Blue Jays & Base Running: Room for Improvement

If the Toronto Blue Jays are going to improve in 2016, they need to look at how they use the speed they have to their advantage.

 

For a lot of the winter, there has been a great deal of attention paid to just who will lead off for the Blue Jays in 2016. With the exit of Ben Revere in the trade that brought in Drew Storen, the debate has gone in several different directions. Some are firmly in the camp that Kevin Pillar be given a chance to put his contact skills to use. Others feel that the club should go with giving their best hitters the most at bats, thus slotting Troy Tulowitzki in the 1st spot. We should also acknowledge that there are others still who think this debate has reached annoying levels and have removed themselves from it completely.

I happen to be in a different group. The Blue Jays have an unusual offense in that they will score an obscene amount of runs. In 2015, they scored 891 runs, which was by far the best in the league. Traditional wisdom tells you that a club needs to have a traditional leadoff guy who has speed and gets on base. But, on this team, this Blue Jays lineup, perhaps, that issue doesn’t really matter much. What is more important is the ability to be smart on the base paths.

Whoever is hitting first benefits from having the modern version of Murderer’s Row driving them in. Think about having the following list of bats behind you: Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin. Why risk running into outs with this group? Instead, what might be more useful is a player who can use their speed to take an extra base on a single, or score from first on a double. Perhaps, what is more important is the ability to simply run the bases well. It is that thinking that took me to finding out just how good the club was on the bases.

I went to Baseball Reference to get the numbers. They show an interesting story. In 2015, the Blue Jays led MLB in runs scored percentage (RS%), which measures the rate at which runners who reach base score. That makes sense given that they scored the most runs at 5.5 per game. But, when you look at the way they scored their runs, you might change your thinking about this team’s speed.

They ranked just above league average with 88 bases stolen, tied with the Philadelphia Phillies. They were tied for the league lead for the fewest times caught stealing with 23. This tells us that they only stole bases when they were more of a sure thing. That is backed up by the fact that they were only picked off 7 times, which is good for second fewest in MLB. As stated above, whey risk it? This safe approach led to a league leading stolen base rate of 79%, even though they stole a barely above average amount of bases. For comparison, the Cincinnati Reds stole the most bases at 134, but finished below the Blue Jays at 78%, thanks to a speedier team.

So, if stealing bases isn’t everything, how can the club use its speed? Well, taking extra bases can help. This is an area of potential concern for the club. Generally speaking, when a club takes extra bases, they put themselves in a position to score more runs. But, in 2015, the Blue Jays were below league average at taking extra bases at just 38%. When a runner is on base and a single is hit, they went to third base (or home) 82 times, which is just below league average (83). With a runner on second and a double is hit, they scored 37 times, which was 2 above average. Perhaps, a saving grace here is that when a runner was on second and a single was hit, they scored 115 times, which was 4th highest.

None of these numbers are horrible, but they point to an area of work if the club is going to attempt to diversify their scoring. We all know that the home run is a major part of this team’s offense. They hit 232 of them in 2015. They also led the league in doubles (308). Can they rely on this for another season? Or, should they look to improve on the above base running numbers?

If the Blue Jays are going to attempt to use base running to their advantage, they may want to consider players’ UBR numbers. According to Fangraphs, UBR measures: “the value a player adds to their team via base running. Much like UZR and wRAA, this value is determined using linear weights, with each individual base running event receiving a specific run value. Base running isn’t a huge part of the game, but taking the extra base and avoiding outs of the bases can add a few runs a year.”

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the individual 2015 numbers of those who could be considered for a leadoff spot:

Kevin Pillar: 3.4 UBR
Michael Saunders: 1.7 in 2014. We can’t look at 2015.
Ryan Goins: 2.3
Devon Travis: 0.6
Troy Tulowitzki: -3.0

Considering this list, perhaps Pillar is the guy you want on base. Saunders might not see his 2012/2013 totals given his knee issues. Goins has a higher total, but obviously, his bat does not lend itself to leading off. And, we won’t even talk about Tulo in this context since he’d only be considered for the job to get his bat up more often, which would be openly sacrificing the base running factor. No, it looks like Pillar is the better option.

The 2016 Toronto Blue Jays are built on scoring runs. Likely, they will continue to avoid risking outs in favor of big time damage. The reliance on the long ball will continue to be a narrative. This club does not follow the traditional lineup construction train of thought. Stolen bases, etc are not part of their identity. However, if they want to improve on said identity, they may want to look at capitalizing on base running. Going first to third, or even home, can be the difference between moving on the World Series and not. We all remember Lorenzo Cain scoring from first, right? The Blue Jays do not need more speed, but maybe it is time to use existent speed more intelligently.

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: Joel Dinda UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0

 

 

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Shaun Doyle

Shaun Doyle is a long time Blue Jays fan and writer! He decided to put those things together and create Jays From the Couch. Shaun is the host of Jays From the Couch Radio, which is highly ranked in iTunes, and he has appeared on TV and radio spots.