I want you to watch Victor Martinez play baseball for about eight seconds, from the moment his Detroit Tigers teammate Justin Upton puts this ball in play to when Upton kicks his leg up after rounding first base:
This might be the least exceptional baseball highlight of the 2016 season.
Baseball Reference tracks something called Extra Bases Taken Percentage. Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays' Kevin Kiermaier took the extra base 77 percent of the time. If he was on first and the batter singled, he went to third; if the batter doubled, he scored; if he was on second and the batter singled, he scored -- 77 percent of the time. That was the best mark in baseball among full-timers, followed by famously fast Billy Hamilton at 66 percent. The league overall took the extra base 40 percent of the time. The Tigers, the worst team in baseball by this measure, took the extra base 34 percent of the time. Only eight full-time players -- a combination of designated hitters, catchers and the elderly -- advanced less than 20 percent of the time, including David Ortiz, whose 16 percent mark was second lowest in baseball.
The one man Ortiz outran: Victor Martinez, a one-man combination of DH, catcher and, at age 38, elderly. He took the extra base 7 percent of the time. If we switch to Baseball Prospectus and look at the all-time leaderboard in its baserunning runs metric, Martinez's 2016 season tied for the worst baserunning performance in history at -9.6 runs. That's as far below average as Hamilton was above average.
Put enough unexceptional highlights together, and you end up with something exceptional. At least, that's the idea behind records.
One happy consequence of baseball's data explosion is that we have rich new terrain for records to be set, with more ways of measuring performance, more ways of grouping these performances into something unprecedented and broader access to historic records. Mike Trout doesn't hold any records in the traditional sense, but he has produced more WAR through age 24 than any player in history. Bryce Harper has no records that Babe Ruth or Roger Maris ever heard of, but in 2015, Harper had the hottest hot streak in history -- measured by True Average over a stretch of 50 plate appearances. Ryan Webb has no records and never will, except that he has finished more games without ever earning a save than any reliever in history.
Are these records or statistical quirks or fun facts or just facts? With nearly infinite "records" now available, this is a surprisingly relevant question. For Webb, the answer is no, not a record. For Trout, the answer seems like probably yes. For Martinez, the answer is to be determined in the next eight minutes.
Here's how baserunning runs are calculated at Baseball Prospectus: Any time a player is on base as the lead runner and a ball is hit, the runner has the opportunity to advance at least one and as many as three bases. Where the ball is hit affects this opportunity (a runner can take the extra base on a single to the left fielder more easily than on a single to the pitcher), and the number of outs affects the benefits of an extra base (e.g. "never make the first or last out of an inning at third"). Taking into account the hit location, the number of outs and the typical baserunner's actions in such situations, BP credits or penalizes a player based on where he ends up. How much credit a player receives depends on the run expectancy of each alternative.
More succinctly: Going first to third gets you some baserunning credit, while stopping at second or getting thrown out docks you some. Stolen bases, outs made and advancements on wild pitches or passed balls are also included in the runner's tally.
These are only numbers on a spreadsheet, but they quickly reveal a portrait of Martinez as a baserunner. Last year, he was at first base as a lead runner when 15 singles were hit to the outfield, including three to the right fielder. Only once did he make it to third, on a ball the center fielder fielded in the right-field gap. Relative to the average baserunner, Martinez's conservative baserunning cost his team about a half a run in total.
Seven times Martinez was on first base when a double was hit. Six times he stopped at third. Once, he tried to score, and it didn't end well:
Those seven decisions cost his team about two runs, relative to an average runner.
In the 13 times he was on second base when a single was hit to the outfield, he scored zero times, which cost his team about three runs. (Note that because BP counts only situations in which Martinez was the lead runner, these percentages differ from Baseball-Reference's XBT%.)
The rest of the -9.6 baserunning runs come from assorted other outs or squandered opportunities. There was the time he was thrown out at third on a welp-never-seen-that-before 4-5 double play. There was the time he was gunned down trying to score on a fly ball hit 276 feet, which was deep enough to score 15 of 18 other baserunners on similar flies in 2016:
There was the time he was gunned down trying for some reason to score on a fly ball hit 165 feet:
There were the two times he didn't advance on wild pitches that advanced his teammates:
And so on. That's a season in bad baserunning.
To the question of whether it is a season of baserunning that we should document, preserve, refer to or alert Cooperstown about, we can put it up against three standards:
1. Does this record help us understand Victor Martinez?
It does. In fact, it helps us understand him in two ways.
In just the past day, while watching a few dozen examples of Victor Martinez running the bases in 2016, I learned a lot about him. I came to know that running hard always makes him look uncomfortable afterward and that he never takes on a full sprint without appreciating the sacrifice it asks of him. I came to internalize the sight of his acceleration, a choppy, straight-legged thing that requires a lot of upper-body effort to initiate. I came, too, to know the Victor Martinez gallop, an irregular heartbeat coming around second base on the way to third. I learned that Martinez will always opt for the slowest allowable journey into any base, and that the moment he knows he will be safe, he'll shut the run down. I believe Victor Martinez's running speed cost Justin Upton at least a half-dozen RBIs this year, and I speculate that the leg kick in the first video I showed you might have been Upton subtly expressing frustration that his base hit with a runner in scoring position didn't earn him a steak. I also learned that Martinez is a prolific adjuster of his cup.
