When most people hear “baserunning,” they immediately think stolen bases, and for good reason. Between seeing the runner stretch his lead another half step, watching his fast-twitch fibers ignite as he breaks for the next bag like a sprinter out of the blocks, tensing as the catcher receives the pitch and rises to fire in the runner’s direction, then holding your breath as the cloud of dust rises around the bag and the umpire makes his call, the stolen base can be an incredibly exciting play. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully written stanzas in baseball’s poetry of motion.
It’s also incredibly overvalued. Okay, let me dial that back just a bit. Because of its sex appeal, the stolen base tends to draw a lot more attention than its less-attractive friends like going first-to-third on a single, advancing on a fielder’s choice, or scoring on a sac fly. It figures that a runner who’s aware of the circumstances — where the ball is hit, how strong the outfielder’s arm is, how many outs — and who can pick up an extra base as a result is going to pick up some extra runs for his team. But how do we quantify that?
BsR is “FanGraphs’ all encompassing base running statistic that turns stolen bases, caught stealings, and other base running plays (taking extra bases, being thrown out on the bases, etc) into runs above and below average.” Basically, they’re looking at how many additional runs a player created with his legs. Believe it or not, the Cubs sat atop the National League in this category* in 2015, creating 15.8 runs above average. Only the Rangers (19.1) created more runs last season, according to BsR.
Before we move on, I’d like to make a couple observations about this list. First, Kris Bryant: #woow. The rookie’s 7.1 runs created, boosted by his numerous infield hits and uncanny ability to advance two bases on a single, ranked 6th in MLB last season. Bryant’s effortless, almost languid, strides served him well and helped the Cubs even when he wasn’t displaying them while trotting out 495-foot bombs. Speaking of mashers, look at Schwarber up there. I know it’s fun for people to assume he’s some kind of plodder, but this fire hydrant’s got hustle.
Anthony Rizzo showed some serious wheels by swiping 17 bags, and he even showed off some flat-out wizardry with the best slide of all time. Even Grandpa Rossy helped out, which is a bit of a surprise. Miggy, though? Woof.
As you can see, this isn’t just about pure speed. A little savvy can go a long way when it comes to taking that extra base and know when to run, not to mention when not to. While BsR isn’t going to be a paramount target for teams, you can imagine how a front office could look at a player’s base running as an important factor in determining his overall value.
The Cubs lost a solid baserunner in Chris Coghlan, but they gained an even better one in Jason Heyward. The free-agent addition came in just behind his new teammate with a 7.0 BsR tally last year and has averaged 3.9 runs above average over the course of his career. Ben Zobrist (-0.9) didn’t have a great season on the basepaths in 2015, but has been good for a run or two each season on average (16.2 BsR in 10 seasons).
As far as Zorilla’s concerned, though, even a sub-par performance could be an improvement over his predecessor. I’ve made no secret about my affinity for Starlin Castro, but that dude was an absolute disaster in terms of baserunning. That -2.1 you see in the chart above was actually one of the better performances of his six-year Cubs tenure (-0.9, -2.7, -0.9, -3.6, -4.7 in the previous five). That’s, uh, that’s not good.
I know some of you might be thinking that an extra run here or there seems pretty negligible, and that 16 runs out of 689 (2.32%) is a mere pittance. But consider the Cubs’ 13 walk-off wins and their 55 one-run games (34-21 record) and then think again about the importance of those runs. Myriad factors are involved here and BsR can be really volatile from one season to the next, but the Cubs are setting themselves up to be able to get the most leverage out of every little advantage they can find.
So yeah, it’s fun to watch Billy Hamilton steal all the bases when Jon Lester’s pitching and to see the speedster generate 13.4 runs despite a wRC+ of 52 (not a typo, he really was 48% worse than the average MLB hitter), but does it really do any good when the Reds’ aggregate BsR was 11.6?
The individual plays that feed into BsR might go unnoticed in the course of a given game, but you can rest assured they’ll make a significant impact on the season. And that’s why, despite the big names and big money, it’s little things that will make the difference for the Cubs this season.
*I should note here that Baseball Prospectus’s BRR stat varies significantly from BsR and actually has the Cubs ranked 14th in the NL (19th in MLB) with -4.5 runs. Fowler was good for -1.0 and Castro graded out at -2.2, neither of which is all that far off from what we see above. Rizzo, however, had a -5.1 total and Bryant only generated 2.3 runs, well below the 7.1 from FanGraphs. On the positive side, Jason Heyward ranked 4th overall in BRR with 6.1 and Ben Zobrist added a single run. So while the totals themselves are different, the fact remains that the Cubs should be significantly better in 2016 where baserunning is concerned.