Staturday: Baserunning & CF Defense

The 2009 Bill James Handbook has a section that tries to rate the baserunning skills of major league ballplayers. I say “tries to rate” because even Mr. James acknowledges the crudeness of the analysis. What they do is look at how many times a runner on 1st base advances to 3rd base on a single to the OF; how many times a runner on 2nd base scores on a single to the outfield; how many times a runner on 1st scores on a double. In another category they look to see how often a baserunner moves up on a wild pitch or a passed ball or defensive indifference, sac flies and balks. They look at how many times a player gets thrown out trying to advance or gets doubled off. They look at how often a player hits into a double play. All this data is compared to the MLB average of each category and points are awarded based on how more/less successful a player is vs. the average. Sitting above the average earns a player points, below average costs points.

 

Stolen base prowess is considered in a slightly different manner. A player earns 1 point for every stolen base and loses 2 points for every caught stealing. So a player who steals 15 bases and gets caught 5 times earns 5 points. The points a player earns or loses as a thief are equal to the points a player earns for his baserunning (BR) skills, it’s just the manner in which the points are calculated are different.

 

Like the man said, the analysis is crude. Not all singles are created equally, as a groundball single to Manny is going to present a baserunner with more opportunities vs. a line drive that one-hops right to Ichiro. This is about trying to put some data behind the Mark-1 eyeball scouting reports. So without further ado, I present the 2008 baserunning results for the projected 2009 roster of your beloved Oakland A’s.

 

BR

SB

Net

 

 

 

 

Matt Holliday

28

24

52

 

 

 

 

Rajai Davis

10

17

27

 

 

 

 

Ryan Sweeney

7

7

14

 

 

 

 

Daric Barton

14

0

14

 

 

 

 

Jack Cust

11

0

11

 

 

 

 

Mark Ellis

-1

10

9

 

 

 

 

Jack Hannahan

6

2

8

 

 

 

 

Bobby Crosby

6

1

7

 

 

 

 

Cliff Pennington

3

2

5

 

 

 

 

Chris Denorfia

0

2

2

 

 

 

 

Rob Bowen

2

0

2

 

 

 

 

Gregorio Petit

0

0

0

 

 

 

 

Jason Giambi

-8

0

-8

 

 

 

 

Kurt Suzuki

-4

-5

-9

 

 

 

 

 

Keep in mind these numbers are not intended to predict how the players will run the bases in 2009. (In 2007 Jack Cust produced a -6 net score while Kurt Suzuki was at +4, sometimes stuff just happens.) We can make some basic, common sense type assumptions like Jason Giambi probably shouldn’t be used much as a pinch runner. Now, do we say that because he’s 38 years old or because he’s put up net scores of -8, -8 and -12 the last 3 years? I don’t think it matters much either way! Then you look at a guy like Rajai Davis, whose speed is obvious to anyone who’s watched him play. Davis was the A’s best baserunner last year and over the past two years he’s put up net scores of +27 and +23 while being used primarily as a pinch runner and defensive substitute. Can we anticipate the same productivity if he’s given similar playing time in 2009?

 

This is an important question because if the A’s go with a 12 man pitching staff next season bench space will be limited. One spot is dedicated to the back-up catcher (probably Rob Bowen) which would leave only 3 roster spots left. Chavez and Ellis are coming off surgery and are likely to get more days off, especially early in the season. Combine their collective unavailability with Crosby’s general suckitude and it doesn’t seem a stretch to think that 2 bench spots will be reserved for infielders. So if all that comes to pass the A’s will only have 1 reserve outfielder… how best to use that spot?

 

Travis Buck would seem first in line but let me acknowledge some personal bias here by saying I still believe Buck to be a starting caliber outfielder. Given all the playing time he’s missed the last two years the last thing I want is for Buck to ride the A’s bench collecting sporadic playing time. If he’s not going to be starting in Oakland (and I seriously doubt he’s going to beat out Cust or Holliday) then I want him in AAA getting at bats. If one of the starting outfielders gets hurt or if Barton is struggling then call up Buck and adjust the line-up accordingly. Remove Buck from consideration for the 4th outfield spot and the competition boils down to Rajai Davis and Chris Denorfia.

 

Both are RH bats, both can play any outfield spot and both will be cheap. Denorfia is the better hitter but Davis is the better baserunner and defensive CF. This is another key point to consider. As the A’s starting CF Ryan Sweeney earned a +.1 score on UZR and a -2 score via Plus/Minus. These scores are pretty much in line with what the scouting reports said, that Sweeney played a competent CF but he was not exceptional. He was clearly not the A’s best defensive CF last year, that title belonged to Davis who scored a +4.9 UZR and a +4 Plus/Minus. Bump Sweeney to RF and he scored much higher, a +6.7 UZR and a +3 P/M. That’s a huge improvement over Cust’s -9.1 UZR and -10 P/M scores as a corner outfielder. Denorfia scored a +.3 UZR and a +3 P/M as a CF in extremely limited playing time. (I point out the SSS for Denorfia because when UZR tried to extrapolate his playing time to 150 games it scored him as a -7.7 LF, -9.4 CF & + 32.4 RF. That kind of wonky deserves a disclaimer.)

 

On paper, the best defensive alignment for Oakland’s outfield is Holliday in LF, Davis in CF and Sweeney in RF. Last year the A’s often used Davis as a late inning defensive replacement for Cust, bumping Sweeney or Carlos Gonzalez from CF to RF. I strongly suspect that Oakland’s 4th outfielder will see most of his playing time as a defensive substitute, with a sprinkling of starts mixed in over the course of the season. With such a limited number of at bats available (barring injury) isn’t it more important to focus on the non-hitting skills needed for the job? Let me be fair about this. Denorfia would certainly be an improvement over Cust defensively in RF, maybe even on par with what Sweeney would be expected to do when he bumped over to accommodate Davis. I’m not sure if we could expect Denorfia to be an improvement over Sweeney in CF, the data and the scouting reports are too mixed for me to make that claim but I would be willing to call them equals in a best case scenario. So the question becomes, does Davis’ superior CF defense trump Denorfia’s superior bat in the battle for the 4th and final outfield spot?

 

To some, maybe most, this would be a coin flip decision. Someone could certainly argue that the decision would be heavily influenced by the identities of the infield bats on the bench. I’m going to tilt the field by answering my first question: Can we expect the same baserunning productivity from Davis in 2009? I think the answer is yes. There will be enough pinch running opportunities, spot starts and late inning substitutions to earn Davis the same amount of playing time he saw in 2008 and barring injury there is little (if any) reason to suspect his base running and stolen base skills will fall off. And that’s huge, because going by the numbers last year Davis was one of the 20 best base runners in the major leagues (there was a 5-way tie for +27 so his actual ranking is nebulous) and he scored his points while seeing fewer at bats than any of the other 19 players. Davis has the glove to prevent runs from scoring and the speed, baserunning and SB skills to help manufacture a score as a pinch runner… all for a salary just over the league minimum.

 

Rajai Davis might be the most cost efficient weapon a manager can employ in a late inning, close score scenario. He'd be my choice for the 4th and final outfield spot on the A's roster.

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