The Subtlety of Ian Kinsler and Quality Baserunning

The article begins with an anecdote, like so many articles usually do. Let’s watch something that ultimately didn’t matter, from Sunday’s marathon contest between the Tigers and the Blue Jays. The game was tied 5-5 forever, but specifically, for our purposes, the game was tied 5-5 in the top of the 16th, when Ian Kinsler hit a one-out infield single. The next batter was Miguel Cabrera, and Cabrera drove the first pitch for a single to bring the Tigers that much closer to snapping the deadlock. It was a well-hit single, a line-drive single, to the left side of the outfield, but where Kinsler easily could’ve played it safe and stopped at second, he went and got himself to third, and he did so without a close play.

KinslerRunning

The next batter was intentionally walked. The next batter hit into a double play. Like an hour later, the Tigers lost. Sad for them. But now we get to the point where the deeper purpose of the anecdote is revealed.

You know that we have a baserunning statistic, here. You might also know that our baserunning statistic is made up of two component baserunning statistics. One of them — wSB — measures value contributed from stolen-base attempts. The other one — UBR — measures value contributed from other baserunning stuff. This year’s leader in wSB is Jose Altuve, which isn’t a shock. The guy’s 46 out of 52. This year’s leader in UBR is Ian Kinsler, which is a little more of a shock, because other baserunning contributions are subtle and most people don’t really have a sense of who’s great and who isn’t.

And this is a strength of Kinsler’s. It’s a minor strength, but it’s been consistent, which is notable in part because Kinsler developed a reputation of being kind of a careless, mistake-prone baserunner during his Rangers days. In the past, Kinsler has had definite issues with getting picked off, but he’s gotten better there, and elsewhere his aggressiveness has paid off in spades. Kinsler first emerged as a good baserunner in 2007, and he’s carried that into his 30s, even as his steals and speed have declined.

Let’s use one of our leaderboard features — let’s look at numbers over the past three calendar years. Looking only at UBR, not overall baserunning, here are the top five names on the list:

It’s topped by two guys who turned the Rangers’ double plays, two guys who’ve drawn criticism for making baserunning errors many times before. You’d think maybe it has something to do with the base coaches in Texas, but then Kinsler has taken his success into Detroit, so it’s probably a lot about him. And here’s something that isn’t going to surprise you at all, but UBR correlates very well with speed. This is kind of rough, but here’s a plot of UBR and speed ratings from the Fan Scouting Report:

ubr_speed

The relationship is visually obvious, and intuitively obvious. Kinsler is highlighted for two reasons. One, he’s the guy we’ve been talking about. And two, you’ll notice that equation for the line. Using the equation, we can calculate an “expected” UBR based on a guy’s speed rating. And then we can look at the difference between a player’s actual UBR and his expected UBR. The biggest positive difference belongs to Ian Kinsler, ahead of guys like Andrus, Todd Frazier, Daniel Murphy, and Hunter Pence. So not only has Kinsler been an outstanding baserunner in a way; he’s just about maximized his ability. He has the same speed rating as Norichika Aoki, whose UBR is slightly negative.

Kinsler is a decent base-stealer. He’s been better. He shines in other areas. We can look, for example, at his advancements on hits, since 2011. The data’s coming from Baseball-Reference:

Base Occupied Hit Extra Base% Out% lgExtra Base% lgOut%
1st Single 48% 0% 29% 1%
1st Double 55% 3% 42% 3%
2nd Single 75% 2% 60% 4%

This paints only some of the picture, but it paints enough of it that you can see the outline of the full image. Kinsler has gone first-to-third half the time on singles. He’s gone first-to-home more than half the time on doubles. He’s gone second-to-home three-quarters of the time on singles. He hasn’t run himself into many outs, once he’s gotten going. He reads the ball well off the bat when it’s put in play, and he almost always turns aggressively. In the .gif toward the start of this post, you can see that Kinsler is way around second by the time the ball reaches the left fielder. He’s aggressive in a controlled and intelligent way, which lets him make the most of his simply above-average speed.

Of course, baserunning errors are memorable. Many baserunning successes are subtle and easily forgotten, if they’re even recognized in the moment. When people think about baserunning they think first about steals, because those are the least complicated, in terms of the number of people involved. There’s more going on when a guy is running the bases with a ball in play, and the camera tends to be following the ball, so good aggressiveness is seldom celebrated. You remember when guys get thrown out, and to a lesser degree you remember when they steal. You don’t remember when a guy gets an extra base, and that’s one of the things Ian Kinsler’s done best. Those pickoff issues before were real, but they weren’t representative of his baserunning ability or awareness.

To close on a related note, this year Kinsler leads baseball in UBR while he’s practically average in wSB. Things were similar for him in 2012. What’s the overall relationship between the two statistics? How much does one tell you about the other?

ubr_wsb

Of course, there’s a relationship, but you could argue it’s pretty weak. A lot of good baserunners are also good base-stealers, but one doesn’t automatically indicate the other. Over the last three years, the top five players in UBR have been worth +65 runs in that category. They’ve been worth just under +5 runs in wSB. Jones, Kinsler, Fowler — stolen bases haven’t been a strength. You can see how they draw from slightly different skillsets. To be a good base-stealer, you need to have a good first step, and a good read of the pitcher, and good acceleration. To be a good baserunner, you need some of the step and acceleration, but you also need a different kind of situational awareness, and there’s also that on-the-bases route efficiency. It makes sense that someone could be better at one than the other, and we can stick with our Kinsler example. Earlier in his career, he was a good runner and stealer. He’s gotten worse about the stealing part, but the other part’s still terrific.

I don’t know how underrated Ian Kinsler is, but for a lot of people I do think he’s misunderstood. He’s always been an above-average hitter, but he’s made sure to be an above-average player by rounding out his skillset with subtle positive attributes. He turned himself into a pretty good defensive second baseman, and he’s already turned baserunning into 5 career WAR. Some of that’s on account of his 182 career steals. Most of that’s on account of an array of other things. Sometimes an extra base doesn’t lead to a run, but you could say the same for a triple. No one out there’s downplaying the importance of triples.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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