When evaluating baseball players, we tend to look at a variety of statistics which encompass different elements of the game. We care about how a player performs at the plate, how a player performs in the field, and how a player performs on the basepaths. To answer those queries, we have many statistics that will tell us “what” they do well, which can include any or none of those three elements. In looking at items including pitching mechanics, hitting mechanics, defensive range, arm strength etc. it helps to identify “why” they performed well.

For baserunning, the “why” is primarily two things; either you are fast, and can create runs easily with your legs, or you are a smart baserunner. Sure, a hitter could have a helpful first base or third base coach, but that aspect seems less material. Essentially, we mostly care about those two – speed and smarts. Firstly, I want to point out that speed is the majority of the equation. If a player makes dumb mistakes while running, they can often get out of trouble with elite speed. In general, how smart you are on the basepaths is a strong factor to your overall baserunning ability. Perhaps you can identify a deeply positioned outfield and go 1st to 3rd on a single. Maybe you move from 2nd the 3rd by more quickly assessing the ball in play. Nevertheless, making smart decisions on the bases is seemingly a similarly important asset.

I am using one key baserunning metric that Fangraphs utilizes on their site, and to help grasp its concept better (as even I did not fully comprehend it at first) here is its glossary definition:

Ultimate Base Running (UBR) is FanGraphs’ way of accounting for the value a player adds to their team via base running.

As you can see, the overall evaluation of baserunning is made easy. It is true that UBR is a petty calculation for those publishing it but alongside stolen base attempts, it gives us a much better understanding of who has success on the base paths and who does not. However, one thing you may have noticed is that technically, UBR and stolen base attempts are not mutually exclusive. In other words, for a player to be good at the stealing bases aspect, it implies that he is fast. And consequently, if he is fast then he will be more likely to get from first to third, and score from second on a single. While it may seem like a problem, for me, this non-mutual exclusivity represents an opportunity. It opens the door for a rough attempt to measure the other aforementioned “why” element – smarts.

In short, I operated under the assumption that if we take out the speed element of a good baserunner, what remains are the decisions he makes. Subsequently, what I tried to do was strip out the speed element of UBR. Because speed is so closely related to stolen base attempts, the best runners also have high UBR ratings. I started with UBR and subtracted a factor of SB attempts. However, since SB, CS and UBR are cumulative statistics I also scaled them to Plate Appearances. We will call the resulting value Smart UBR.

The following table denotes who has the best Smart UBR scores since 2010:

Player PA SB+CS UBR UBR % SB+CS % Smart UBR
Zack Cozart 1799 11 6.8 82 20 62.40
Clint Barmes 1866 13 5.9 79 24 54.70
Joe Mauer 2584 21 11 85 31 54.40
John Buck 1893 4 1.5 60 5 54.30
Darwin Barney 2061 25 14.2 95 42 52.90
Ryan Raburn 1539 8 2.8 68 16 52.40
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 1769 8 1.9 62 14 48.30
Ryan Hanigan 1441 2 -0.7 47 2 45.20
Matt Carpenter 1785 16 5.4 78 33 44.40
J.J. Hardy 2868 5 -2.2 45 3 42.30

 

At the top of the list is Zack Cozart, a middle aged shortstop, who, as you can see, never had close to great speed (at least not since 2010). I will admit that Cozart is far from being Jose Molina on the bases, though nevertheless, he will not be running the 100 meter dash. Barmes and Darwin Barney are similar players too. Their attendance here seems logical is because of their age and tenure. It is not crazy to think that aged veterans better understand how to run the bases intelligently, and have had the experience to read balls better and understand fielder positioning. Similarly, Joe Mauer made the cut-off likely for the same reasons, in addition to him and several other catchers both not running very often but not being plugs on the bases. Matt Carpenter is the most important name to me, as he rarely attempts stolen bases, though he is responsible for scoring the bulk of the Cardinals’ runs. Unsurprisingly, his UBR is high despite mediocre speed.

The next table shows the contrary; the players who have the lowest Smart UBR and either attribute their baserunning success to speed alone, or have no speed altogether.

Player PA SB+CS UBR UBR % SB+CS % Smart UBR
Bobby Abreu 1664 69 -4.5 28 81 -53.60
Nori Aoki 1811 95 -3.6 35 88 -53.40
Franklin Gutierrez 1287 51 -3.3 30 80 -50.20
Yasiel Puig 1072 37 -2.2 34 75 -41.30
Kosuke Fukudome 1083 26 -3.9 23 63 -40.00
Jeff Francoeur 2046 57 -5.1 30 69 -38.10
Justin Ruggiano 1153 53 -0.5 47 85 -37.50
Giancarlo Stanton 2640 40 -16.6 11 48 -36.90
Eduardo Nunez 1040 71 0.7 58 95 -36.80
Carlos Gomez 2262 175 1.8 60 96 -36.70

 

Frankly, I am not surprised at all to see Nori Aoki here, as he had a low UBR, and we know about his terrible rate of success stealing bases too. It is possible that implies he makes other baserunning blunders as well. Gutierrez is an interesting name, partially because like Bobby Abreu, he is no longer in the majors, though it is mainly due to injuries instead of retirement. As you can see, he ranked in the 80th percentile for SB attempts, but he had a poor UBR. The same category would include Carlos Gomez, Eduardo Nunez and Justin Ruggiano, who are similarly on this list as a result of their great speed not translating to more effective baserunning and UBR. To reiterate this concept, these players have the ability to take extra bases, advance more often, and tag up more efficiently. However, with their resulting UBR not being high relative their wheels, it suggests they are making stubborn decisions that result in less runs for their team. And then there is Puig. Like Aoki, I was completely expecting him to rank dead last, but I will settle for 4th. The stubborn decisions he makes off the field are duly noted, as are his moronic tendencies on the field. He has all the skill in the world, but his immaturity and bad decisions are why he belongs here.

Though assumptions had to be made and constants had to be arbitrary, I strongly believe in the idea of baserunning intelligence being equal to baserunning runs with speed removed. The actual numbers are far from perfect, but they do give an interesting estimate. I also mentioned several other elements that could factor in, including the aggressiveness of your third base coach, for instance. Although, in the long run and with enough of a sample size, that type of factor seems less relevant. In addition, it would be a useful experiment would be to see how Smart UBR correlates with age. In other words, the question could be asked of whether the mindset, smarts and experience of a veteran translates to more productive baserunning, ignoring speed. Or if you will, can dumb rookie baserunning mistakes can be statistically proven? That might be a question for another post, but for now, I would take away that Zack Cozart and Clint Barmes are smart fellows. Perhaps this analysis is just a quantitative method to say that.

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One Response to “Attempting to Measure Smart Baserunning”

  1. Paul Cline

    Surprised Harper didn’t show up on the second list. Maybe he just makes enough smart plays to counteract his hyper aggressiveness.

    Reply

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