What happened with the Pirates on the base paths in 2016?

PITTSBURGH, PA – “My philosophy has always been to score one more run than the other team.”

The statement seems simple, yet beautifully complex. Score one more run than the other team. That’s essentially the game of baseball. It doesn’t matter how it happens and in what manner it happened. If your team scores one more run than the other, you win the game. Do that 90-95 times throughout the season, and your team will more than likely have the opportunity to play a few more games and try to win a championship. That’s baseball.

Joey Cora said it so perfectly while at Piratefest in December. His statement not only embodies the game as a whole, it presents a philosophy that Cora vows to live by as the newly appointed third base coach for the Pirates. Base running seemed to be one of the cruxes of the Pirates’ 2016 season, and they went into the offseason by hitting the reset button. With that, Kimera Bartee will take over first base coach duties, while Cora, who managed Double-A Atloona last season, mans third.

Cora explained that he wants his players to be aggressive on the base paths and score in any way possible, saying that they won’t be afraid to take chances to get that all-so-important “one more run than the other team”.

“When we get on first, we want to score on doubles,” Cora said. “We feel that we have the personnel to do it. We want to score on base hits from second base. We obviously just want to get home, and that’s the most important thing – somehow, someway. The important mindset is to not just get to second, not just get to third, but to get home. We’re going to try to score wherever we are.”

In 2016, the Pirates were slightly better than league average with 4.50 runs/games; however, that number could’ve been much better if not for what happened on the base paths. They ran themselves into 62 outs while on base (where a runner is making a base running play not including caught stealings, pickoffs, or force plays), which was third worst in all of baseball. That number includes 21 such instances of making an out at home. They were also second worst in the league in taking the extra base on a hit (35% XBT), which accounts for a runner taking more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double, when possible.

Also, they were fourth worst in the league in Team LOB (7.24 runners/game) and third worst in Runners Left in Scoring Position (3.80 runners/game). Their OBP was extremely high (.332, fourth in the league) showing that runners were getting on base often. Not considering power numbers and looking through a wide angle lens with all of this in mind, evidence shows that the Pirates did not take advantage of the opportunities they were presented with while runners were on base.

A lot of that was put on Rick Sofield and Nick Leyva’s shoulders last season and into the offseason, hence the reason why changes were made. Cora was asked at Piratefest how he thinks the new base coach duo could remedy to questionable base running from last season, and his answer is perfect, honestly.

“Winning 100 games,” Cora said. “Winning fixes a lot of things.”

His answer made me curious to dig into some of the numbers from years prior to 2016 pertaining to base running. Sofield and Leyva have held the base coaching positions together since 2013 (with them switching roles in 2015). Obviously, there are many factors to wins and losses, but the Pirates made the playoffs from 2013-2015 with them, and then the world seemed to collapse around them in 2016. What gives?

The Explanation

Before digging too far into the numbers, I want to give a quick explanation of what all of these different categories and subsequent numbers mean. I did all of my digging on Fangraphs, as I really liked the way they presented their base running statistics. You can find all explanations of these statistics in Fangraphs’ library located here. Here we go:

BsR or Base Running: This is an all-encompassing statistic, as Fangraphs uses this as their base running component of WAR (Wins Above Replacement). BsR is a simple summation of the three items below, giving an all around base running number. This will be our base line (pun not intended).

BsR is rated as ZERO being average, +8 being excellent, and -6 being awful. Everything else falls in between.

UBR or Ultimate Base Running: UBR is Fangraphs’ way of accounting for the value a player adds to their team via base running using linear weights. Each base running event receives a specific run value, and the number is spit out at the end. UBR accounts for more instinctual base running events like (including but not limited to):

  1. Advancing or not advancing an extra base as long as no other base runner is blocking you,
  2. Getting thrown out trying to advance on a hit,
  3. Trailing a runner who is advancing,
  4. Tagging up or trying to score on fly balls,
  5. Runners on first staying out of the force or double play at second.

UBR does not account for stolen bases or caught stealings.

A ZERO is average, +6 is excellent, and -6 is awful.

wGDP or Weighted Grounded Into Double Play Runs: wGDP takes the extra outs a player costs or saves his team by hitting into more or fewer double plays than average.

wSB or Weighted Stolen Base Runs: wSB estimates the number of runs a player contributes to his team by stealing bases and being thrown out trying to steal.

How did the Pirates fare as a team?

Let’s go right to the numbers and look big picture.

As you can see, the numbers show that the 2016 version of the Pirates were the worst overall base running team out of any Pirate rosters in the last five years, needing to go back to 2011 to find a team that fared more poorly. But, let’s look a little deeper into these numbers, which give a good explanation as to why the changes were made at the base coaching positions going into 2017.

Although the Pirates were 23rd in the league in base running overall, their UBR numbers showed that they were even worse at events like taking an extra base, tagging on a fly ball, or trying to score on a base hit. They were actually at or above league average in the other two categories dealing with grounding into double plays and stolen bases. That’s how poor they did in terms of what coaches like to call “aggressive base running”.

