The offseason is a time for teams to figure out how to fix the flaws that became apparent over the course of the previous season. The next few months will be filled with organizations signing hitters to solidify their lineup, locking up pitchers to bolster their rotation or bullpen, and maybe grabbing a defensive specialist to provide support in late game situations.
One area that's easy to overlook when assessing a team is their ability to make a significant impact on the base paths. Pretty much every major league game features players running the bases, and teams that do it well positively impact their ability to score runs. More runs equals more wins, and that's the goal for every team isn't it? Okay, that's usually the goal for every team.
In recent years, baseball analysts have gotten better at measuring the impact of base running on wins and losses. One such metric is FanGraphs' base running statistic (BsR). This is an "all encompassing statistic that turns stolen bases, caught stealings, and other base running plays into runs above and below average."
The statistic takes three major aspects of base running in to account:
- Stolen base runs (wSB)
- "Information about base running that occurs while the ball is in play. There is value in going first to third, home to second, and being able to advance while tagging up, among other things." (UBR)
- The extra outs a player costs his team (or saves) by hitting into more double plays (or fewer) than average given his opportunities (wGDP).
What can BsR teach us about the Reds results on the base paths in 2016?
Cincinnati finished the season with -3.8 BsR. That was the 19th best total in baseball last season, and by FanGraphs definition it identifies the Reds as somewhere between "below average" and "poor" in this regard. For the sake of context, the Padres led all of baseball with 24.8 BsR. Oakland has a league worst -21.5 BsR.
However, that number doesn't really tell the the entire story of Cincinnati's year on the base paths. As you look through the individual totals on the roster, it becomes obvious that a few key factors heavily influenced this final total.
Billy Hamilton is a good base runner
This is the kind of crack analysis you can only hope to get at Red Reporter. Billy Hamilton finished the 2016 season with 12.8 BsR. That total led MLB this season. Rajai Davis followed in second with 10 BsR. If you compare Hamilton's total to the rest of the Reds roster, you realize how significant an impact he made. Jose Peraza was the Reds second most successful base runner with a BsR of 1.
Not surprisingly, a lot of Hamilton's base running value stemmed from his ability to steal bases. According to FanGraphs players typically need to be successful in about 2/3 of their stolen base attempts to benefit their team. Hamilton finished the 2016 season with just over a 90% success rate (58 for 64).
Hamilton also positively contributed to the Reds offense by his ability to "advance father than average" in a given situation. If you watched any of Cincinnati's games this season there was a good chance you saw Billy Hamilton snag an unexpected extra base.
Here is one example...
We could do this all day, but the point is clear (and probably was already). One of Billy Hamilton's most significant contributions to the Reds is his ability to help the team score additional runs due to his speed. If you work with the common assumption that 10 runs = 1 win, Cincinnati added a win during the 2016 season that they wouldn't have otherwise based solely on Hamilton's speed.
However, it's the good news we just described that overshadows an issue for Cincinnati. If you remove Billy Hamilton from the Cincinnati Reds, then they become one of the worst base running teams in baseball.
Without Billy Hamilton Cincinnati's -3.8 BsR shrinks to -16.6. If we lived in a world in which Billy Hamilton didn't exist (I don't want to live in that world), the Reds become a bottom five team in the league on the base paths.
What factors led to this poor showing?
Tucker Barnhart did an admirable job of filling in as the every day catcher when Devin Mesoraco went down with an injury. One writer has even suggested Barnhart was Cincinnati's most clutch hitter in 2016. However, one area where Barnhart really struggled this season was on the base paths (this probably isn't a huge surprise).
Barnhart finished the season as the 6th worst runner in baseball by BsR (minimum 400 PA). He finished just ahead of an unsurprising group of players including Wilson Ramos, Yadier Molina, David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez. Barnhart's low UBR (ability to advance an extra base in a normal situation) was the primary factor influencing his low total.
Again, this probably isn't a shock to fans who watched the team. However, before we put all of the blame on Barnhart for these lost runs...is it possible we could attribute a few of them to Billy Hatcher?
Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and Joey Votto
When the middle of your order is close to or on the wrong side of 30, it shouldn't be that surprising when they accumulate low BsR totals. Phillips was the second worst runner on the team this season (-3.6). He actually led the team in runs lost by "hitting into more double plays than average given his opportunities." Phillips 17 GDP led the team, and was tied for the 11th highest total in the NL.
Jay Bruce also cost the Reds runs on the base paths this season with -2.8 BsR. All of this was attributed to his UBR total. However, this spot on the roster should easily be one position that improves in this regard in 2017. Scott Schebler accumulated 0.8 BsR in the 82 games that he played in last season.
Joey Votto does just about everything at the plate better than any major leaguer could hope to. That's not the case for Votto on the base paths. He hasn't posted a positive BsR since 2010, and he finished this season with -2.7. Then again, Joey Votto had one of the best offensive seasons in baseball and was a five-win player by fWAR.
If Joey Votto continues to hit like that, he could go around the bases like this and I wouldn't be mad at him.
At the end of the day, a team can add or subtract maybe two wins/losses from their final record based on their base running (at the extremes). It's clearly not the most important factor in determining the success of a team, but it does make a difference. In a league where playoff spot are regularly secured by one or two games, teams need to take advantage of every opportunity they can.