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Running wild on the bases

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Twins base running offers a needed bright spot

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Chicago White Sox
Byron Buxton was a base-path hero in 2016
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

I must cop to a persistent offseason malady that’s afflicted me these past few years — one surely shared across Twins Territory: overwhelming, soul-squashing pessimism.

I wish I could muster up some enthusiasm for the Matt Belisle or Jason Castro signings or getting to spend at least another half season gazing longingly into the depths of Brian Dozier’s coiffure. But instead I insist on writing 2,000-odd words on how Hector Santiago is a disaster waiting to happen and our pitching staff is doomed.

But doom gets old, and I don’t know about you, but I could certainly use a ray of hope or two these days. With that in mind, I took a look at the 2016 Twins for some overlooked reasons for optimism as we enter the 2017 season.

And I found one! Huzzah!

Surprisingly — or at least surprisingly to me — the Twins had a terrific base running season last year. Now, I may have overlooked this and it’s very much common knowledge, and, in that case, my apologies.

But the Twins quietly had their best season on the bases since 2003, according to Baseball Prospectus.

Base Running Runs (BRR) determines the expected base-advancement based on the quality of base running opportunities and is broken down by Ground Advancement Runs (GAR), Stolen Base Runs (SBR), Air Advancement Runs (AAR), Hit Advancement Runs (HAR) and Other Advancement Runs (OAR). Because it applies to all base running opportunities, BRR provides a much more comprehensive view of base running than simply stolen bases and caught stealings.

The Twins racked up 11.1 Base Running Runs in 2016, the team’s best base running performance since ‘03, when the likes of Christian Guzman, Luis Rivas, Jacque Jones, Torii Hunter and Shannon Stewart were zipping around the Metrodome. Minnesota’s 11.1 BRR was good for fifth in the majors in 2016.

2016 BRR by Team

TEAM GAR SBR AAR HAR OAR BRR
TEAM GAR SBR AAR HAR OAR BRR
ARI 8.52 3.36 4.06 4.16 -0.72 19.4
SDN 6.2 2.61 1.42 7.63 0.15 18
WAS 5.17 1.84 5.73 3.37 -0.5 15.6
CLE -3.83 6.89 3.81 5.7 0.53 13.1
MIN 6.43 -0.37 0.3 5.35 -0.6 11.1
COL 6.76 -2.89 1.26 4.7 1.27 11.1
CIN 6.85 -0.72 1.8 -2.32 -0.12 5.5
MIA 4.42 -0.34 -0.53 0.02 1.04 4.6
HOU 3.65 -1.93 -3.07 5.66 -0.36 4
TOR 0.14 0.19 2.49 -0.64 -0.29 1.9

This is particularly impressive, considering the Twins had fewer base running chances than all but eight teams in MLB. (Because they’re bad at getting on base. But back to the optimism!)

The 2016 Twins’ base running prowess was a departure from the last handful of seasons, when the Target Field-version of the team had seemingly abandoned its fleet-footed ways and proceeded to plod around its new digs. They truly were piranhas no more.

Here are Minnesota’s Base Running Runs by season over the past 10 years.

The Twins have posted negative BRR’s for four of the past seven years, but 2016 marked a huge improvement.

Three players are responsible for the lion’s share of that impressive 11.1 figure: Byron Buxton, Eduardo Nunez and Eddie Rosario, who had BRR’s of 4.9, 4.8 and 4.4, respectively. Nunez is no longer with us (not like that...), but Buxton and Rosario are two youngsters who both put up terrific base running numbers and both happened to appear in exactly 92 games. In other words, reason for optimism!

Both Buxton and Rosario were among the league’s top 25 in Base Running Runs despite not playing full seasons. If we adjust the base running leaderboard and make it per 100 opportunities, the top 10 looks like this.

BRR per 100 opportunities

NAME TEAM OPPS BRR BRR/100
NAME TEAM OPPS BRR BRR/100
Billy Burns OAK 76 4.6 6.05
Carlos Gomez HOU 65 3.9 6.00
Billy Hamilton CIN 180 10.5 5.83
Byron Buxton MIN 86 4.9 5.70
Daniel Descalso COL 64 3.4 5.31
Eddie Rosario MIN 89 4.4 4.94
Ryan Rua TEX 67 3.3 4.93
Adeiny Hechavarria MIA 136 6.5 4.78
Trea Turner WAS 131 5.9 4.50
Travis Jankowski SDN 159 7.1 4.47

Buxton and Rosario’s excellent base running stats were most notable for the way the duo tallied them — not by swiping bags á la Bennie “the Jet” Rodriguez but by scrounging up extra bags amid the chaos of a standard play. Buxton stole 10 bases and was caught twice in 103 stolen-base opportunities (when a runner is on first or second with the base ahead of them open); Rosario stole five bases and was also caught twice in 110 opportunities.