The item that sticks out to me about all of these statistics can be found by zeroing in on their 2016, 2014, and 2013 seasons. In 2013 and 2014, the Pirates were great at advancing the extra base, extending a single into a double, scoring from home, etc (UBR). In those same seasons, the team was actually below average in double play and stolen base statistics. This past year, the script was flipped.

Up until 2016, the Pirates as a whole have continued to cost themselves runs when it comes to trying to steal bases. Last year, they fixed that. The key difference between the 2016 Pirates and the teams from 2012-2015, in terms of base running, is that they did not avoid outs on the bases, and they did not take extra bases when they should have (UBR).

Keep in mind that Sofield and Leyva have been the base coaches since 2013, with Sofield being the third base coach in 2015 and 2016. With that, it’s hard to really understand why the influx in statistics.

What about the players?

I looked at players from the last five seasons, but I’d rather focus on the last two years in particular. What went wrong in 2016?

To start, Jung Ho Kang was a very good instinctual base runner in 2015, but he fell off of a cliff last year. He had the best UBR among players on the team with 100+ plate appearances in 2015 (+4.1) only to be the third worst on the team last year (-2.4). Yes, Kang had a traumatic injury that he was working his way back from last season, but the numbers still show that his base running did not come the same.

The additions of John Jaso and David Freese did not help the Pirates on the base paths this past season, as they were the worst two base runners (100+ PAs) on the team, falling closer to “awful” status than league average in both BsR (Jaso: -5.5, Freese: -4.2) and UBR (Jaso: -3.8, Freese: -2.5). Compared to Neil Walker’s above average BsR (+2.7) and UBR (+1.9) in 2015, and Pedro Alvarez being slightly above or around league average in both categories in 2015, that was a pendulum swing for the worst.

The blame can’t all be put on Jaso and Freese, however, as Gregory Polanco went from having the best Base Running statistics on the team in 2015 (5.3 BsR) to falling around league average in 2016 (0.4 BsR).

Ultimately, Freese, Jaso, Kang, and Andrew McCutchen were all well below average base runners last year, and the likes of Starling Marte (best BsR on the team), Jordy Mercer (second in BsR), and Josh Harrison (third) couldn’t balance them out. (Just a quick note: Jordy Mercer has actually gotten better on the base paths every year he’s been in the league, which is a strong testament to him.)

How do things change in 2017?

I watched Joey Cora coach third base for the majority of the 2016 season in Altoona, and he was never one to hesitate sending a player home. Sometimes it worked, many of times it didn’t, but he isn’t lying when he says he will be aggressive on the base paths. Do I believe that is a huge difference from Sofield at third base? No. Rick Sofield definitely had a few blunders (some much worse than others), but his philosophy of being aggressive shouldn’t change in the transition to Cora. (Disclaimer: I’m in agreement that it was the correct thing to make a move with Sofield and Leyva, but I also feel that there is plenty of blame to go around for the decline in base running this past year.) What I believe will make the Pirates a better base running team again in 2017 is nothing more than the players themselves.

Jung Ho Kang needs to find a way to get back to his 2015 form. That may be harder said than done, as we really don’t know the permanent damage done to his knee, but improvements by Kang will greatly help the team. Starling Marte and Josh Harrison staying healthy for ~150 games would help. Jordy Mercer continuing his upward trend of solid base running will also help. Gregory Polanco returning to his 2015 form rather than just being middle of the pack in base running statistics will most definitely do the trick.

When John Jaso was with the Athletics in 2013-14, he was an average base runner. David Freese posted a -1.1 BsR in 2015 with the Angels. If those two players continue to get a heavy load of playing time and can make improvements towards their past numbers,  it would go a long way.

The one player I didn’t talk much about so far was Andrew McCutchen. Here are his base running statistics since 2013:

2013: 6.2 BsR, 4.5 UBR
2014: 1.7 BsR, -1.3 UBR
2015: -1.1 BsR, -1.5 UBR
2016: -3.0 BsR, -1.5 UBR

From 6.2 BsR in 2013 to -3.0 BsR in 2016, that is a sharp decline in base running for the Pirates’ most important player. It’s just another way of showing how important it is for McCutchen to produce at a high level in all five phases of the game. If McCutchen can reverse this trend in 2016, as well as some others things going right with the rest of the roster, the Pirates can once again return to being an average to better than average overall base running team.

“Last year, it didn’t work out like the previous years, so it came to the surface,” Cora said. “We’ll see what happens, but we will be very aggressive on the bases, no doubt.”

Joey Cora promises to continue the trend of staying aggressive on the base paths and doing everything he can to “score one more run than the other team.” Let’s hope the players can do their part, as well.

  • Sean, very educational piece. thank you

  • Man am I ready to see what Andrew brings this year. I have a feeling that there will be a renaissance in the burg for Cutch.

  • It might help if the majority of these guys would take the trouble to bust it out of the box consistently.

