When John Farrell was named manager of the Red Sox shortly after the worst Red Sox season since 1965, he vowed that significant changes would be made both on and off the field. This was welcome news for Boston fans, after a 69-win season that most deemed unacceptable.
One of the most obvious changes visible in the first few weeks of the season has been the team’s aggressiveness on the bases. Whether it be stealing bases, going from first to third on singles, or running on contact from third base with the infield in and less than two outs, the team has been much more aggressive than it has been in the past.
Fittingly, when describing his team, Farrell said:
“The one word we continue to talk about in here is to be relentless.”
“Relentless” does seem to describe the team’s approach to base running so far this season. Successful or not, Red Sox base runners have kept it up, not something that Red Sox fans are used to witnessing.
A prime example of this new approach occurred in the 10th inning of the Red Sox game against the Rays on April 13. With one out, leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury
knocked a single to center field, bringing Shane Victorino to the plate. Three pitches later, with a 2-1 count, Ellsbury broke for second. Catcher Jose Lobaton’s throw bounced off shortstop Yunel Escobar’s glove into center field, and Ellsbury continued on to third. Owing to Ellsbury’s speed, Tampa Bay manager Joe Madden brought Matt Joyce in from left field to serve as a fifth infielder. Despite an extra infielder and only one out, Ellsbury was running on contact. Victorino hit a slow roller to second base, and there was no play on Ellsbury at home.
Under the old Red Sox approach, Ellsbury would still be standing at first base. Instead, the Sox left the field with a win.
From 2004-2012, Boston was 22nd in the league with 773 stolen bases, an average of 86 stolen bases per year. This was largely due to the non-aggressive styles of ex-managers Terry Francona and Bobby Valentine. In addition to the 86 stolen bases, the team averaged 28 runners caught stealing per year. This amounts to an average of 114 stolen base attempts per year, with a success rate of 75 percent.
Through the first 11 games of the season, the Sox have already attempted 14 stolen bases, and reached safely 11 times. At this rate, the team would attempt to steal 206 bases in 2013, and reach safely 162 times, for a success rate of 78 percent. In one season, the Red Sox will have gone from averaging one stolen base every other game to one stolen base every game. This is a remarkable increase.
An attempt at analyzing base running using advanced statistics can produce flawed results. It must be done, however, because there is clearly much more to base running than stolen bases alone. I think the best base running metric is Ultimate Base Running. UBR is FanGraphs’ way of determining a player’s base running value based on linear weights. The formula assigns every possible base running event a specific value, and keeps track of every base running event in which a player is involved. UBR is also one of the three component parts used to calculate WAR for position players.
UBR is measured on a scale with 0 being “league average.” From 2004-2012, the Red Sox total UBR was last in the majors at -86.5. So far this season, the Sox rank eighth with a UBR of 0.7. At this pace, the team will end the year with a UBR of 10.3. While this may be a small sample, a jump from dead last to eighth is noteworthy.
What makes this increase in base running value significant is that the roster is just as slow as it has always been. The offseason addition of Victorino was offset by the departure of Carl Crawford. The return of Ellsbury from injury was offset by the loss of the best base runner on the team, Mike Aviles, and his subsequent replacement by Stephen Drew.
The fact that the roster is not significantly faster than it has been in the past proves that the new approach is working.
But is base running aggressiveness a good idea? Apart from the dismal 2012 season, the Red Sox have averaged 93 wins per year since 2004, even while being the worst base running team in baseball. So how does being aggressive on the bases correlate to winning?
Since winning games is ultimately dependent on pitching, which has nothing to do with base running, let’s look at runs scored.
Using the population of all teams since 2002, there is virtually no correlation between stolen bases and runs scored. The amount of bases a team has stolen is absolutely no help in determining how many runs that team scores.
There is, however, a moderate positive correlation between a team’s total UBR and runs scored. In all teams since 2002, the coefficient for the correlation is about 0.2. This means that teams that have higher UBR’ score more runs.
This is good news for the Red Sox, who have jumped from well below league average in UBR for the past nine years to well above this year.
In the end, aggressive base running makes baseball more exciting. For a team that is used to filling its stadium, but is now having difficulty doing so, increasing the excitement in its games could be a team’s ticket back to relevance. And so far, it seems like it’s working.