If you're anything like me, you spend your spare time leafing through the Bill James Handbook. (Cut me some slack, I have to fill the void until Opening Day.) If you're unfamiliar with the book, James devotes an entire chapter to baserunning, and he breaks down which players help and hurt their team's cause the most on the base paths. Needless to say, this is nothing short of eye-opening, and I've tweaked James' research a bit to reveal the five best (and worst) baserunners in baseball.
First, here's some background on how James measures baserunning. For example, if you go first to third on a single, it's plus-1, if you're thrown out, it's minus-1. Same goes for trying to go first to home on a double. If you take as many bases as the batter got, then it's nothing. For basestealing, it's plus-1 for a steal, but minus-2 for getting caught.
For the purposes of this analysis, let's ignore basestealing because we already know who the best thieves are anyway. What's most revealing about James' numbers is we can see who the best guys are once they are already on base. Sure, speed plays a role, but instincts and routes are vital as well. So, if we remove stolen bases from the equation, the best baserunners in 2009 were:
Ryan Braun, +27
Chase Utley, +27
Chone Figgins, +27
Colby Rasmus, +26
Maicer Izturis, +25
1) Braun is even better than I thought, and so is Utley. This also does not include Utley's perfect 23-for-23 stolen base season. I think we can safely say he is the smartest baserunner in the game.
2) Figgins and Izturis epitomize the Angels aggressive strategy. As a team, the Angels were +70 on the bases last year (excluding steals), which was the best in baseball. Anaheim went first to third on a single 128 times last year, which was 20 more than any other team.
3) Rasmus was safe going from second to home on a single 12 out of 13 times, and first to home on a double 7 out of 8.
Carlos Lee, -35
Juan Rivera, -35
Yadier Molina, -29
Adrian Gonzalez, -28
Mike Lowell, -27
A few more thoughts:
4) As James notes, both Lee and Rivera were thrown out eight times trying to go first to third on a single. You know what they say, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me eight times, then maybe I should stop trying to go first to third on a single."
5) Molina was actually +3 as a basestealer (9-for-12).
6) Yes, Adrian Gonzalez is as slow as he looks.
7) Mike Lowell was on first base on ten occasions when a double was hit. He did not score once.
That's a nice segue into one of the more interesting tidbits in the chapter. Last year, when there was NOT a man on on second, runners on first scored 42.6% of the time on a double. When there was a guy on second, runners from first scored 45.3%. You read that right, there is no such thing as clogging the bases. Unless it's Carlos Lee out there.
Matt Meyers is an associate editor for ESPN The Magazine