    • I really think most who could run were running, but for 2016, the Pirates added players with no footspeed like Jaso, Freese, and Joyce – our homage to “Moneyball” . They were supposed to be back-ups, but they ended up having over 1200 plate appearances in 2016.

      Their on base numbers were good, but they are all base cloggers. They get on first and the team needs 3 hits to score them. Toss in a few others, and on some nights we had 4 or 5 base cloggers in the lineup. Hard to manufacture runs when you have a team going station-to-station.

      We have a team built on speed and extra-base power. Taking the extra base is absolutely essential to the success of this team. Somebody get that message to NH.

  • Kang needs to be positioned down in the order until he starts running better.6th is about right even given his power. Looking to OBP I would run out the following lineup:
    Against RHP:
    Cervelli
    Marte
    Bell
    Polanco
    Cutch
    Kang
    JHay
    Mercer
    P
    Against LHP:
    Cervelli
    Marte
    Mercer
    Cutch
    Kang
    Bell
    JHay
    Polanco
    P

  • Regarding Cutch, the statistics bear out what has been obvious to the naked eye. Cutch stopped aggressive running the bases in 2014. Whether this was due to injury or not I don’t know, but he has insisted that he isn’t hindered. I think he needs to external motivation to be more aggressive on the basepaths.

    • Cutch has been a complete dog coming out of the box for a few years.
      He doesn’t ever attempt going 1st to 3rd on a single.
      When he 1st came up it was a thing of beauty watching him dig for 3. Now that same hit doesn’t guarantee him a double. When he “arrived” his game disappeared. I blame Hurdle for letting the players run the asylum. No accountability.

  • Much ado about a swing of 10 runs, or about one win. Not saying they shouldn’t fix it, but it’s not the tall pole in the tent.

    Also, do we know how much noise is there in a BsR measurement? Are these random fluctuations or meaningful?

    • BsR is good when looking from year to year, but I wouldn’t depend on it as a single indicator on just one year. It is a good measure of the value a player adds or subtracts on the bases.

  • Minor tangent to Sean’s article…

    “…the Pirates were second worst in the league in leaving runners on base (15.41 runners/game) and third worst in leaving runners who are in scoring position on base (3.80 runners/game). The fact that they were in the middle of the pack in runs/game (4.50 runs per game, 13th in MLB) only shows that they found other ways to score their runs; however, converting on those runners already in position to score could have greatly increased their chances of winning a few more games.”

    I think Sean’s mixing his denominators a bit here.

    The 2016 Pirates were a fairly high OBP team, which means they inherently had more *chances* to leave runners on base or in scoring position relative to their competition. They very well may have converted runners on base and in scoring position as well or better than league average, and *still* left more on base as a result of the total number.

    Lack of power production would at least theoretically point to the opportunity to strand more runners as chaining single-base events together is a difficult way to score a runner from first, but it’s not correct to assume this was the case based on this data. I’d be more interested in seeing how productive they were at converting those chances to runs than simply the aggregate average of chances they had per game.

    • Thanks for the comment. I made an adjustment to the article that leaves it a little more open ended, and I added some additional information that helps mold together the main point – they were bad on the bases. 🙂

      I appreciate the feedback. After reading through what I had, I agreed that I did not portray that how I wanted. Thanks!

    • Another way to look at it is what is their “on second base or better” percentage?

  • Great analysis Sean.

    Question about one part of the article:

    “Last season, the Pirates were second worst in the league in leaving runners on base (15.41 runners/game) and third worst in leaving runners who are in scoring position on base (3.80 runners/game). The fact that they were in the middle of the pack in runs/game (4.50 runs per game, 13th in MLB)”

    Maybe I don’t understand the calculation. Wouldn’t that mean that the Pirates averaged 19.91 (15.41 LOB + 4.5 Rs) baserunners per game? That seems way too high for an average.

    • I made some adjustments to that paragraph and changed the first stat to Team LOB, which makes more sense in the grander scheme. Thanks for pointing it out… I think I had too many numbers running through my head and missed it.

  • When Mercer and JHay are your 2nd and 3rd best runners, what does that say about our baserunning?

    Plus, it looks like Cutch’s all around game has been declining steadily?

    I hope he bounces back, but all of these stats has me more than a little worried.

    • It says the Mercer and Harrison are good base runners. They rank among the best at their individual positions. Their overall value being below average doesn’t mean they’re below average at every single part of their game.

      • I would’ve never thought of JHay as a good base runner with just the “eye” test. It seems that he is always TOOTBLANing it too much to me.

  • Its just a feeling, but it seems like this team has a lot of tootblans. UBR gives positive scores to Harrison, but his “great” baserunning plays seem to be getting out of things he put himself into.

    I have hopes for Cora. That linked play, sending a runner home while losing by 4 in the 9th – that’s just gross incompetence. I wouldn’t be surprised if that one play ultimately cost Sofield his job.

    • UBR wouldn’t factor those small examples this heavily. The rundowns that he escapes would stick in the mind and the things he does that UBR would give him credit for wouldn’t be noticed or remembered.

  • Nice headline, Sean. Pretty *cool*…..

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