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2009 Baserunning - Where Did The A's Measure Up?

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Are you looking to get to know one of our new players a little bit better? I have a hot tip from my Rangers fan friend that Beau Vaughan has a blog. It's funny, occasionally inappropriate, and everything you ever wanted to know about Beau and then some. We will continue to update the winter meetings if we add anyone else fun with a blog. Speaking of which, can someone get Beau on AN?

While I was thumbing through the pages of The Bill James Handbook (okay, after someone told me exactly what I was looking for), I came across the chapter titled "2009 Baserunning". Because of the A's late success in 2009 with the stolen base, I thought it warranted a closer look. The book is quick to point out that this chapter is not about basestealing, but rather baserunning.

The chapter opens by citing the polar opposites Chone Figgins and Prince Fielder, both of whom were on first base about forty times in 2009 when a single was hit. As you might expect, Figgins made it to third 23 out of 43 times, and Prince just once in his 45 times on first. Likewise, Figgins was on second base when a single was hit 31 times, and scored 26. David Ortiz scored just twice in his sixteen opportunities. It is important to note that these stats don't make Fielder and Ortiz bad baserunners; it just shows that they a) don't have the speed of Figgins b) play in a different home ballpark (think Fenway's shallow left field) (311).

On the other hand, Juan Rivera was thrown out 8 times in attempting first to third; yet many major league players went through the entire season without ever being thrown out advancing. The James handbook measures baserunning by first-to-third, second-to-home, first-to-home on a double, advancement on wild pitches, passed balls, balks, sac flies, defensive indifference and stolen bases, caught stealing and grounding into double plays. (311)

You might be asking what this has to do with the A's. It's a small detail, but a positive none the less; Kurt Suzuki was the best baserunning catcher in 2009, and Rajai Davis is as awesome as we thought.


This baserunning system is zero-centered (minus stolen bases). The example it gives: In 2009, out of 9,297 runners who were on first base when a single was hit, 2,490 went to third. That calculates to the average of 26.8%. Figgins (23-43) was 11.5 bases better than average. (Incidentally, he led the league in both first-to-third and second-to-home advances.) As you can see in the example above, Fielder was 11.1 bases worse than average. Following this model, the positive and negatives for each player being above or below average are added and subtracted, then the stolen bases are factored in. It uses a calculation of +1.0 for a stolen base, a -2.0 for a caught stealing, and a -3 for making an out on the bases (or +3 for each out not made). (312)

As you might expect--and what the A's seemingly anti-speed campaign of the last few years may have gotten right, considering the lack of fast personnel--it is better for a player to go first to second on a single and not make an out, than for a player to be thrown out consistently at third base. However, this must be weighted against the advantage of consistently having a runner who can take the extra base; who ends up at third base with less than two outs for the easy run. It parallels the idea of the stolen base vs. caught stealing; at what percentage is it worth it? If a player steals 20 bases, but is caught 10 times, you would think twice about sending him in the future. For he has netted the team 20 extra bases, but cost them 10 outs, which are more valuable in this scenario than the bases he gained. The same rule applies to baserunning overall; at what percentage can a player going first to third either make it or is thrown out before he is no longer a net positive for the team?

Using the metrics above (using 0 as the base), Kurt Suzuki netted +15 for his baserunning effort; the best catcher score. For comparison's sake, Michael Bourn was +55 and Chase Utley +50; Figgins scoring +35.

On the other side of the catcher pendulum, Yadier Molina came in at -26. The next name might surprise you. The worst baserunner in 2009 (by a considerable margin) was the Angels' Juan Rivera, who finished the year with -40. (312) Was it because he was on a team with excellent baserunners; that he just blended right in with the first-to-third, take-the-extra-base crowd? Does he think he is faster than he really is? Or was he just a really bad baserunner?

The book, somewhat tongue-in cheek, then proceeds to list all of Rivera's failures; stretching singles into doubles and being thrown out, getting doubled off, trying to advance on passed balls and errors and failing; the list goes on and on, all season long.

The book does chastise the traditional way of looking at baserunnning, and directly challenges how almost everyone else sees this statistic. These numbers should not surprise AN; we have been long aware of the value of looking at the overall percentages rather than perceived speed. The calculations above were based on "every event" (314), meaning taking the first -to-third, second-to-home data in every situation (not adjusting for slow runners ahead, of them on the bases infield singles, which field the single is hit to, etc).

So how important is baserunning?

Baserunning in baseball is a significant element of a team's performance. The difference between the best baserunning in the majors (Michael Bourn) and the worst (Juan Rivera) was 95 bases or about 24 runs.

It is not that large, but it is not meaningless or insignificant, either. It counts. We count everything because everything counts; that's our motto, or ought to be. On a team level the difference between best and worst baserunners is about 170 bases or 40+ runs.

This wasn't highlighted in the book at at all, but since this is Athletics Nation, I would like to point out that for as much glory as Chone Figgins picked up for his net +35, Rajai Davis finished the season at a net +36. Matt Holliday finished at -2 (just because).

As for team numbers, the Phillies led the Majors with a net positive of +109. The Angels are the runner-up (probably due to Juan Rivera's numbers) at +99.

So, my question for the day is this: We know the A's put on a speed clinic after the All-Star Break; collecting stolen bases like they were going out of style. But from what you remember of 2009, how good was the baserunning? In other words; out of 30 teams, where do you think the A's were ranked in baserunning according to the handbook?

Update: And the answer we have all been waiting for.......In 2009, the A's finished 5th in team baserunning with a total of +69!!