A Tigers fan who watches Martinez every day might pick up on all of that over time, but for the rest of us, -9.6 runs tells the story more efficiently. Indeed, it encapsulates so much of his career: the 100,000 pitches he squatted for before finally giving up catching for good last year; the two serious knee injuries he sustained in the past five years; the right ankle, left quadriceps, right groin and left hamstring aches that have cost him playing time over the years. It might have even foreshadowed the hernia surgery he had in October, which was revealed publicly only this week.
It tells a story other than "he's slow," though. Martinez has always been slow. On the day he turned 30, he had one career triple and one career stolen base. But the fact that he's setting new marks for slowness is, in one way, a testament to his career. He is such a good hitter that he was able to transition from catching to DH, something few catchers could do. He has been injured a lot, but he has come back from those injuries, surviving into old age when pain and inactivity would have ended many other careers. In 2016, he hit .289/.351/.476, bouncing back from a career-worst season to be one of the American League's 25 best hitters, a remarkable recovery for a 37-year-old.
Remember, to run the bases, Martinez has to reach base. His dubious record is, in this way, something like a disease of affluence: He could have set it only by surviving in this game long enough to get old, to play it at a level that would keep him in the lineup every day and to reach bases often enough to be extremely slow on them. Congratulations on your record, Vic.
2. Does this record offer valuable precision or perspective?
Without somebody doing the counting, most baseball performances would be meaningless to us. We'd have a hard time picking out the best player on the field if we were completely deprived of his stats, and we would certainly be unable to put an entire season -- let alone an entire career -- in perspective just by watching. So my first instinct is to say that, yes, "-9.6 runs" offers me a level of precision that differentiates Victor Martinez from Curt Casali or Brian McCann or Adrian Gonzalez or any other slow baseball player. There's a decimal point, after all. "He looks slow" certainly isn't capable of measuring to the tenth, and this is.
But after watching about 40 instances of Martinez's baserunning and comparing them to his BP baserunning log, I changed my mind. Every situation has its own obstacles and advantages to the baserunner, its own context and rewards. Take, for example, this decision to hold at third on a single:
A single to center typically scores a runner from second, so Martinez got docked about a quarter of a run for holding up. But there's context: Seven minutes earlier, Cleveland pitcher Mike Clevinger had thrown Martinez a 3-1 changeup for ball four. This pitch selection seemed to upset Martinez, as it was the ninth inning, the score read 12-1, and one might consider it bush league to prolong the game by throwing off-speed pitches on a 3-1 count. Martinez stared at Clevinger as he took his base, then spent the next seven minutes talking animatedly to the Cleveland first baseman, Mike Napoli, and the second baseman, Jason Kipnis.
When Upton singled, it might have looked hypocritical for Martinez to tear around the bases like his run meant something, just to put another run on Clevinger's ERA. His decision, perhaps, was inextricably linked to the score and the situation.
There are plenty of instances in which Martinez's baserunning is unambiguously bad, like the ones in the clips above. But there are others in which his team is trailing by a bunch of runs in the ninth inning, and it only makes sense to go station to station. Sometimes it's raining. Sometimes the ball is absolutely scorched and gets to the center fielder on one AstroTurf-clean hop. Sometimes the right fielder makes a great play to cut the ball off. Sometimes the batter is favoring his hamstring after legging out an infield hit.
In the aggregate, these stats will steer us toward helpful, accurate assessments. But it isn't easy for a formula to measure the details of an individual baserunning act. I'm much more confident that Pete Rose really had more career hits than anybody else than I am that Victor Martinez really cost his team more runs on the bases than anybody else.
3. Will this record exist 10 years from now?
Almost certainly not. The problem that comes with having more records than ever is that the records themselves are more ephemeral than ever. I don't mean that in a figurative sense: Baseball Prospectus could slightly tweak its formula for baserunning runs tomorrow and create a whole new leaderboard, with Billy Butler or Tom Brunansky or Ryan Garko at the top/bottom. Or I, the person looking for the worst baserunning season ever, could navigate over to Baseball-Reference, which has its own formula and gives the honor to Pat Duncan in 1922. Or we could wait for Statcast to answer the question differently by telling us which baserunners were actually the slowest, took the least efficient routes around the bases, got the worst jumps and so on.
Ultimately, this is what dooms most modern accomplishments to Illuminating Fun Fact territory. A record longs to grow old. Modern analytics don't grow old, by definition; they adapt to every new technology or statistical breakthrough, they revise, and they improve. The records of this new terrain can disappear as quickly as they're noticed. If you want to credit Victor Martinez with a baserunning record, he'll need to steal 1,399 more bases.