Friday, February 4, 2011

Stepping Up the Running Game


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Image courtesy of Daylife via Reuters
We all know chicks dig the long ball. Heck, who wouldn't be impressed by somebody with the ability to hit a bomb into the upper deck at the Rogers Centre?

There's another aspect of the game that's equally impressive, but just doesn't receive quite the attention it deserves. It's something that's been neglected by the Blue Jays these past few years ... and that's the running game.

Under new manager John Farrell, the free-swinging ways of the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays may be replaced by a more aggressive approach on the basepaths. Farrell has already indicated he wants to employ the running game more in 2011:
"My vision for this team is to be more aggressive on the basepaths, find other ways to score runs, rather than being so reliant and sitting back, waiting for the home run to make us an unpredictable offensive team."
Among the countless statistics available at Baseball Reference, perhaps one of the most interesting related to baserunning is XBT % (extra bases taken percentage).  This is defined as the percentage of times the runner advances more than one base on a single or two bases on a double when possible.

Obviously, not all situations are created equally and the window to go from first to third or second to home on certain plays will differ, but I think that aside from stolen bases, XBT is a pretty good indication of a player's overall speed.

Not surprisingly, the 2010 Blue Jays ranked second last in the American League when it came to squeezing out those extra bases. With a team total of 36 percent, they came in just above the Kansas City Royals.

XBT% ▾ 1stS3 1stDH 2ndSH
Mike McCoy 80% 0 1 3
Vernon Wells 51% 8 5 6
Edwin Encarnacion 48% 3 1 6
Yunel Escobar 46% 5 2 3
Jose Bautista 42% 6 11 6
John Buck 42% 4 0 6
Aaron Hill 39% 8 2 6
Fred Lewis* 38% 5 1 9
John McDonald 30% 1 0 2
Dewayne Wise* 27% 0 1 2
Adam Lind* 26% 3 2 5
Lyle Overbay* 22% 6 2 4
Travis Snider* 21% 0 3 3
Jose Molina 13% 0 1 1
J. P. Arencibia 0% 0 0 0
Team Total 36% 54 33 67

Immediately, we can throw outliers out the window such as Mike McCoy and J.P. Arencibia because of their lack of on base opportunities. Those two aside, it's pretty obvious who the hares and who the tortoises are on the team.

Perhaps most surprising of them all is Travis Snider's lack of extra bases. I can't recall exactly when, but it was during a Jays Talk last season that Mike Wilner said something to the effect that Travis Snider was faster than Fred Lewis.

If it's a race to who can eat 30 hot dogs faster, then yes ... Travis Snider is faster. However, if there is any truth in the numbers above, it indicates Lewis was in fact the better player at advancing bases than Snider.

Keep in mind that extra bases taken percentage all depends on the context and not every opportunity to advance is created equal. There are many factors at work such as which part of the park the ball is hit to, fielding position, and the outfielder not hitting the cutoff man.

Anyway, that point aside, I think we can all agree the Blue Jays need to get out of this stalemate philosophy that home runs rule all ... and John Farrell will be instrumental in rolling out this new strategy in 2011.

There was a very telling quote from John Farrell during last week's State of the Franchise meeting which confirmed his intentions on stepping up the running game:
I'd like us to become a much more aggressive team on the basepaths. That doesn't mean we're going to try to make Jose Molina a base stealer. But it does mean that there are opportunities where we can turn guys loose ... to make us that much more unpredictable.
The inherent danger in developing a more aggressive running game is the possibility of creating more outs with runners on base. However, if the Blue Jays don't create chances by forcing the play, then they'll be just as predictable at the plate as they were in 2010.

If we're looking for a benchmark which to measure the Blue Jays running game against, I think there's no better comparison than arguably the fastest team in the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2010, the Rays swiped extra bases 45 percent of the time compared to the Toronto Blue Jays 36 percent.

And it all starts from the bottom of the roster and goes up to the top. I realize you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but this applies from everyone to BengieJose Molina to Rajai Davis. If it takes extra baserunning drills in spring training, then so be it.

The Blue Jays played 52 one-run games in 2010, and lost 24 of them. Squeezing out those extra bases are paramount to scoring more runs and winning more ballgames in the ultra-competitive American League East.

The powerful yet pedestrian offensive style used by the Toronto Blue Jays just isn't going to cut it any more. The rest of the division is becoming harder, better, faster, stronger.

The old adage dictates the Blue Jays need to walk before they can run. Well, I hope they're ready to hustle this year because I have a feeling John Farrell isn't going to settle for a leisurely jaunt around the basepaths any longer.

