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The 2009 Diamondbacks Season, Part VII: Base-running

After a couple of weeks off, we get to the final part of the 2009 season review, while we look at the Diamondbacks' performance on the base-paths. This doesn't just cover the straight stolen-base, though this is the most immediately obvious component of base-running. There's also factors like going from first to third on a single: not quite as flashy as the swiped bag, but still an extra 90 feet you otherwise wouldn't have.

After the jump, we'll break down a few numbers, and see where the Arizona Diamondbacks stacked up against the rest of their National League rivals. For each category, we'll also take a look at the individual numbers, and see who the heroes and villains were for the team. But let's start, as you might expect, with a nice table of data:

ARI 102 40 72% 22 60 131 42%
ATL 58 26 69% 15 50 121 38%
CHC 56 34 62% 11 46 120 36%
CIN 96 40 71% 18 63 125 41%
COL 106 55 66% 26 75 186 47%
FLA 75 35 68% 17 62 172 38%
HOU 113 44 72% 9 47 118 38%
LAD 116 48 71% 26 56 154 44%
MIL 68 37 65% 14 47 154 34%
NYM 122 44 73% 16 69 169 40%
PHI 119 28 81% 21 44 122 39%
PIT 90 32 74% 18 64 136 38%
SDP 82 29 74% 20 52 119 38%
SFG 78 28 74% 11 47 159 38%
STL 75 31 71% 19 54 138 44%
WSN 73 40 65% 17 45 131 39%
LgAvg 89 37 71% 18 55 141 39%

Stolen bases
Arizona stole a total of 102 bases, and were caught stealing forty times - the former number is good enough for sixth in the league, and their success rate of 72% was fractionally better than NL average (71%). However, this conceals a significant difference with regard to stealing second- and third-base. For the former, we had a solid 74% success-rate (NL avg: 71%), but when trying to take third, we were only 18-for-28, a 64% rate. League average, perhaps surprisingly, increased to 73% - I say surprisingly, because it's generally thought of as a harder job, because the catcher has less distance to cover with his throw to third.

Chris Young was, far and away, the best on the team at taking third, being successful on six out of seven attempts. He was actually less successful when taking second, where he was safe on only five of eight attempts.  Gerardo Parra showed reversed numbers too, with more good steals of third (3-of-4) than second (2-of-8)  by him. Conversely, from the 2009 numbers, Mark Reynolds should be nailed to second-base: while he was great at reaching it from first (22-5, for a 81% rate), he failed on four out of six attempt to get from there to third. Justin Upton had the best numbers on the team going to second, of anyone with more than two attempts, at 84%.

And for the record, the Diamondbacks were credited with one attempted steal of home. By Kevin Mulvey. Though as you can probably guess, describing it as a "steal" is a bit generous: our pitcher was caught day-dreaming at third-base against the Giants on September 30th, got himself picked off and involved in a brief rundown before retreating, sheepishly, to the dugout.

Definitely an area in which the team needs to improve, though we're hardly alone in the division - four of the top five teams for having pickoffs inflicted on them, play in the NL West. The Diamondbacks' total of 22 trailed only the Dodgers and Rockies (tied with 26), and straight pickoffs - rather than those where the runner was caught trying to steal - were responsible for the bulk of those in Arizona, fourteen. There aren't any numbers available to show how these break down by base: while I've a feeling we were particular bad at getting ourselves picked off second, this is only my anecdotal hunch.

No doubt who should be looking to work on this in the off-season. Mark Reynolds led the team with seven pickoffs, more than twice as much as anyone else, and good enough for third in the entire National League (trailing Nyjer Morgan and an ex-Diamondbacks, Emilio Bonifacio, who had nine and eight respectively). Five of Reynolds' erasures were straight pickoffs, and two were in the process of stealing a base. Young and Upton were next, albeit all the way back on three, and that's probably no surprise: age and experience are likely significant factors here.

