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Tortoises vs Hares: Does Speed Still Matter in Baseball?

Louisville Bats Billy Hamilton

I’ve been having these season-long conversations with fellow baseball fans about the major significance of Major League Baseball teams to have “speed” guys on their team. Lots of people still believe in the notion that a speedy player can cause havoc on the basepaths and, in turn, provide more runs for their respective teams because they believe that aggressive base running leads to more runs. From a fantasy baseball perspective, stolen bases are an important, statistical category that needs to be accounted for—so owners have a lot to gain from seeing fast guys get on base with the chance to steal a base or two. There are fans that wholeheartedly believe that top speed at the top of a hitting lineup is the ideal way to go if you want to maximize your chances of scoring runs.

However, many in the sabermetrics’ community believe that stolen bases really don’t increase an MLB’s team of scoring runs. They argue that stolen base attempts decrease a team’s chance of scoring runs: base stealers not only “distract” pitchers from concentrating on the hitter, but the batter has to change his approach to take into account the moving target trying to swipe a base, therefore cutting into that batter’s effectiveness. Also, if a base thief attempts to steal a base and is caught stealing, he has crippled his team’s chances of scoring runs for that particular game. Furthermore, the stats show that a team’s chances of scoring a run after a runner successfully steals a base only shows a slight increase in producing a run off the stolen base. Teams have everything to lose and very little to gain from a stolen base attempt.

And of course, these conversations stem from the much anticipated arrival of speed demon, Billy Hamilton. To Hamilton’s credit, he’s not just a guy that can rack up stolen bases, but has shown terrific plate discipline and good on-base skills in his young career. Now, he has struggled this season at Triple-A, but he’s only 22-years-old so it’s only a matter of time before he adjusts to the pitching at this high level. However, my argument is that Hamilton will probably be given the red light more often once he reaches the majors, but droves of fans believe that Hamilton can create this baseball renaissance where speed will once again thrive in the majors and we will witness the first player to break the century mark in stolen bases since The Simpsons made their television debut. Perhaps Hamilton could come in and steal a bunch of bases, but knowing Dusty Baker, I’m pretty sure Hamilton will see the “hold” sign when at first base while guys like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are at the plate. This isn’t the 1980s, people!

So for the next week or so, I will be looking at the leaders of certain base running stats and will be evaluating players and the numbers they have posted after a little bit more than half of a season has been played already. The first category that we will review is “Runner on First Scores on a Double.” One would assume that this category will be full of players who can burn the basepaths with their speed. However, of the seven players listed—have scored six or more times from first base in this scenario—a majority are known for anything but their speed.

FAST TO THE END: Runner on 1B and Scores on a Double

Player

1stDH

WAR

OBP

SLG

BB%

K%

SB

SB%

UBR

wSB

wRAA

Joey Votto

8

3.8

0.454

0.664

16.9%

19.5%

3

60.0%

2.0

-0.6

30.9

Alexei Ramirez

8

1.8

0.314

0.363

3.0%

11.8%

20

80.0%

1.8

1.7

-5.8

Brandon Phillips

8

2.0

0.322

0.415

6.3%

13.9%

1

33.0%

0.0

-0.9

1.2

Justin Upton

8

1.7

0.356

0.463

12.4%

25.4%

6

86.0%

3.9

0.5

12.5

Miguel Cabrera

7

5.9

0.454

0.664

14.0%

15.1%

3

100.0%

0.5

0.2

53.3

Dustin Pedroia

6

3.6

0.391

0.430

11.6%

11.1%

13

76.0%

-0.1

0.6

16.1

Chris Davis

6

5.1

0.388

0.707

9.5%

28.4%

0

0.0%

1.7

-0.7

44.3

The number of times a base runner has scored from first base on a double is indicated by the category “1stDH.” It’s a small list, but it’s one we can work with. As I explained earlier, these players are known more for their power than their speed. Alexei Ramirez is the only player who has reached 20 stolen bases among this group. How is this possible? How is it possible for players who have no more than six stolen bases be able to go around the basepaths and score from first base on a double? We’re talking about a league with athletes that possess world class speed and yet Joey Votto is among the leaders in this particular category.

The easy answer is that the following players have done a great job in getting on base:

  • Joey Votto
  • Justin Upton
  • Miguel Cabrera
  • Dustin Pedroia
  • Chris Davis

All five of these hitters have posted a Weighted Runs Above Average—or wRAA—above 12.0, indicating that these hitters are the type who are supposed to be the ones driving in the guys who are supposedly creating all of the chaos on the basepaths, not the ones who are scoring all the way from first base on doubles. Furthermore, the discipline at the plate displayed by Votto, Cabrera, and Pedroia is astonishingly amazing, adding even more to their value. It’s also worth noting that “ten wRAA is equal to +1 win” and Ramirez  is the only player with a negative figure in this category. So I guess that means that Ramirez is contributing half a loss to his team. It’s been that kind of year for Ramirez and the Chicago White Sox.

The only two players who have stolen more than 10 bases on this table are Pedroia and Ramirez and to their credit, they have a stolen base percentage above the traditional 75% threshold that many baseball analytics are requiring out of base stealers in today’s game (the MLB average this season is about 72% in terms of stolen base rate).

A quick explanation of Ultimate Base Running or UBR—it is a way to quantify the value of a player’s base running skills. It takes into account several base running scenarios and UBR is used to calculate a player’s WAR. Anything above zero is always good and anything below zero is bad.

So Ramirez does have value as a base runner, per his UBR. But on-base machines like Votto, Upton, and even Davis are close to equalizing or above Ramirez in terms of this stat. But as mentioned time and time again, Ramirez can’t display much of his base running skills if he has a hard time getting on base.

I’m surprised to see Pedroia have a negative number in this category, although it’s a small figure he is still the only player with a negative figure on this table. It doesn’t mean Pedroia is a terrible base runner, it just means he doesn’t add much value to his team as a base runner. I have a feeling his UBR will rise in the second half, however.

Finally, we take a look at Weighted Stolen Base Runs or wSB. What is it?

…[it] estimates the number of runs a player contributes to his team by stealing bases, as compared to the average player.

This is probably the only advanced metric that Ramirez wins out against the big boppers on this list. Then again, the other hitters are not base stealers, yet Justin Upton and Dustin Pedroia are only about a full run behind Ramirez.

CONCLUSION

Despite Ramirez proving to be the fastest runner in terms of stolen bases, he also has shown the least amount of skills to really utilize that speed on the base paths. It is true he does contribute fairly well when he does get on base—when he does get on base. But most staggering of all is that simple fact that the rest of the players listed on this table are not known for their speed, but rather for their big-time power and run producing capabilities. The reason they are among MLB leaders in scoring from first base on a double is because they simply give themselves more chances to get on base and increase their chances of padding this stat. More intriguing is the fact that despite the lack of speed, their UBR proves that in baseball, you don’t have to be fast to be a factor on the base paths.

Stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com and are good through July 20, 2013.

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