Back when you first played T-ball, or Little League, or coach pitch, or softball, or whatever kind of organized baseball existed for you as a youngun', your coach probably drilled into you a number of mantras regarding baseball that you still think of to this day. 'Keep your eye on the ball' and 'make a level swing' are two easy ones. But a disproportionate amount of them involved baserunning. Always hustle! Take the extra base! If the ball is hit in the air, freeze! Make sure you tag up if the ball is deep enough!
And, really, there's a reason for that. While speed is unteachable, what is teachable is how to use the speed you have, and knowing what you can do in any situation. The best baserunning isn't just trying to go fast, but trying to squeeze as much offense out of a situation as possible and trying to put pressure on the pitcher and the defense. Instinct is involved, but the core mechanics can indeed be taught and bought into.
The Royals are not good at that. They are a bad baserunning team and have been so for the past two years.
"But," I can hear you think, "The Royals have Jarrod Dyson! And Alcides Escobar! And Terrance 'Sonic the Hedgehog' Gore! And Lorenzo Cain! They can't possibly be a poor baserunning team. You, good sir, are daft."
And...well, you'd be partially correct The Royals do have those guys, and are known for being a great basestealing team. And they were! The Royals ranked seventh in stolen bases among all 30 MLB teams last year, nabbing 121 bags. They were functionally tied with the Boston Red Sox with the third-best success rate--Boston was at 77.57%, Kansas City at 77.56%--and the Royals stole 38 more bases than the Red Sox. Going back to 2014, the Royals have stolen 378 bases, ranked second in all of baseball, and have a 78.26% success rate, also second in baseball.
Yet. There's always a yet (though not always a yeti).
The top video - Eric Hosmer's mad dash home to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth of Game Five of the 2015 World Series - is a recording of one of the greatest baserunning moments in World Series history. The second video shows Lorenzo Cain scoring from first base on a single on two separate occasions, one in the 2015 ALDS and one in the 2015 ALCS. The last video is one of Jarrod Dyson's crowning moments, as he scores the go-ahead run on a popup hit just outside the infield dirt.
But the one thing that all four instances share in common? None of those featured a stolen base.
It's those types of moments that, unless they're a brilliant part of a postseason or such a ludicrous occurrence that it's impossible to be ignored, go under the radar on a day-by-day basis. Nobody on Sportscenter or in the local papers is going to look at the top players who go from first base to third base on a single. Nobody in mainstream media counts how successfully a player tags and takes the extra base. It's not easily measured, and even if it were it's not ingrained in us to think beyond steals.
But it's those types of moments that add up. The Royals are bad at them.
Fangraphs houses a stat called Bsr, short for--what else--bastardization (sike! it stands for baserunning). The stat measures how many runs above or below average a team or player is on the basepaths. It's much better than the simple binary of stolen bases. I'll let Fangraphs explain why:
BsR isn’t the only way to estimate the value of a player’s base running contribution (other sites host similar metrics), but it is a significant step forward from counting up a player’s stolen base total.
First, stolen bases are valuable, but being caught trying to steal is more costly than successfully stealing is beneficial. The intuition here is pretty simple. If you steal a base, you increase the odds that your team scores because you are closer to home, but if you are caught stealing, you not only remove a base runner but you also add an out.
There are certainly situations in which that is a more worthwhile risk, but on average, you need to steal successfully about two-thirds of the time to be positively impacting your team. In other words, stolen bases are good, but being caught on the bases has a larger negative impact. Stealing 40 bases while being caught 25 times is not as valuable as stealing 20 bases and being caught twice.
Additionally, BsR provides information about base running that occurs while the ball is in play. There is value in going first to third, home to second, and being able to advance while tagging up, among other things. The UBR Primer can explain the specific situations in which runners receive credit, but the basic truth is that having a player on the bases who can advance farther than average is valuable because it either leads directly to additional runs or makes future runs more likely, which is something you want to consider when looking at a player’s total value. And while it’s a smaller factor overall, staying out of double plays with men on base is helpful, so we should count that too.
For the tl;dr crowd, BsR measures quantity and efficiency of stolen bases as well as baserunning value outside of stolen bases. It's measured in runs, where zero is average. One of BsR's components is UBR, mentioned in the above Fangraphs quote. UBR measures all baserunning outside of value derived from stolen bases.
So knowing that, let's take a look at the 2016 baserunning data. Included in the table are total stolen bases, caught stealing, stolen base success rate, wRC+ (to take a look at batting value), BsR, UBR, and Off, which combines baserunning and batting values to present a total look at offensive output.
Here's the data. It's...revealing.
I don't know about you, but I wouldn't have pegged the San Diego Padres to be the best baserunning team, or that the St. Louis 'Play the Game the Right Way' Cardinals would be next-to-last.
Also odd? The Royals are 21st in total baserunning value, and 26th in baserunning value outside of stolen bases. And this isn't a blip, either; in 2015, the Royals ranked 19th in BsR and 23rd in UBR.
So how did we get here? Let's take a look at the component parts of the 2016 Royals: below are all Royals with at least 50 plate appearances. And Terrance Gore.
So how did the Royals become one of the worst baserunning teams in the Majors? By having a plurality of their everyday roster as poor extremely poor baserunners. Escobar and Butera were about a run below average, which isn't terrible. However, Perez, Cuthbert, Morales, and Hosmer were very bad, and those four were healthy and on the roster all year. Combined with Moustakas' -1.1 score in only a month and Colon's -2.8 score in part time play, that octet of players cost the Royals about two and a half wins on baserunning alone.
Out of 16 players with at least 50 plate appearances, only five--Dyson, Merrifield, Mondesi, Infante, and Cain--were worth more than one run above average on the basepaths. And to toss some perspective into the mix, Dyson was worth 5.4 runs on the bases. Hosmer was worth negative 5.3, Dyson's equal, but bad, kinda like the Battlefield Earth to Dyson's Empire Strikes Back.
Also, we have to talk about Gore. Gore is the elite of the elite, the best and fastest baserunner in baseball. But the Royals received 2.4 BsR from him alone in his sliver of playing time, padding the team numbers. Take away Gore's value, the Royals slip to 25th in 2016 BsR.
Both league champions, the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, were two of the best baserunning teams in the Major Leagues, and both grabbed about two more wins on baserunning alone than the Royals, even setting aside their superior rosters. Good baserunning teams can capture additional wins and increase their offensive production above and beyond their hitting. It's a thing the Royals should move towards.
Is there a way to fix this, then? Sure. If you want to improve baserunning, not having Morales is a good start. Moving away from having Cuthbert play as often as he did in 2016 is smart. Shifting utility playing time to Mondesi and Merrifield from Colon is good, too. And other than Morales, you're not getting worse hitting from those moves (and even moving forward--Morales' best years are probably behind him).
But this is an organizational philosophy more than anything. The Royals are known to be aggressive on the basepaths, and to have some great base stealers. And they are both. The key, though, is realizing that it's not being aggressive or having the threat to steal that's of primary importance, and then making that a consideration in evaluating offense.