Taking the extra base
We should look at this in conjuction with the total number of outs made on the basepaths: this might be while trying to advance on a sacrifice fly, a passed ball/wild-pitch or doubled-off on a line-drive [basically, any out not covered in the two sections above]. In total, the team took 131 bases and made 60 outs, a ratio of 2.18, which is below the league average, 2.56. However, the team were more aggressive than most teams, taking an extra base e.g. going from first-to-third on a single, 42% of the time, good for fourth in the National League.

I was astonished to find that the man who led the team in stolen bases, Mark Reynolds, was actually among the most conservative on the team, with an extra base percentage of only 30%. Some of this may be small sample-size - we are discussing only 43 opportunities over the entire season - but I'd certainly not have expected him to be below Miguel Montero (a healthy 44%). Best on the team was Ryan Roberts, who posted a 56% rate in 34 chances. Upton and Young are also looking good, at 50% and 49%. In limited playing-time, Conor Jackson was 5-of-7: be interesting to see how the Dominican Winter League SB leader performs on the base-paths in 2010.

We can break the overal "extra base" number down, into the three situations where taking an extra base is possible: on first when a single is hit (we'll call this 1S); on first when a double is hit (1D); and on second when a single is hit (2S). In all other situations, the batter should score in almost every circumstance. Now, this doesn't take into account location of the hit - some singles will be a great deal easier to score from second on than others [such as when Upton hits a single 420 feet off the wall...], but over the course of a season, things should tend to even out.

Here are the percentages for Arizona compared to NL average. 1S: 29%/27%. 1D: 46%/44%. 2S: 64%/58%. This does tend to suggest that we were more aggressive than most in each situation, but particularly when going from second to home on a single. Given the youth of our roster, this would seem to make logical sense. However, I am not going to split these down into individual performances, because we are really getting down to the level where random chance makes it hard to draw any conclusions: no-one had more than 26 chances in any of the categories.

This stands for Equivalent Base Running Runs and is a Baseball Prospectus stat that "measures the number of runs contributed by a player's advancement on the bases, above what would be expected based on the number and quality of the baserunning opportunities with which the player is presented, park-adjusted and based on a multi-year run expectancy table." It's the sum of various components: Ground Advancement Runs (EqGAR), Stolen Base Runs (EqSBR), Air Advancement Runs (EqAAR), Hit Advancement Runs (EqHAR) and Other Advancement Runs (EqOAR), each reflecting a different aspect of the base-running game.

All told, the team ranked 21st in the majors, with an EqBRR of -6.8 runs. Most of this came from EqSBR, which was responsible for -6.36 of those runs. Breaking the numbers down to individuals, the top three were Upton (+3.2), Roberts (+1.7) and Jackson (+1.7) - again, be interesting to see how the last-named holds up, if he can come back fully healthy in 2010. Down at the other end of the spectrum, the worst trio were Chris Young (-2.1), Chris Snyder (-2.3) and Mark Reynolds, who was rated at -4.5, no doubt in part because of all the pickoffs.

From a statistical point of view, base-running is a relatively minor component of the game, compared to pitching or hitting. But it's also one over which a team has much more control - while pure speed is a talent, the ability to use it is a skill which can be taught. However, above and beyond the direct impact of good (or bad) base-running, I tend to think it can also have a contribution to "intangibles." Successful fundamental baseball provides a psychological boost, both to the player responsible and their team-mates, just as it does to us as fans watching; conversely, few things can suck the wind out of your sails worse than a blunder between the bags. 

As such, while some aspects of the team's work in 2009 were credible, there is certainly room for improvement, especially in the pick-off department. Aggressive (but not to the point of psychotic) base-running should continue, but I'd like to see even more use being made of those fresh legs. Young, Reynolds and Upton are all capable of putting up 25 steals next season, and Jackson may not be too far behind, if his DWL performance is anything to go by. Add in a few more bunt hits, for we have a number of speed/power guys who should be taking advantage of infields that have to play back against them, and it's an area that I hope to see become a strength of the team in 2010.