There’s a pretty strong and obvious relationship between speed and baserunning. Speed is best demonstrated when running, and “baserunning” has “running” right in the word. There usually isn’t very much interesting to say about a fast guy who runs the bases well. Likewise, there usually isn’t very much interesting to say about a slow guy who runs the bases poorly. It’s more uncommon to hear about a fast guy with baserunning limitations, but we can make sense of that — baserunning skill isn’t 100% footspeed. Speed’s just a component, along with instincts and awareness and reaction time.
But it’s a major component. Not all good runners will be good baserunners, but it feels like all good baserunners should be good runners. Check out the top of last year’s baserunning value leaderboard. Jacoby Ellsbury is a good runner. Rajai Davis is a good runner. Eric Young, Elvis Andrus, Mike Trout, Alcides Escobar — all these guys, good runners. An almost infallible rule is, you need to be able to run pretty well to be able to run the bases pretty well. But note that I had to throw an “almost” in there. And I had to throw an “almost” in there on account of Daniel Murphy, baseball’s premier player with speed without speed.
You don’t think of speed as something you can really develop. Of course, you can make sure that you’re in shape, and of course, you can do sprint training, but it seems like there’s less possible development in speed than there is in, say, weight lifting. You’re born quick or you’re born slow or you’re born in between, and there’s only so much you can do to raise your ceiling. One thing I want to make clear is that Daniel Murphy hasn’t somehow turned himself into a burner. By big-league standards, he has below-average footspeed. But as a player he’s been able to maximize his effective speed, if you will, with a blend of smarts and aggressiveness.
Earlier in his career, Murphy was known for making a handful of baserunning gaffes. Through his first 3+ years, he had 19 steals, and his baserunning overall had been right around league-average. Last season, however, Murphy’s on-base value skyrocketed. He ranked tenth in the league in baserunning runs, between Jarrod Dyson and Everth Cabrera. He ranked 14th in stolen-base runs, between Trout and Nate McLouth. He ranked 19th in non-steal baserunning runs, between Ben Zobrist and Emilio Bonifacio. Completely out of nowhere, Murphy turned himself into one of the better baserunners in the game.
Last season didn’t start out that way. Murphy didn’t make a single steal attempt in April. By May 18, he was 1-for-4. He was still 1-for-4 the morning of June 9. But from then on, in 104 games, Murphy attempted 22 steals, and each and every attempt was successful. Beyond that, for the year, he managed to take an extra base 61% of the time. That’s according to Baseball-Reference, where the league-average rate was 40%. Half the time someone hit a single with Murphy on first, he made it to third. There were 21 occasions that Murphy was on second when someone hit a single; on 17 of those occasions, Murphy scored. Murphy was aggressive on the bases last year, but he was both aggressive and effective, which is what allowed him to accumulate such value.
Here’s the really amazing part, and this is going to rely on the results of the Fan Scouting Report. Last season, 83 different players stole at least ten bases. Now, the Fan Scouting Report has a “Speed” category. The league-average rating was 51. Murphy had a rating of 39. That was the lowest out of everyone with at least ten steals, by six. It was the lowest out of everyone with at least 20 steals, by 15. The average speed rating in the ten-steal group was 68. The average speed rating in the 20-steal group was 72. Daniel Murphy stole as many bases as Michael Bourn, and he stole more bases than Jimmy Rollins and Hunter Pence.
It’s not like this was a one-time thing. Murphy’s career Speed ratings according to the Fan Scouting Report:
Murphy’s never been a speed demon. Until 2013, he’d never played like a speed demon. Then he became something he was never supposed to become. Murphy learned how to run the bases like a player with far better wheels. Murphy effectively built a strength out of a weakness.
Going back to 2009, there have been a little over a hundred player-seasons worth at least five baserunning runs over average. Remember, that’s quite a bit — the spread of baserunning value usually isn’t that large. Out of all those player-seasons, 2013 Daniel Murphy again has the lowest Speed rating. Next-lowest is 2009 Orlando Cabrera, with a Speed rating ten points higher. The average speed rating of the group is 79. Murphy was at literally half that.
The idea: aggressiveness. More accurately: calculated aggressiveness. Ben Lindbergh wrote about the Mets’ baserunning philosophy, and a lot of the credit was given to coach Tom Goodwin, who you’ll recall was quite the baserunner himself. The Mets were the top baserunning team in baseball, and it wasn’t all about Daniel Murphy, but it was probably the success of Murphy that was the most surprising. It’s one thing to see a guy like Eric Young running all over the place. It’s quite another to have Murphy be an aggressor on the basepaths. Which was maybe the whole point behind his being aggressive. The other team, simply, wouldn’t expect it.
You knew you weren’t getting out of this without .gifs. So, here’s Daniel Murphy stealing some bases.
Pitcher, second baseman not paying attention.
Dropped pitch, but also, excellent jump.
Another dropped pitch! But also, another excellent jump.
Jump City (TM)
Defense too casual, again, so Murphy seized an opportunity.
Great jump off a lefty.
Great jump off a righty.
Great jump off a righty.
A steal of third on a walk. And, another truly excellent jump.
Obviously, these aren’t all the good things Murphy made happen on the bases, but I think the images capture how Murphy was able to put up the numbers he did. Running the bases is about both speed and reads. Murphy doesn’t have much of the former, but he excelled at the latter, which allowed him to maximize his probability of success, even when being aggressive. He read the infielders around him. He read the pitchers and studied their timing. If speed is about tenths of a second, so is awareness, and Murphy made up for his feet with focus. He did the absolute best with what he had, so you could say, 2013 Daniel Murphy probably just about reached his baserunning ceiling. It isn’t often we can say that about any player and any tool. Say what you will about the rest of Murphy’s game, but he could be a lot worse just by running the bases like you’d expect that he would.
I’m not sure how much of this will continue. In the future, Murphy might catch fewer opponents off guard. A few times last year, he got a little bit lucky, so his baserunning value will probably regress closer to the mean. I’m not sure how many more exceptional baserunning seasons Daniel Murphy is going to have. But it’s kind of incredible he’s had even one, and he should still be projected as positive, positive despite running a lot like a catcher. You don’t necessarily have to be quick to run the bases like you are. You can be either quick or hyper-attentive, and Daniel Murphy proves it. Daniel Murphy, and no one else.
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