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The Royals are running but what is it doing for them?

What does speed do?

Kansas City Royals v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Since the acquisition of Billy Hamilton, we’ve heard about the Royals speed and their plan on using that speed in the 2019 season. They were touted as having potentially three 30+ stolen base threats in Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi, and Billy Hamilton. Those marks are all still achievable as the calendar nears June.

Mondesi and Hamilton are on pace for 50 and 38 steals (based on 600 plate appearances), respectively. Merrifield is below target, projected for just 20, so he might need to get on his horse a bit more.

Triples aren’t just about speed, they are also about rare opportunities. For a steal, you have two different bases you can take, and you can reach base in about a dozen different ways. For triples though, it typically takes a specific batted ball type to have that opportunity, but there is some speed needed, it doesn’t have to be elite, just existing. The Royals of course lead the majors in triples but it isn’t just through speed; Hunter Dozier has three, Ryan O’Hearn, Kelvin Gutierrez, and Chris Owings also chime in.

The Royals also lead the majors in speed score by a large margin:

Royals: 6.1

Rangers: 5.5

Rockies: 5.2

Diamondbacks: 5.1

Rays: 4.8

They lead the league in stolen bases, they lead the league in triples, and they lead the league in speed score. But the question is...what is it doing for them?

I think maybe we can think of it this way: raw speed and utility of speed. This is similar to raw power and use of power, or in game power. For what use is hitting 500 foot batting practice balls if you can’t do that in game.

We know the Royals have speed but is it translating to results?

On the first layer, no? If the purpose of any tool is results, the Royals standing at 15 games below .500 and chasing the first overall pick next year would point to a separation of tool and utility. If a team records 1,000 steals but the runners never score, then what is the use of the steals?

“If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

-No Country For Old Men

Speed score is more of a raw stat than a utility stat. It represents a nice understanding of the speed of the player, but doesn’t necessarily express the skill of using that speed. For that, we have ultimate base running or UBR. It encompases part of speed score, but goes further in application of the speed (such as advancing on bases). By UBR, the Royals are middle middle of the pack, racking 12th in baseball, just slightly above-average.

UBR though doesn’t include stolen bases, and for that we have weighted stolen bases, which looks at the impact of a steal vs a caught stealing. Stealing a base is always a positive outcome, obviously. It increases the chances of your team scoring a run. Getting caught stealing is obviously a negative outcome, it gives the other team an out. However the two aren’t equal. A stolen base isn’t as quite as important as not being out, if that makes sense. A runner on first with no outs might have several chances to move up to second. A runner who is caught stealing has zero more chances. The Royals rank 15th in weighted stolen bases.

We can roll everything into one stat, simply called Base Running (or BsR). With this, we can capture a lot about the use of a team’s speed when it comes to stealing bases, advancing bases when the opportunity arises, and avoiding double plays. And here, the Royals are 10th in the majors by BsR, perhaps further expressing the separation between the raw tools and utility.

Listen, I’d rather have a team that’s fast than not fast, all things being equal, but the Royals aren’t using that speed effectively it seems.

  • The Royals stolen base% is 70%, right near the league average of 71%.
  • The Royals have been caught stealing at second base more than any other team.
  • They are second in caught stealing at third base.
  • They’ve been picked off seven times, first in the league.
  • They have taken 40 bases this year, below the league average of 45.
  • They taken 43% of bases when they had the chance, 10th in the league.
  • When a runner is on first and a single is hit, they’ve gone to third 20 times, 21st most in the majors.
  • Going first to third on a double they rank 26th.
  • Going first to home on a double they are 15th.
  • When a runner is on second and a single is hit, they’ve gone to third 12 times, 23rd most in the majors.
Stats via Baseball Reference

If speed isn’t translating to runs which translates to wins, what is the point of the speed? If you line up a team of power hitters but they can’t hit home runs, what use is the power?

On the left, you have from 2010-2018 the regression of winning percentage to BsR (what we’ll call utility). On the right, you have winning percentage to speed score (what we’ll call raw tools). While BsR doesn’t have a strong correlation to wins, it’s at least positively linear and much more than the relationship to wins than raw speed.

I don’t know. I was skeptical to begin with of just collecting fast players and letting them run lose. The players have to really get on base first to begin with (the Royals rank 18th in OBP) and they also have to hit the ball hard enough to get doubles and triples (they rank 18th in hard hit%). Maybe the argument isn’t conclusive that is won’t work but I think it hasn’t worked so far. Now of course there is the other side of the ball, pitching, that matters for wins too and we are ignoring that here. But even if you ignore team wins and just focus on all the base running metrics above, the Royals haven’t translated speed to results.