Baserunning blunders nearly trip up Tribe: Between Innings

All is well. The Cleveland Indians (54-45) have now won each of the six games played on their seven-game homestand and have maintained a 1.5 game lead on the Kansas City Royals (53-47), who have been on winning streak of their own. Wednesday night’s 10-4 victory over the Los Angeles Angels (49-53) appeared to be an easy win over an inferior opponent. Indeed, the bats of the Tribesmen over-powered the Angel hurlers as Cam Bedrosian was driven into the bedrock (0.1 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 5 R) and Brooks Pounders was pounded (0.2 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 2 R). Eight of the nine Indian starters reached base safely on multiple occasions with only the AL MVP candidate, Jose Ramirez, failing to reach a second time.

However, the final score and lengthy winning streak are masking an underlying issue with the Tribe that was at the forefront throughout the contest. Baserunning continues to plague the Indians and limit the total amount of runs scored in games. Not just random occurrence, bad luck baserunning outs, but systematic and horrific decision-making plays that hand the opposition free outs throughout games. It is important to note that the Indians are a good offensive club (tied for seventh in runs per game in MLB, fourth in the AL), but that there is potential for them to become a dominant one if they could clean up their act.

The 2017 version of the Indians has three players1 with a wRC+ above the 2016 team-leading Tyler Naquin (135) who collected the vast majority of his value in a small stretch from June to July (Lonnie Chisenhall-149, Jose Ramirez-145, Austin Jackson-143). Despite that, the 2016 squad scored nearly the same amount of runs per game (4.83) as the present day team (4.92). One of the big reasons was that the Indians were the second-best baserunning team in Major League Baseball last year.

The 2016 Cleveland Indians had an extra base taken rate of 45 percent.2 That means runners on first were taking third and runners on second were scoring3 on nearly every other single. Despite the super aggressiveness on the basepaths, the Tribe was just a tick above average when it came to being tagged out running (56 to 54). The Tribe also stole the most bases in the American League (fourth most in MLB), while doing as at the second-best rate in MLB (81%). The end result was that runners on base scored 32 percent of the time (third best in MLB).

The 2017 Cleveland Indians acquire an extra base taken only 37 percent of the time (MLB average is 40%) though before Wednesday nights game they were still slightly below league average on being tagged out on the basepaths (29 to 32). The Tribe is also below league average on number of steals (52) and right at average on stolen base percentage (74%). Still, despite the lack of ability, the added prowess of bats (most notably the additions of Michael Brantley and Edwin Encarnacion to the lineup) have allowed runners to score at the same rate as 2016 (32%).

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Losing Rajai Davis in free agency certainly helps explain the decrease in total stolen bases, but there is plenty of team speed that a savvy club should be able to maintain a higher extra base taken rate. The ballclub has six players with a sprint speed above 28 feet per second, including Bradley Zimmer who only trails Billy Hamilton in sprint speed according to Baseball Savant as measured by Statcast.

Reckless running is dangerous no matter the speed. Jose Ramirez has been among the worst 2017 Indians baserunners despite being one of the faster players. His -3.0 baserunning rate is only above relative slow pokes Yan Gomes and Edwin Encarnacion. The Tribe leader in this metric is Michael Brantley,4 who uses smarts to compensate for a speed that is about equal to Gomes. Having more players with J-Ram (and better) speed learn how to run the bases like Brantley is what manager Terry Francona should be pushing.5

Wednesday demonstrated just how far the Indians need to go here. There were several minor instances throughout the game. Ramirez stalled on second despite a throw home where he should have easily advanced to third. Zimmer was almost caught napping off second base when catcher Martin Maldonado made a great throw behind him after a pitch late in the game. There were several more that kept the game close until the seven run eighth inning outburst.

Here are the plays that directly cost the Tribe outs or positioning on Wednesday

Erik Gonzalez caught stealing

Erik Gonzalez is not a good hitter (95 OPS+ and even then indicators that is hitting above his expectations), but he is a fast runner. When he got on base in the third inning, he wanted to challenge the 43% caught stealing rate for Maldonado and shortstop Andrelton Simmons. He appeared to get a decent jump and it took a perfect throw to get him. A bad outcome, but this out was not a poor decision.

Edwin Encarnacion thrown out at home

Sometimes, it is important to understand your own physical limitations. Edwin Encarnacion is a beast at the plate. He is batting .305/.412/.585 since May 21 with 14 home runs, 12 doubles, a triple, 43 RBIs, and 46 runs scored in that timeframe. Being such a behemoth though slows him up a bit around the diamond. So, when a great armed right-fielder, Kole Calhoun, is ready to throw you out at home with no outs and the pitcher on the ropes, maybe take that turn at third base and see if there is an overthrow rather than running into the out.6

Erik Gonzalez called for unintentional interference

The best way to take the noise out of a ballpark is to have an exciting play get called back. Austin Jackson stole second base and a bad job judging the throw wound up allowing A-Jax to advance to third base. The fans are on their feet, the ballpark is loud and starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco’s night might be complete. But, wait. Erik Gonzalez did a wretched job in the batter’s box. He had such minimal control of his bat during a flailing swing that he allowed it to brush up against the shin guard of Maldonado as he threw the ball to second. Unintentional interference was called and Jackson had to return to first base (if it was ruled intentional, then Jackson would have been out). It was a tick-tacky call, but E-Gon’s own sloppiness led to it, which is on him.

Bradley Zimmer caught in a pickle

The last out is just dumb. Zimmer ran from second to third on a ground ball. He watched the Simmons range to his right (watch him as he turns his head at least twice) to scoop up said ground ball, but Zimmer decided to make a big turn at third anyway. Simmons takes advantage by making an off-balance throw to third base and catching Zimmer stuck in a pickle. Despite his best efforts at avoiding the tag while running home, Zimmer is properly reminded of his idiocy when Maldonado falls on him while applying the tag.

  1. minimum 100 PA []
  2. Only behind the San Diego Padres who have valued speed over everything else in their team dynamics. []
  3. and similar extra base taken on doubles []
  4. It should be noted that it is a cumulative statistic, so Brantley having more plate appearances than Zimmer is a big advantage here. []
  5. In fact, three of the Indians slower players are among the Top 5 in baserunning value added with Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana joining Brantley. []
  6. Yes, it was a bang-bang play and one of the replay angles indicates he might have been safe, but for Encarnacion there was no reason to risk it there. []