16 comments:

  1. Perhaps Snider was/is faster but Lewis is the better baserunner and knows how to pick his spots better?

    That is the one thing I will remember most about Wells, He may not have had the speed that he once had but he was an awesome baserunner. One of the best at goign 1st to 3rd.

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  2. I hope you mean Jose and not Bengie? Did I miss a memo?

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  3. Johnny, I think in a 100 metre dash, Fred Lewis takes the slight edge. However, brute speed is one thing and smart baserunning is another. I'd take a guy who knows when to pick his spots over another who can just flat-out run.

    MMSS, I swear I make that mistake every time I mention Jose Molina in a post. From now on I think I'm just going to say Jose/Yadier/Bengie and hope for the best!

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  4. I actually agree with Wilner with respect to the Snider vs. Lewis debate. I think the main factor was Cito. The way Snider was treated caused me to believed that if he ran into an out he'd have found himself on the end of the bench. I think he was more reluctant to take a bit of a risk based on Cito's philosophy to avoid running into outs.

    Lewis on the other hand, is most likely a better baserunner and after all haters gonna hate.

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  5. Wes, good point - Cito would expect Lewis to be aggressive and take risks whereas Snider was on a much shorter leash. Haters gonna hate, indeed.

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  6. Escobar stole 1 base in 60 games for the Blue Jays last seasons. That seems awfully slow for a guy who seems like he's got adequate wheels. Green light. For everybody. Except Molina.

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  7. Nav, I'm not too worried about Escobar's lack of stolen bases because he seems to be pretty good at digging out those extra bases.

    He went first to third on a single 13 times last year, and second to home on a single 19 times.

    Fun fact: Jose Molina stole a single base last year, and it came during Brandon Morrow's one hitter.

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  8. XBT% seems like the kind of thing that could be influenced by coaching/team philosophy - the 2010 club just wasn't an aggressive base-running club, and I don't see why that wouldn't apply to all facets of base-running, not just stealing. I hope that Farrell is truly about "smart" base-running rather than just a blanket increase in the running game.

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  9. I love speed, and The Jays should make the most of it, but they should remember their bats, too. After all, they play half their games at skydome, and 18 more in the house that Steinbrenner built. The 92-93 Jays stole a pile of bases, but they were also near the top in home runs as well.

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  10. Xave, we knew Cito (and maybe Dwayne Murphy to an extent) didn't really pursue the running game very much. Since Farrell has a pitching background, I'm not really sure how he's going to get this team running, but as you indicated I hope it's still smart baserunning.

    Anon, even though Buck, Wells, Overbay and others are gone, there's still a ton of power in this lineup. And I wouldn't be surprised to still see them hit a lot of home runs this year.

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  11. There's easily 6 guys in there who can hit 20+ homers. My prediction? At least 3 on the team with 30+ bombs this season AND they steal more bags.

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  12. sadp, the power in the lineup is definitely there, I'm just not sure who other than Davis could potentially swipe more than 10 bases. Maybe if Farrell constantly gives the green light to Escobar, Bautista, Davis and others.

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  13. I could see Escobar swiping that many bases if he is lucky, however I think as you point out it is not just about stealing bases it is about squeezing in an extra base off of a hit. I think Bautista, Davis, Hill, Escobar all have this ability. Specifically though the other aspect of the short game you did not talk about is the bunt. Cito rarely seemed to institute this as a fundamental. and this is part of smallball. Another aspect that the jays have to work out is the fact tha Cito and Dwayne Murphy seemed to focus on picking your spot early. I am not a fan of this approach I think grinding out an at bat is good in this era of baseball. For pitchers rarely go much above 100 to 110 pitches. Although I did not watch many games on tv (due to not having sportsnet) I followed a lot of games on line. And I would always be baffled on how almost every team would have faced more pitches through the same number of innings than jays baters. Thus, opposition pitchers would sometimes last longer when the jays would not be making them pay with the long ball. You need a good balance, if a pitcher is hitting his spots, you need to grind out an at bat, however if they are missing them terribly you need to be going deep.

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  14. Psmith, you make a good point about the bunting. I remember often times late in play when the game was deadlocked and a runner was at first base, Cito would very rarely call for the bunt to advance the runner.

    You're right, they really need to grind out those at bats and force the pitcher to rack up their pitch count - especially with those bevy of tough starters from the AL East.

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  15. So that's where the stupid "chicks dig the long ball" meme started. For the record, I and every "chick" I know really dig good pitching. The long ball is gravy.

    I think what we're going to see is more smart base-running. I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes Lovullo's special project for the year.

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  16. MK, yeah ... you can thank Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Nike for that one. I'm all for the smart base-running: create more scoring chances and put the pressure on the opposition.

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