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Running the numbers on Orioles base running

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After years of playings station-to-station baseball, the Orioles have been more aggressive on the basepaths in 2019. But one player is responsible for much of the success.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

When Brandon Hyde was hired to manage the Orioles, he said all the things you want to hear from a manager taking over a team that struggled mightily in 2018. Hyde knew that there would be few nights where he would have the most talented club on the field. So his team would focus on fundamentals, limiting mental mistakes, and playing the game the right way.

Hyde also spoke a lot about the importance of base running. In a piece titled “Brandon Hyde says aggressive base running will be a major priority this season” from February 17, The Baltimore Sun quotes the new manager as saying: “Whether it’s stealing bases or going first to third or being able to score on a single- pushing the envelope with our base running and making that a priority here in camp.” Knowing that the O’s wouldn’t outslug many teams, forcing the issue on the base paths would be a way of staying competitive with more talented teams. I was on board.

Now that we’re nearly at the end of the season, I wanted to look back on how the Orioles have fared in the base running aspect of the game. Did they make the improvements that the skipper wanted to see in spring training? Or was it just another reason why they have lost 100 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history.

If we are judging this on anecdotes, the story isn’t pretty. I can think of several examples of where the Orioles have made poor decisions and run into outs on the basepaths. Without having evidence to support this, Dwight Smith Jr. sticks in my mind as a frequent offender. A quick Google search of “Orioles base running” turned up the following headlines: The Orioles’ base running got the wrong kind of attention Tuesday, Orioles hold meeting to discuss base running, and Baserunning mistakes cost O’s in nightcap. (Cheer up, a photo gallery of the O’s “Kids Run the Bases Day” was also returned.) In short, anybody who has spent any time watching the 2019 Orioles knows that they have had plenty of TOOTBLAN moments.

Luckily, we don’t need to depend solely on anecdotes. The most basic and well known measurement of base running is stolen bases. We all know that Buck Showalter’s clubs didn’t attempt many steals. From 2011 through 2018, the O’s ranked last in the MLB with 176 steals. The 29th ranked team had 218. That has changed this season. The O’s 76 stolen bases rank them 11th in baseball.

Baseball Reference keeps track of some very helpful statistics when it comes to base running that paint an interesting picture of the 2019 Orioles. They have run into 55 outs on the basepaths (excluding force plays, pickoffs, and caught stealing), which trails only the Cubs with 57. The league average is 45. This confirms the anecdotal evidence that they have run into many outs. But perhaps that can be explained away as aggressiveness when looking at how many total bases were taken by the Orioles. They rank in the top ten with 144 bases taken on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks, and defensive indifference. The league average is 136.

It is clear that the O’s are far more aggressive on the basepaths than they were last season. Despite having nearly two weeks of games left to play, this year’s club has flown past the 2018 mark of 48 outs on the basepaths. Likewise, they’ve also already passed their 2018 mark of 141 bases taken. Brandon Hyde has clearly told his guys to be aggressive on the base paths.

But aggressive and smart are different things. The O’s don’t grade as well when it comes to extra bases taken (advancing more than one base on a single or more than two on a double). They have taken the extra base 40% of the time, which is slightly under the league average of 41%. This is also a slight decrease from last year, when Baltimore came in at 41%.

A look at advanced base running metrics also tells an interesting story. Fangraphs’ BsR is an “all encompassing base running statistic that turns stolen bases, caught stealings, and other base running plays (taking extra bases, being thrown out on the bases, etc) into runs above and below average.” BsR is factored into Fangraphs’ WAR calculations as the base running component of a player’s overall value. According to that metric, Orioles’ players have gained them 3.5 runs on the base paths this season. That ranks 13th in the MLB. This is quite the increase from last year, when the O’s BsR came in at -9.6.

However, all of these numbers are somewhat skewed thanks to the great performance of Jonathan Villar. He single handedly accounts for 35 stolen bases, nearly half of the teams total. It is impressive that Villar leads all major leaguers with a BsR of 9.5. Despite the occasional miscues, Villar has helped the Orioles drastically on the basepaths.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the club that Villar is responsible for that large a share of the team’s BsR. They have only six other players whose BsR is positive; Jace Peterson, Mason Williams, Renato Nunez, Cedric Mullins, Joey Rickard, and Chris Davis. Pedro Severino has cost the O’s the most runs on the bases, coming in at -1.9. Trey Mancini, Richie Martin, Rio Ruiz, and Hanser Alberto all rate worse than -1.

If Villar’s 9.5 BsR is subtracted from the O’s total of 3.5, base runners would have then cost the club 6 runs. That would rank them 23rd in the league. This is a great example of an outlier skewing the data.

It is clear that Brandon Hyde has preached aggressiveness on the base paths, as is evident by the increase in outs on the base paths and extra bases taken. But that aggressiveness doesn’t appear to have translated into good base running. The advanced metrics aren’t kind to many regulars, and the team’s rating when Jonathan Villar’s fantastic season is removed is subpar.

This is a situation to monitor as the players Mike Elias place on the club better suit the style of play and culture that Hyde is implementing. If Hyde wants to play an aggressive style of baseball, Elias needs to get him players that are fast and have demonstrated the ability to make good decisions on the base paths.