 stolen bases and succeeded 80.5% of the time for a total of 62 SB. The wSB stat rewards stolen bases and penalizes getting caught, and this year the team is worse on the two basic inputs. But it’s also probably significant that league wide stolen base attempts are up 71.9% (from 1885 as of 7/21/22 to 2620 as of 7/21/23) while the success rate has increased (from 75.5% to 79.5%). The league average is going one direction and the Cards have gone in another. And as wSB is relative to league average, these trends exacerbate the decline.

Unlike the UBR decline, one person is not the issue. I think it’s a combination of several things. First, the effect of losing Bader and from Walker becoming a regular starter. Second and related to some of the defensive stats, a few players, Arenado, Edman and O’Neill, might have been nursing some health issues. Third, inadequate preparation before the season, particularly in light of new rules, changeover in coaching staff and players at the World Baseball Classic. Fourth, most other teams have gotten better, league averages has improved, and it exacerbates these problems from a statistical perspective.

Overall: This type of analysis is always going to come across as pessimistic, but there is reason for optismism. I do worry that some of our best base-runners and defensive players might be giving so much that they risk nagging ailments that deplete their skills or playing time. But if it comes down to the stolen bases issue? Easy-peasy. Just don’t do it. Ok, maybe Edman and a few others should have the green light, but the team would see a lot of improvement in their wSB by not trying to steal so much. As things now stand, they are losing runs from their base-stealing and possibly games, but they have bats available more than capable of winning games.