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Running Royals: When speed disappoints

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The Royals were supposed to be an elite baserunning team. It doesn’t always go according to plan.

MLB: Game Two-Kansas City Royals at Chicago White Sox David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals ran into another out on the bases Tuesday night against the Red Sox. It was fairly innocuous, if ill advised, as TOOTBLANs go. In the fifth inning with the Royals ahead 2-0, Billy Hamilton tried to tag and advance to second on a Whit Merrifield fly ball to right-center. Jackie Bradley Jr. fired a strike to second. It wasn’t close.

They were at it again on Wednesday. This time it was a pickoff where Whit Merrifield was caught leaning off first and was nabbed by Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon.

Seems like it happens a little too often with the Royals, who we all know are built on the concept of speed.

The metrics aren’t favorable. Through Tuesday according to Baseball Reference and their Runs from Baserunning (Rbaser—what a fun descriptor. Were the Pixies singing about baseball?) the Royals rank among a group of teams tied for third from the bottom among the least efficient teams.

Rbaser—Bottom Five

Rank Team Rbaser
Rank Team Rbaser
26 Astros -5
27 Royals -5
28 Mets -5
29 Padres -6
30 Reds -7

On the top of the table you would find the Cardinals (9 Rbaser) and the Rangers (8 Rbaser). Those two clubs are running away from the field (pun very much intended). The Red Sox and Dodgers are at 5 and 4 Rbaser respectively, then there’s a grouping of teams at 3 Rbaser.

Rbaser heavily weighs steals and caught stealing, but also factors in advancements on passed balls and wild pitches. As we know, the Royals lead the majors in steals and caught stealing. Their success rate of 73 percent is a tick above league average.

It’s never wise to throw your weight behind a single advanced metric, especially when measuring something that can be as abstract as base running. Turning to Baseball Prospectus and their Baserunning Runs (BRR—not nearly as fun) the Royals rank… Gasp! fourth from the bottom.

BRR—Bottom Five

Rank Team BRR
Rank Team BRR
26 Tigers -4.8
27 Royals -5.6
28 Brewers -6
29 Angels -6.3
30 Blue Jays -6.5

What is crazy about the above two tables is that the Royals are the only team represented on both. Ahhh… we’re seeing a trend!

BRR is a bit more complicated to figure. It’s valuations are based on things such as stolen base runs, air advancement runs and ground advancement runs. The Royals are OK at stolen base runs, pretty good at air advance runs… and absolutely abysmal when it comes to ground advance runs. In other words, the Royals runners aren’t very good at moving 90 feet on ground balls that are turned into outs. They are -8.81 when it comes to Ground Advance Runs. Next closest is the Rays at -7.02. Quite the gap at the bottom of the pile.

So we have one metric that penalizes the Royals for their plethora of caught stealings and another that shames them for not advancing on ground ball outs. But before we form a concrete conclusion, let’s look to FanGraphs and their version of Baserunning Runs (BsR).

BsR—Bottom Five

Rank Team BsR
Rank Team BsR
26 Marlins -4.6
27 Astros -5
28 Reds -8.4
29 Mets -9.1
30 Padres -9.4

The Royals are nowhere to be found amongst the bottom five! Scandalous! That’s because they rank 12th in the league, solidly in the middle of the pack. BsR, like the other base-running metrics, is based on steals and caught stealing. But it also factors in extra bases taken, outs on the bases and avoiding double plays. The Royals do well in those areas.

Random Baserunning Categories

Category Royals Rank League Avg
Category Royals Rank League Avg
Extra Bases Taken 45 23 56
Outs on Bases 16 T-11 17
GIDP% 9.5% 13 10.0%

Where does the truth lie? The madness is in the methodology. I’m inclined to lean a little more into the FanGraphs rankings. We definitely have seen some base running blunders from the Royals to be sure, but the speed has added to the offense. Despite the turbo-charged running game, the bottom line is the results haven’t been there and the eye test leaves us scratching our collective heads at some over zealous running. Being an aggressive runner is fine. Being a boneheaded one is not.

Hey... let’s focus on the positive. One Royal is in the top five in BsR on the FanGraphs leaderboard. Another would be if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. A third qualifies as a cagey veteran. Let’s break them down.

The Top Three Royals in BsR

Billy Hamilton: 3.2 BsR

You can make the argument that Hamilton is doing exactly what the Royals expected when they signed him to a one-year deal. Yeah, he doesn’t get on base enough to truly leverage his speed, but when he does reach… Look out. He’s 11 of 15 on steals and scores a team high 44 percent of the time when he reaches.

Adalberto Mondesi: 3.1 BsR

Mondesi is Mr. Everything for the Royals. He’s leading the league with 22 steals in 25 attempts.

Alex Gordon: 0.8 BsR

Gordon doesn’t have the wheels he once possessed, but he’s a very smart baserunner. He’s swiped three bags in three attempts and taken an extra base 48 percent of the time. League average is 41 percent.

Those three runners are good.

The bottom three on the Royals in BsR are names you would expect as Martin Maldonado, Lucas Duda and Ryan O’Hearn all have a -1.5 BsR or worse. Instead of those slowpokes, let’s spotlight a couple of runners who should be contributing more.

Whit Merrifield: -1.0 BsR

Merrifield is having an awful year on the bases by his standards. He’s been successful in just eight of 13 stolen base attempts, a 62 percent rate. He’s been caught stealing a league-high five times, all of those coming on attempted swipes of second. He’s made three outs on the bases. That doesn’t count the pickoff in Wednesday’s game.

It’s confounding how he’s become such a below average baserunner.

Terrance Gore: -0.5 BsR

They say speed never slumps. Someone should tell Gore because damn if I can figure out what’s going on. He’s swiped only six bags in 11 attempts, a 55 percent success rate. Granted, three of those caught stealings were pickoffs, but hey… It’s still an out. While he has yet to TOOTBLAN this year, he’s taken the extra base just 14 percent of the time.

Gore is here for his speed. Full stop. If he can’t leverage that, why is he with the club? He’s running himself off this team.

Pick any advanced metric or lean into the eye test if you prefer. I think you’ll reach a similar conclusion: The Royals not a great baserunning team. They’re not even a particularly good baserunning team. They’re slightly above average. However with this speed, they should be much, much better.