Last week Ryan Heffernon wrote an excellent piece detailing how the Royals’ offensive success so far this year is more appropriately attributed to their newfound desire to take walks and hit for power than their speed. He’s more right than I think even he realized.
The Royals are leading all of baseball in stolen bases. That seems pretty good, right? It’s not bad in a vacuum, at least. But the problem is that the Royals lead the league in another baserunning category: caught stealing.
Shaun Newkirk showed some numbers on Twitter that were also cited by Ryan indicating that it takes approximately 10 stolen bases to be worth as much to a team as a single home run. That’s already pretty damning of a strategy that includes trying to replace home run hitters with base stealers. However, according to MLB.com, any baserunner who isn’t successful in at least 75% of his attempts is actually hurting his team more than he’s helping it. The Royals, as of before last night’s game, had only a 71% success rate in stolen bases.
The news gets even worse for the team, though. Terrance Gore, despite his recent offensive outbursts, is on the team primarily as a pinch runner who will be counted upon to steal bases. He has been successful in only four of his seven attempts at stealing, so far, a 57% success rate. In fact of all the Royals’ speedy runners only Billy Hamilton, Chris Owings, and Adalberto Mondesi have a stolen-base percentage at or above the 75% bar.
FanGraphs has a stat called, appropriately enough, Base Running. This stat is supposed to indicate how many runs above or below average a player is based on all of his baserunning events including stolen bases, caught stealing, taking extra bases, and being otherwise thrown out on the bases. According to this stat, Merrifield and Gore are both below average on the basepaths despite their undeniable speed.
If we admit that players like Gore and Merrifield are fast - and they are - then what would make them below average baserunners? We like to think that fast guys can steal bases and strong guys can hit home runs but there’s more to just about every single thing that happens on a baseball field than raw physical talent or athleticism. Otherwise, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson would be batting fourth for the Yankees. If you want to steal a base you need more than just speed. You need timing, knowledge of the pitcher’s and catcher’s abilities and tendencies, you need luck, and probably other factors I don’t even know about.
Timing seems likely to be the largest issue for this team. It’s one thing to be incredibly fast but if you try to advance a base when everyone knows you’re going to and they’re prepared to stop you with plenty of time to do so, you’re not going to make it.
Mondesi never had a chance on that attempted double. The weird thing is that, by the numbers that’s just a single. But in the game results it counted as an out the same as a slow roller to the pitcher would have. Mondesi, perhaps like the Royals in general, was just too aggressive.
The Royals need to throw out that awful trick double steal
The Royals have a cutesy play they love to run when they’ve got a fast runner at third and anyone on first. I first recall seeing it in 2014 but it may have started before then. It became very popular in 2015 and seems to be again this year. You all are probably familiar with it. the runner at first bluffs an attempted steal but actually wants to get caught in a run-down. The runner at third then, theoretically, can steal home. There’s just one problem.
It never works.
OK, I should amend that. It almost never works. It worked one time earlier this year when the second-baseman dropped the throw from the catcher. But even in that attempted play, you can see how/why it doesn’t work without an unforced error on the part of the Royals’ opponents:
And, of course, being a trick play, it’s just as easy for the Royals to completely screw it up as it is for the opponents, as happened on Wednesday afternoon in Tampa Bay:
The Royals had runners at first and third with one out and one of their best hitters at the plate. By the time the tomfoolery was done they had no runners and Whit had to lead off the next inning. With Gore’s speed at third even a relatively shallow flyball should have been enough to score him; instead, the Royals walked away with nothing.
The success rate of this play just isn’t high enough to justify continuing to use it. Certainly not at the levels the Royals have been employing it. Strip this play out of the playbook immediately and the team will improve. They’ll still have their horrible bullpen and a rotation that looks worse every day but they could at least stop running into outs.