NERD for Baserunning

If you’re a more or less normal, sensitive American male like myself, you were shocked and/or awed by the revelation — courtesy of R.J. Frigging Anderson’s article of last week in re Jay Bruce — that Baseball-Reference is currently in the business of keeping a stat called XBT%, or Extra Base Taken Percentage. What this stat tells all of us normal, sensitive American male-types is the — and I quote — “percentage of times the runner advanced more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double, when possible.” In other words, the stat seeks to represent the frequency with which a player takes an extra base. Also, in other words: it’s awesome.

And not only that, but B-R also records Stolen Base Opportunities (SBOs) — i.e. “the plate appearances through which a runner was on first or second with the next base open.” I feel no shame in not having formerly realized this — I mean, I’m a pretty important guy with a lot on my figurative plate — but I give thanks and praise now for having discovered it when I did.

In any case, here’s why I bring up all this junk: if one were in the business of attempting to adjudge the aesthetic pleasure provided by certain players, then one would very likely be curious about the baserunning skills of those players. As I, Carson Cistulli, am such a “one,” then it follows logically that I would be interested in such a thing.

Though baserunning is, admittedly, a rather minor part of a player’s overall contribution, it’s also a contribution which is rather easy to isolate. In what follows, I’ve attempted to do just that.

So, what makes an interesting baserunner? Well, I’m sure we could have all sorts of fist fights about that (and might soon at the FanGraphs Live Event). In this case, however, I allowed my enthusiasm to guide me unapologetically.

Much like with pitcher NERD, I utilized z-scores (i.e. standard deviations from the mean) to arrive at baserunning NERD (rNERD). In this case, I used a sample of players who’ve recorded at least 100 plate appearances. For each player, I found the sum of three different z-scores: XBT%, SBO% (that is, stolen base attempts as a percentage of opportunities), and stolen base success rate (SB%).

From there, all I did was cap the lowest possible SB% z-score at -1.1 (to mirror the highest z-score) and then add a constant (in this case, 4.91) to put all the scores on a 0-10 scale.

Using this method, here are the Top 25 baserunners (from a sample of 350 qualified players):

I like this list, because there are very few surprises. I mean, Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Rajai Davis: we know those are fast guys. The pleasure from such an exercise, however, frequently comes from the players who surprise us. In this case, Kyle Blanks has to be that guy. Surprisingly, Blanks is among the league leaders in taking the extra base. Why that is exactly — maybe batting ahead of lefties, or something? — is unclear, but it makes for something to think about when Blanks makes his retun to the field in August sometime.

As for the 25 laggards, here they are:

I don’t know that there are too many surprises here. Mostly, it’s a list of first basemen and catchers, which is probably to be expected. The presence of Mitch Maier might be of some concern to Royal fans — although, truth be told, they have enough on their plates. Nick Swisher, like Maier, has been seen roaming centerfield more recently than not. He’s never been a speed demon, but it’s surprising to see him on this list.

If you’re interested in seeing the full spreadsheet of 350 baserunners, it’s available just by clicking here.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

21 Responses to “NERD for Baserunning”

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  1. Sky says:

    Wait, so Jose Reyes is NOT the most exciting baserunner in the game?

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    • B N says:

      Don’t worry, he’s still the most exciting baserunner. As usual, due to his combination of great speed and poor instincts he always keeps you on the edge of your seat. :)

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  2. Adam D says:

    biggest surprise for me:

    Bengie Molina == Alex Rodriguez == 3

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    • beat_la_25 says:

      This. As a Giants fan, I’ve had the *ahem* pleasure of watching Bengie Molina day in and day out for a few seasons now, and my first thought was “is he one of the last or THE last?” I suppose my focus is somewhat skewed but I’m fairly certain if he’s not the slowest player in the game today he’s pretty damn close. I don’t know where I could get home-to-first times or something along those lines but if Mo Vaughn was carrying a piano on his back then it looks like Bengie’s lugging the San Francisco Symphony. All I can say is it’s a pleasure to watch Buster run after having to put up with that.

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  3. dutchbrowncoat says:

    good stuff carson, i am a fan as always. i would like to propose you add in another factor though. one of my favorite plays (especially as a mets fan with reyes/wright/pagan) is the triple. what would you think of factoring in triples to the baserunning NERD metric? perhaps a ratio of triples/doubles?

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    • Agreed that the triple is interesting. I DID consider including it here, but then decided not to. Why? I’m not sure they’re good answers, but here they are:

      1. I was viewing triples more as a product of pure speed — as opposed to baserunning “smarts.”
      2. I was thinking that it’d make more sense as part of Hitting NERD, if and when such a thing ever exists.
      3. I thought it might be redundant.

      Again, they may not be GOOD reasons. Like with point No. 2, I think most research suggests that triples are just doubles that are stretched out. Maybe doubles and triples as a percentage of all non-HRs would make sense? But then you have to deal with park factors, too, and I’m not smart or organized enough to do that.

