How far can a player go on base running alone? Probably not too far. Speed as a tool is obviously quite valuable, especially at an elite level, as it feeds both into the ability to provide value on the bases and in the field. Strictly in terms of offense, though, how good can a player be with a terrible bat and good base-running skills? Just for fun, here are five recent individual seasons with the biggest differential between base-running value and batting value.
To generate this list, I simply subtracted each player’s batting runs (park-adjusted wRAA) from his Base Running Runs (comprised of wSB and UBR). I added some restrictions. I wanted to include more than just base stealing, and we only have UBR, which measures stuff like taking the extra base and stuff like that, since 2002. So celebrations of seasons like Vince Coleman‘s amazing 1986 will have to wait for another time. I also wanted to avoid players simply getting on the list because they were roughly average base runners but horrific hitters. I therefore set the a minimum of 5 total base-running runs above average. Sorry, big fans of Neifi Perez‘s legendary 2002 performance.
With those parameters in mind, here are the top five seasons for differential between base-running runs and batting runs.
5. Juan Pierre, 2007, 30.3 run difference (-17.1 batting, 13.2 base running). Did anyone else remember that Grady Little managed the Dodgers for a couple of years before Joe Torre? It was a marvelous time, and the whole Ned Colletti/Bill Plaschke was sort of a golden age for certain blogs. The Dodgers’ five years and $44 million contract Pierre was itself a source of much merriment. While the deal with Pierre did not work out well for the Dodgers (to the surprise of very few), Pierre was not a total loss.
Pierre was actually decent in his first year in Los Angeles, despite hitting horribly (82 wRC+). His 2.4 Wins Above Replacement was not really reliant on fielding stats, either, which had him as about average. He stole bases like crazy, swiping 64 while only getting caught 15 times. Perhaps even more impressively was that of his 13.2 base-running runs, less than half came from those steals. The rest were from taking the extra base when the opportunity arose and stuff like that. Sure, the numbers were inflated by playing all 162 games and hitting first or second all year, but that is still pretty impressive. Although his 2010 season did not make this list, it was almost as impressive.
4. Julio Lugo, 2007, 32.6 run difference (-27.1 batting, 5.5 base running). Speaking of pore-2007 free agent signings gone south, here we have Lugo’s first season in Boston. At least Pierre got on base at at least a decent rate; Lugo could not even do that: .237/.294/.349. Lugo had a couple of decent seasons for Tampa Bay earlier in his career, but just completely fell off starting with this season. He just could not drive the ball anymore. In terms of base running alone, this is the least impressive season on this list. Lugo was a good base runner in 2007 (especially stealing — 33 thefts and only caught six times), but did not accumulate much value overall from it. There is no way a team could win the World Series with a player like this as their shortstop, right?
3. Scott Podsednik, 2004, 33.2 run difference (-22.1 batting, 11.2 base running). In 2003, 27-year-old outfielder Scott Podsednik came pretty much out of nowhere to have a very impressive season for the Brewers, hitting .314/.379/.443 (117 wRC+). In 2004, he was pretty much the same hitter, really, except that his BABIP, very high in 2003, fluctuated down to .275, and he had a disaster season at the plate, hitting .244/.313/.364 (76 wRC+). However, he kept himself pretty close to being an average player with excellent stealing, attempting 83 and only getting caught 13 times. Podsednik never hit as well as he did in 2003 again (although he was almost average in 2009 and 2010), and his fielding in left was not good enough to make up for it. Still, from 2003 to his run with the 2005 World Championship White Sox, Podsednik managed to be pretty useful because of his thieving abilities, even when he couldn’t hit a lick in 2004 and 2005.
2. Juan Pierre, 2002, 38.9 run difference (-28.8 batting, 10.2 base running). This guy again. Pierre actually did have a couple of truly good season with the Marlins right after this one. His one skill on offense — not striking out — served him well in seasons where the balls fell into play. But a player like Pierre just was not a great fit in Colorado, the team that originally drafted him in 1998. Sure, Colorado inflates everything, including hit rates on balls in play. Yes, Pierre could steal with the best of them. But in such a hitter-friendly run environment, steals just are not that much of a commodity. The Rockies learned their lesson, trading Pierre after 2002 (which worked out well for him) and never really bothering with a player like him again. Oh, wait…
1. Willy Taveras, 2008, 43.6 run difference (-31.3 batting, 12.3 base running). Yet another player people might remember best from the 2005 playoffs! I do remember a casual baseball fan specifically talking about how exciting Taveras was to watch that season. And while he could never, ever hit, if you take his fielding metrics seriously along with his base running, he was pretty valuable for the Astros in 2005 and 2006. The Astros traded him to the Rockies anyway, a team that missed Juan Pierre so badly they acquired a version of him without the contact skills. Taveras was okay-ish in 2007, but in 2008 his bat completely tanked. Unsurprisingly, it was because the ol’ BABIP monster reared its head. Random fluctuation aside, it takes a special player to hit .251/.308/.296 (54 wRC+) even in post-humidor Coors Field.
Despite it all, Taveras still ran the bases like a madman. He contributed a couple of runs taking the extra base, but it was the steals that stood out. He went 68-for-75 on steals, good for about 10 runs in wSB alone. That is even more impressive considering he only got 538 plate appearances with an on-base percentage barely over .300. He made the most of his opportunities. Still, it was a terrible year overall for Taveras, who somehow managed to go on and get more than 400 plate appearances for the Reds in 2009.
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