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Running With Snakes: The D-backs on the Basepaths

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Much like defense, an aspect of the game that is often overlooked - probably because it's somewhat hard to measure - is base-running. The most obvious mark of it is stolen bases, but that isn't necessarily a good measure of overall skill in this area. It also covers things like the ability to take an extra base on a hit, going from first to third on a single, or coming home from second. Though in the latter case, as we know all too well, you are somewhat at the mercy of the third-base coach - and the wisdom, or otherwise, of his decision-making...

If you looked just at stolen bases, the 2008 Diamondbacks would seem very disappointing, with 58 SB for the year. In the National League, that's ahead only of Pittsburgh (57) and the almost-static Padres, who swiped only 36 bags the entire season. To put that into context, five individual players - Taveras, Reyes, Rollins, Bourne and Pierre - stole more than the entire San Diego roster, all by themselves. We weren't quite that glacial, but we were a long way short of the four teams who stole more than 125. Even the league average of 93 would have been a distinct improvement: 35 additional bases might have meant nine or so extra runs, on a vague rule of thumb. And given we only lost the division by two games, who knows?

The injury to Eric Byrnes - 50 stolen bases in 2007, four in 2008 - was the most obvious reason why the overall team number dropped almost by half [109 down to 58] last season. However, the reason for that was at least understandable: less explicable and perhaps more disappointing was Chris Young's sophomore slump. In his rookie season, he was successful 27 in 33 attempts, but despite twelve more games last year, he only tried nineteen times, and succeeded just fourteen. The middle infield of Drew and Hudson were also less effective: they had combined to go 19 for 21 in 2007 attempts, but dropped to 7 in 11 over 2008.  However, this slack was largely taken up on the corners by Jackson and Reynolds,  who went from two and zero steals respectively, to both reach double-figures.

Moving on to the other areas beyond direct base-stealing, we need additional data, and turn, gratefully, to The Bill James Handbook. Pages 311-320, to be exact, which lists for the active players, the number of times they went 1st-3rd, 2nd-home and 1st-home, given the appropriate opportunity. Lob in times they were doubled off, out advancing and moved up on wild pitches, etc. and you can work out how good a player was on the base-paths and whether he was a positive or negative influence. Put that together with what they did stealing bases, and you can get an overall effectiveness. This ranges between +70 for Willie Taveras [one reason his loss will hurt the Rockies more than his raw OPS might suggest] to -39 for Dioner Navarro.

Before we get to specific players, however, let's look at the numbers for the team as a whole, and they're a good deal more impressive than the straight SB numbers. Instead of beating only two teams, they are rated above-average: sixth in the league, with an overall rating of +61. Here's how Arizona stacked up in the various specific areas:

Situation MLB  Average 2008 D-backs
1st to 3rd on a single 27.1% [6600 chances] 28.3% [173 chances]
2nd to home on a single 58.6% [5791 chances] 58.9% [170 chances]
1st to home on a double 42.9% [1783 chances] 31.0% [58 chances]

The Diamondbacks took 172 bases and were out advancing only 23 times, which is pretty close to the best level in the league. This is despite the table above, which shows them only fractionally-better in most of the areas shown. I presume the difference in our output was is more things like stretching a single into a double, or doubles into triples. This view is supported by the fact that our 47 three-baggers led the NL - and it wasn't even close, with the next best Mets all the way down on 38 - and we were also third in doubles. It seems that we were particularly good at hitters taking the extra ninety feet, and fairly solid in most areas apart from straight steals, once we got on base.

On to the individual Diamondbacks; these numbers are for everyone with 150 PA's or more. The percentages atop the second through fourth columns are the MLB averages for that situation. For each player, it's the number of times taken before the slash, and the number of chances after it. So, Chris Burke had three chances to go from first to third on a single, and did so twice. Adam Dunn's figures reflect the entire season, not just his time in Arizona

Burke 2/3 4/7 1/3 6 1 +4 +5 +9
Byrnes 2/3 4/8 0/0 3 1 -1 -4 -5
Drew 8/31 10/20 0/5 16 4 -7 -3 -10
Dunn 2/27 8/14 1/7 21 2 +6 0 +6
Hudson 7/18 11/14 2/3 10 1 0 +2 +2
Jackson 9/25 12/18 3/6 28 1 +17 +6 +23
Montero 2/6 3/7 2/4 5 1 +3 0 +3
Ojeda 2/9 5/8 0/2 9 1 +3 0 +3
Reynolds 4/13 8/15 3/9 19 4 +8 +7 +15
Salazar 0/3 1/3 0/0 9 0 +7 -4 +3
Snyder 1/11 7/13 1/3 7 2 -5 0 -5
Tracy 1/4 2/6 0/0 9 0 +8 0 +8
Upton 3/5 11/17 4/8 11 0 +12 -7 +5
Young 3/15 13/19 2/6 15 3 -5 +4 -1

Okay, who had Conor Jackson down as the best base-runner on the team? Anyone? Anybody? Bueller? Yet, that's the way the numbers stack up, with CoJack leading the team in bases taken - and equally importantly, only being out advancing once. That's particularly crucial: making an out at second or third base is clearly much more of a faux pas than doing so from the batter's box, as you've already got past the difficult bit, and got on-base. A similarly good ratio is what helps Adam Dunn, despite a startling reluctance to go first to third - only twice in 27 opportunities.

On the other hand, compare and contrast Upton's performance on the base-paths (+12) with his performance stealing bases (-7). The former is simply raw speed at work; the latter is what happens when you succeed on only one in five attempts to swipe a bag. Much as with his fielding, we can only hope that experience will allow him to channel his inner gazelle and develop that aspect of his game. Down at the lower end, no surprise to see those in negative territory include Byrnes v.2008, with his dodgy hamsters, and Snyder - hey, you try crouching behind the plate for eight innings and then exploding down to first base! But who had Stephen Drew down as the worst base-runner on the team? As with his defense, it appears metrics are not our shortstop's friend...

Couple of other things, in passing. Paul Sullivan, aka Sully, has come up with two all-time rosters for the Diamondbacks - home-grown vs. acquired. Obviously, the latter is, as yet, clearly superior, but it's an interesting exercise to see his choices, some of which are not the ones I'd have gone for: Tony Clark over Mark Grace as 1B on the 'acquired' team, for example, or Eric Byrnes over Steve Finlay in CF. And I'm unsure Kim genuinely should count as 'Acquired'; while not drafted by us, he did come up through our farm system. Well, not my rules, so I amn't going to argue!

And stay tuned for something very cool on the SnakePit, which happened today and will probably get published early next week. I'm not going to say any more than that, but I think it marks a watershed in the site's evolution. If you're going to the FanFest on Saturday, keep an eye out for Mrs. SnakePit and I, wearing our SnakePit jerseys. Please do say "Hi!" if you see us!