      You’re right, though: triples — and infield hits, too, probably — are certainly indicative of speed/baserunning skills. How to implement the former is a tougher problem.

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  4. Quintero says:

    Blanks can run. He got an inside-the-park homer last year. And the spacious Petco outfield might make it easier for him to gain extra bases.

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  5. Chu Dog says:

    “percentage of times the runner advanced more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double, when possible.”

    Potentially the most intriguing turned ridiculous fantasy baseball stat-research quote to date.

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  6. TMorgan says:

    I think there should be a component for extraordinary stolen bases- so give a boost for sb when the runner has been picked off or steals of home. It’s too bad Ellsbury is hurt since last year he was at 82% SB% and 30% SBO% although he also took the extra base less than the 10s. It also looks like players who basically don’t steal but get one steal with no cs are credited a bit much. I mean Victor Martinez really should be no higher than a 3. Maybe SB% should be ignored for players with less than 3 SB attempts or weighted to deal with the fact that there is a class of players for whom it is a 1 or a 0 with little relation to how interesting their baserunning actually is.

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    • dutchbrowncoat says:

      agreed. maybe instead of sb% you can run with stolen base – caught stealing differentials. or apply a quick weighting for excitement factor depending on the base stolen and what game situation (inning or leverage index?) it was stolen in? that might get too complicated though.

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  7. Dylan says:

    On the basepaths, not all situations are the same, decisions change based on number of outs and inning. I would love to see this get expanded so we can see how much that impacts it, maybe study either the WPA or the WPA per time on base for different players, to see who creates runs through good baserunning in important situations. I would think this would also work much better as a NERD score, as the interest of watching baserunning is greatly amplified by the situation.

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  8. DanaT says:

    Josh Willingham second fastest Nat ?!!? Interesting …
    How to account for batting order position, i.e. batting second, in front of home run hitters, versus batting in front of weak hitters towards the end of the lineup ?

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    • Just judging by the order, I’m thinking it’s probably not best to think of it as “fastest.” Certainly some combination of instincts/baseball IQ is part of it — and also context, as you suggest.

      Like, one doesn’t think of Willingham as being faster than Willie Harris, although the latter is doing QUITE poorly this year in terms of taking the extra base (only 13% of the time, compared to a league average of about 40%). Willingham, to his credit, is taking that base at a 47% clip. And he’s attempting SBs at a league-average rate. And he’s 7-for-7 on them.

      Harris was above average by all those standards last year, and my guess is that other players will see some variance like that. But Willingham’s been really good (kinda in every way, it appears).

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  9. Pat says:

    I am shocked that nobody addressed the difference between a single scoring a man on second as opposed to him taking third on a single when he is on 1st. To say there is a significant difference between a palyer’s ability to take third on a single when on first as compared to scoring on a single from second would be an understatement.

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  10. Toffer Peak says:

    Looking at the top and bottom 25 all I can say is that this stat is clearly racist.

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  11. Chris says:

    I like the work you’ve done here, I agree it would be interesting to see how someone like Kyle Blanks could be on the list especially when it seems to me that their is a glaring omission. The only thing that doesn’t make any sense is, how is Chase Utley not on this list? I could be thinking of the wrong Phillie, but didn’t Chase Utley score from second on a groundout to short? I know for a fact he’s scored from first on a single (granted it was Ryan Howard running). I realize these are one time examples, but it seems like Chase is always taking the extra base and making great reads on batted balls.

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  12. Chris H says:

    As a Royals fan, I have to speculate that the only reason Mitch Maier is on the bottom is because he is a victim of circumstance. Something weird is going on. At least, I have a hard time believing it because I have had the pleasure of watching him roam center field on a somewhat regular basis (but not since shopping DeJesus out there recently).

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  13. Chris H says:

    Actually… Maier’s XBT% isn’t horrendous, though not good… but what’s dragging him down is he does not attempt stolen bases. I don’t think he wants to, or management is not letting him. Sometimes, players that are drafted by the previous regime in Kansas City get treated differently. Example: Kila Ka’aihue.

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  14. elllpeee says:

    Nice work. I like the idea and the article. As a SUPER slow runner in beer league softball, I love watching a good baserunner.

    The player I find interesting is Andres Torres. I know the numbers put him on the list. After watching the last 2 Giants games, I have to wonder how you add in the stat of falling asleep while I on base.

    On Monday, (eighth inning, up 2 runs, bases loaded) Torres forgot how many outs there were and gets himself picked off of first base to end the inning on a sac fly. (Oh, and it is not the first time I have watched him forget how many outs there are while on base). He had taken off on contact and had rounded second by the time the ball was caught.

    On Tuesday, in a 1 run game in the ninth, he is on second base when a IF grounder is hit adn Huff is thrown out at the plate. Torres had every chance to take third, especially with his speed, but did not. Luckily, his speed and “baserunning skills” allow him to score from second on the following single. The net result of his boneheaded baserunning is actually a boost to his rNERD score.

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