All told, Buxton was worth 0.25 Stolen Base Runs and Rosasrio “earned” -0.24 SBR — much like their team as a whole, which was worth -0.37 SBR for the season.

Rosario and Buxton don’t take the traditional route; they do their damage on the fringes.

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals
Get ‘em, Eddie!
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Extra-base thefts

Baseball Reference has a stat called Extra Bases Taken (XBT), and sneaking a peak at those numbers goes a long way toward explaining Buxton and Rosario’s 2016 success. XBT quantifies those common baseball situations when the runner grabs an extra base: first to third on a single, scoring from second on a single and scoring from first on a double.

Now before you start drafting your comment that begins “ENOUGH EFFIN’ TABLES, WHERE ARE MY VIDS AND GIFS” here you go! Allow me to appease the masses for a brief spell.

Here are the kind of extra bases that Extra Bases Taken tracks.

These types of extra bases don’t always feel hugely significant in the moment, and you can even start expecting them — until your team is littered with the Victor Martinezes of the world. For all the rest of his faults (like, I don’t know, drawing 27 WALKS IN 214 CAREER GAMES), let’s give Rosario a hand for his feet here.

Now, back to our previously scheduled table, which shows the percentage of times a player took an extra base when he had the opportunity.

(BTW, the “BT” in the table, Bases Taken, counts bases advanced on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks and defensive indifference. Also, I made the minimum 300 plate appearances so that Buxton and Rosario could be included, which, I know, small sample size. But we’re looking for silver linings here!)

XBT% (300 PA min.)

Name Tm BT XBT% ▾ 1stS3 1stDH 2ndSH
Name Tm BT XBT% ▾ 1stS3 1stDH 2ndSH
Kevin Kiermaier TBR 10 77% 9 6 8
Byron Buxton MIN 9 75% 7 5 6
Ryan Schimpf SDP 12 68% 4 4 7
Nick Ahmed ARI 8 67% 9 1 6
Billy Hamilton CIN 18 66% 14 4 5
Eddie Rosario MIN 8 65% 7 8 7
Jarrod Dyson KCR 9 64% 8 5 12
Xander Bogaerts BOS 16 63% 23 13 11
Wil Myers SDP 15 63% 16 10 16

This table doesn’t give you the entire story — for example it tells you how many times Buxton reached home from first on a double without telling you how many times he was on first when a single was hit — but you get the idea: these guys like taking free bases. A lot.

Take Buton: baseball’s former No. 1 prospect was on first base when a double was hit five times last season. He scored all five times. This is amazing but also kind of expected, considering he may be the fastest man in the majors. Buxton also reached third base on seven of the 11 singles hit when he was on first, which is nuts considering the stat doesn’t take into account anything about the batted ball’s velocity or location.

Buxton scored on six of the eight singles hit when he was on second. That sounds impressive, right? Well, you are (presumably) a sentient human, and thus know that a picture is worth some amount more than words, and thus a moving picture is worth some amount even more than that.

I love this clip because (a) it’s only early June, yet Bremer already sounds like it’s Game 162 and he’s ready to pack this mess up to go ice fishing and drink a few Stroh’s; and (b) it demonstrates how difficult it is to find a clip where Buxton took an extra base on a hit and it was remotely close. He’s just too fast for it to be anything more than perfunctory.

Moxie > Momentum

But the best Rosario and Buxton base running moments are the ones that are more moxie than momentum — like this bit of derring-do from Rosario on September 5 against the Royals.

Sure, Ian Kennedy is supposed to cover home. But it also requires a ton of intelligence and intuitiveness for Rosario to even think to try it, and he did.

Two months earlier, Rosario showed even more heads-up to pull off a quintessential “doesn’t show up in the box score” bit of base running that surely earned him some hearty butt slaps from his teammates.

He also nearly got thrown out for taking third with a seven-run lead in the eighth, but hey: he made it.

Buxton scored on my favorite type of XBT here, where the runner chooses to ignore social niceties because he’s just too damn fast to bother.

But Buxton’s — and perhaps the whole team’s — most outlandish and memorable fleet feat last season featured an utter lack of planning, know-how, heads-up base running or anything of the like.

Sometimes it’s better to just fly.

A (base) path toward optimism

The winter can get bleak. And, even as spring approaches and the snow melts and the grass pokes out a bit, every projection system will still frown on the Twins, and myriad publications will forget to mention Minnesota in their AL previews; spring and summer may be bleak too.

This is not how February should feel, though: pitchers and catchers report soon! Baseball is happening! Every team is going to finish in first!

And yet the negativity pervades. Some of us just tend that way, and many of us are Twins fans, I’d reckon.

But look! I made something for us, for the pessimists.

It’s not much. It’s just a simple little reminder that, even in the midst of total chaos, failure and previously unimaginable loss (103 losses, to be exact), there are moments of unlikely, unalloyed joy.

I’ll try my best to remember that.

You may need to remind me in May.