While the most obvious aspect of baserunning is probably stolen bases (or being caught therein), that's actually only one of the components involved. There's also the ability to take an extra base, such as going first to third on a single, and conversely, the wisdom to restrain the aggressiveness and avoid running into other outs on the basepaths. Let's break down each of those categories, see where the team was last year, and what has changed in 2014. [All stats exclude Wednesday's game]
2013. 62 SB (14th in NL), 41 CS (3rd), 60% (15th)
We were awful at stealing bases last season - the next-worst team, the Cubs, were at 66%, and league average was 72%. That last figure is close to the break-even rate needed, which for second-base falls between 70% and 75%, depending on outs. Though there's some situational aspects involved, Arizona would likely have been better off nailing people's feet to the bags, with a global red light. A.J. Pollock, with 12 successes in 15 attempts, was the only qualifier with a good success rate; Paul Goldschmidt (15/22) was close. But Martin Prado, Aaron Hill and Didi Gregorius = an awful 4 for 15, and add Gerardo Parra's even-money bet (10/20), and there you are.
2014. 79 SB (11th), 30 CS (10th), 72% (8th)
This year has been a clear improvement. Already, we have 17 more successes, we'll probably end up cutting back on CS by about 20%, and our success-rate is right at the league average. It's the young guns who have led the way, with Pollock, Ender Inciarte and Chris Owings combining for 36 stolen-bases, while being caught only six times. But there have been general improvements all round: the trio of Prado, Hill and Gregorius mentioned, in strongly disapproving tones for their performance last season, are 8 of 12 in 2014, which is almost respectable. Goldshmidt is up to 75%, and the only person below even-money is Mark Trumbo, who is two of five.
Taking extra bases
2013. 38% (10th)
With league average sitting at 40%, this is an other area where the Diamondbacks were in need of improvement. Obviously, it's a stat where there is wide individual variation: while Miguel Montero is never going to have many stolen base attempts, he will be on first when singles are hit, and the results are as expected, Montero taking an extra base only 22% of the time. I looked for, but couldn't find, video of the sole time he scored from first on a double. The best last season were Goldschmidt, Parra and Gregorius, the last named taking the extra base more often than not, and the last two apparently showing that outright stealing bases is a different skill from taking them.
2014. 43% (2nd)
Only a small uptick in performance, but a huge jump in team position, Arizona now only trailing the Brewers' 45%. As with stolen bases, one impressive thing is, it's not just one or two sleek young gazelles driving the improvement, it seems to be a top to bottom thing. Gregorius still tops the table, but is now at 61%, with Goldschmidt and David Peralta also doing well, both at 55%. But even Montero has got better, taking a bag 29% of the time this season - though he has yet to score from first on a double this year! The team has been above average across the board, going 1st-3rd and scoring from 2nd on singles, as well as from 1st on a double. Miggy excepted. :)
TOOTBLANs (non-stolen category)
2013. 53 (14th)
2014. 42 (13th)
I have to do some math here, because bizarrely, TOOTBLAN is not an officially-sanctioned statistic. Who knew? I have to take the outs on basepaths, add the pickoffs, but then subtract the pick-offs caught stealing, because they're also already included in caught stealing. Despite what you might have thought, this wasn't actually too much of a problem for the Diamondbacks, though they are still on pace to cut back by eight or nine on the tally this season.In 2013, Prado led the way (7), ahead of Gregorius and Cliff Pennington (6), with Montero and Cody Ross on 5. This year, Inciarte (9) is top, with Owings, Parra and Prado on 5. Pennington has dropped from six to one.
What's also interesting, is to break down where the outs have taken place around the bases.
It's clear where the main improvement has come: a 37% reduction in the number of runners coming around third base to die at home-plate. As we saw from the extra-base category above, this isn't apparently due to a decrease in overall aggression - indeed, it has been the opposite. It just appears that new third-base coach Glenn Sherlock has a better handle on when to send runners than his predecessor, Matt 'The Windmill' Williams. Whatever Matt's talents may be - and the Nationals' NL East title speaks to those - I think we're significantly better off with him no longer manning our hot corner.
The man with the plan
"Proper baserunning is a passion of McKay's, and Gibson said players have absorbed that. Baserunning is given a higher priority, and McKay can often be seen in the clubhouse going over footage of a pitcher on an iPad to help players get better jumps." -- Arizona Republic
Sherlock wasn't the only change for the Diamondbacks this winter, with Dave McKay also taking over at first-base, and he absolutely deserves a great deal of credit for the improvement in all aspects of the base-running game. He came to us from the same position with the Cubs, and they have now apparently taken over from us in the cellar of the NL here - their SB%, for instance, dropped from 66% under McKay, to dead-last 61% without him. The players seem to like him, Peralta saying, he "is a great coach and I learned so much from him. He likes to teach and I really like him a lot. He’s open and wants you to ask questions. That says something and means a lot to me."
All told, the metrics seems to suggest better base-running has helped the Diamondbacks by the equivalent of about ten runs this season. That may not seem much - and it's barely more than one Win. But if the Diamondbacks are to succeed in an increasingly unbalanced division, they should be looking to leverage every advantage they can find, especially cheap ones like competent base-running. If Kirk Gibson is fired, McKay may be a potential replacement, especially if Dave Stewart becomes GM, since McKay has a long relationship with both Stewart and Tony La Russa. But that might be no bad thing, if McKay brings his passion for baserunning along with him.