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The Blue Jays Track Team

When the Blue Jays pulled off their blockbuster trade with the Marlins, the focus immediately went to the two pitchers in the deal, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle. Toronto’s rotation was terrible in 2012, and their starters were one of the main reasons the team allowed 784 runs last season, more than all but five other MLB clubs. Johnson brings the ability to dominate when healthy, while Buehrle is the safest bet in MLB for 200 average or better innings. With one fell swoop, the Marlins rebuilt a battered rotation.

However, there’s a secondary storyline hiding under the Blue Jays off-season, and the foundation for their 2013 offensive identity was laid in that same transaction. With that move — and a few more additions later in the off-season — the Blue Jays have given themselves the opportunity to run more than any team has in recent years.

Everyone knows that Jose Reyes is one of the fastest players in baseball, and uses his speed to greatly enhance his overall value. In fact, over the last 10 years, Reyes has accumulated the sixth most runs from baserunning of any player in MLB, despite missing large chunks of time due to various injuries. However, on the Blue Jays roster of sprinters, Reyes might be the third most dangerous baserunning weapon.

In order to get a better idea of seasonal baserunning value, we can take the amount of runs a player has created on the bases and prorate it to 600 plate appearances, which is approximately one full season worth of playing time for a regular position player. Over the last 10 years, the most valuable runner per 600 plate appearances (with a 1,500 PA minimum to keep the sample size reasonably large) has been Brett Gardner, who checks in at +10.3 runs per season. Three spots behind Gardner is Blue Jays outfielder Rajai Davis, who has averaged +8.3 runs per season on the bases. Two spots behind Davis? Newly acquired utility infielder Emilio Bonifacio, who came from Miami with Reyes in the mega-deal.

That’s right – the 2013 Blue Jays are going to feature two of the six most effective baserunners in baseball over the last decade, and neither one is named Jose Reyes. Reyes, if you’re wondering, checks in at +5.8 runs per 600 plate appearances, coming in 16th overall during the last 10 years. It doesn’t stop with Reyes, either, as the Blue Jays also imported infielder Maicer Izturis (+3.9 runs per 600 PA, #40) over the winter, and are retaining center fielder Colby Rasmus (+3.2 runs per 600 PA, #60) as well. And, if Rasmus either struggles or gets injured, the team would likely call up 22-year-old speedster Anthony Gose, who put up a staggering +5.1 runs of baserunning value in just 189 plate appearances as a rookie last year.

Even assuming a reduced role for Davis with Melky Cabrera — an above average but unspectacular baserunner — taking over as the regular left fielder, we can still project him as a force on the bases. After all, even on days when Davis isn’t starting, he’ll likely be used as a late inning pinch-runner, and Davis is absolutely fearless as a base stealer. Last year, Davis was in position to steal a base 118 times, and he ran on 59 of those, or exactly half of his opportunities. No other player in baseball ran even close to that frequency. Only five other players attempted a steal in at least 1/3 of their opportunities last season, and two of them — Gose (35%) and Bonifacio (33%) are now Davis’ teammates.

Aggressive baserunning has largely gone out of vogue in baseball over the last 20 years, as the increased offensive environment that began in 1994 led to a change in the calculus of how often a player should run. When hits and especially home runs are plentiful, the value of advancing into scoring position is reduced — the runner is more likely to score from first base, after all — and the cost of making an out is higher, as it prevents more batters from coming to bat. With the reduction in offense throughout the sport, runs are now more scarce, and the tide has shifted back towards increasing aggressiveness on the bases.

During the offensive heyday at the turn of the century, the break-even rate for base stealing was around 70%, with runners succeeding less often than that not adding any real value to their teams through base stealing, no matter how many bases they stole. Last year, it was down to about 66%, as outs simply aren’t as harmful as they used to be, and the potential run gained by getting into scoring position is more critical to winning than it was when every game ended 10-9.

The Blue Jays appear to be extremely aware of the rising importance of baserunning, and have built a roster to take advantage of a more aggressive style of play than we’ve seen in some time. Over the last 10 years, no team has created more value on the bases than the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays, who checked in at +34 runs overall, led by Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, and Evan Longoria, and also featured quality running role players like Jason Bartlett and Sean Rodriguez. That team won 96 games and finished at the top of the American League East.

This Blue Jays team could very well challenge that Rays team for the best baserunning club we’ve seen, depending on how much playing time Davis, Bonifacio, and Gose end up getting this season. Even with Davis and Bonifacio serving as part-time players to begin the season and Gose likely ticketed for Triple-A, this is still easily the fastest team in baseball, and the Blue Jays speed is likely to be a factor in every game they play this season.