The Cost of An Extra Base

Coming into the season, I expected the Red Sox offense to be a dynamic bunch that would be in the top five – if not the top 10 – in run scoring. Other than one large father-sized change, the 2017 group was going to be pretty much the same as the 2016 one, and I thought we were in for another season of leading the land in run scoring and the other all-encompassing measures of offense. But to date, as you have likely heard, that has not been the case. Through Tuesday’s games, the Red Sox sat just a few ticks above average at 4.8 runs per game, good for only 13th in the majors, and those all-encompassing measures of offense suggest they have been a below average squad, ranking 18th and 21st respectively. I could dig into all the reasons for this change, but it essentially amounts to a lack of hitting for power:
















As you can see, on-base percentage is also down this year from last year, but not to the extent of slugging, which is down almost 50 points. The drop is not just the lack of David Ortiz. With the exception of the catchers, each of the everyday guys is slugging at a lower rate than they did last year.

The decline in slugging this year is interesting on its own, but the (possible) downstream effect of increasing aggressiveness on the bases makes it even more interesting. This year the Red Sox are one of the most aggressive teams on the bases. They have attempted 112 stolen bases (nabbing 85 of them), sixth-most in baseball. They have taken an extra base (i.e., advanced two bases on a single, three bases on a double) 42 percent of the time, also sixth-highest in baseball. They have advanced on fly balls, passed balls, and wild pitches 152 times, second-most in baseball. They are undoubtedly making an effort to push bags, but it has not come without a cost. In addition to those positive baserunning items, Baseball Reference tracks Outs On Bases (OOB) and the Red Sox are on the wrong end of it. They have already made 69 OOB, easily the highest amount in baseball. Add in the 27 times they were caught stealing and the six times they have been picked off, and you have over one hundred guys on base turned into outs. Compare these to last year and you find:

























Keep in mind the 2017 Red Sox still have a month to play, but have already surpassed last year’s squad in all but extra-base taken percentage (XBT%) and pickoffs. I did not recall noticing how often the Red Sox were picked off last year. In any case, those numbers are remarkable. And, according to Brian Butterfield, the coach leading the charge of aggressiveness on the bases, it is all part of a plan to adapt from being a team that is station-to-station and relies on hitting the ball into the seats.

I understand the sentiment and the desire to be a multi-faceted offense that puts pressure on the defense and manufactures runs. What’s more is that when you are a lower scoring team, these sorts of tactics make more sense than when you are high-scoring outfit. While outs are always precious, for groups that struggle to score, each out has less run-purchasing power, so to speak. As evidence of this, take an overly simplified example using run expectancy. In 2015, a low-scoring run environment (4.31 R/G), the cost (in run expectancy, RE) of a runner getting caught stealing second with no outs and nobody else on base was 0.586 runs. Contrast that with 2004, a high run scoring environment (4.88 R/G), where it was 0.634 runs. Not coincidentally, the difference in league-wide run scoring between 2015 and 2004 (0.57 R/G) is close to the difference between the 2017 and 2016 Red Sox teams (0.54 R/G), so the example is relevant. It means that the extra outs on the bases made by this year’s team (relative to last year’s group) could end up costing the same amount in terms of run expectancy. Making an out is costly, it is just slightly less so for a team that tends to score less (perhaps because they don’t sock dingers). So there is some logic behind the plan to implement greater aggression on the bases with this low-slugging 2017 squad. But, while that sounds nice, they aren’t even doing it well compared to last year: By Baseball Prospectus’ Baserunning Runs, the high scoring 2016 Red Sox were basically average on the bases (0.6 BRR) and this 2017 group is considerably below average (-6.9 BRR).

Stealing bases and taking the extra bag as often as possible can help run scoring and is fun to watch as a fan, but doing so won’t turn a pumpkin into a stagecoach.

There is a notion that things like baserunning, hitting for contact, and small ball strategies become stronger assets in the playoffs. After all, the temperature drops and the quality of pitching increases, so big bopping offenses will be neutralized, right? Butterfield suggests as much in his explanation for encouraging the team to run wild. But the reality is that there isn’t good evidence to support this as true. Rather, it is the teams that hit the ball out of the yard that tend to succeed in October. As Joe Sheehan enjoys saying: Ball go far, team go far. Even those plucky 2014 and 2015 Kansas City Royals teams who changed baseball forever with their contact-prowess and aggressive running, actually did a lot of their playoff winning by (uncharacteristically) hitting a bunch of home runs. Nevertheless, Eric Hosmer’s dash home and Lucas Duda misfiring a throw is what gets remembered.

Relying on baserunning is a really difficult way to make an offense go. Stealing bases and taking the extra bag as often as possible can help run scoring and is fun to watch as a fan, but doing so won’t turn a pumpkin into a stagecoach. Getting guys on base frequently and then moving those guys around with hits (even the ones that go over the fence) are the critical elements in a good offense. Doing either of those things at a low rate makes it hard to score, as it has been for the Red Sox this season. Butter’s plan might sound good and even have some run expectancy logic behind it, but ultimately it won’t be enough to carry this team through October.

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