Prior to the 2012 regular season, Mike Trout and Jesus Montero would’ve been considered leading contenders for the American League Rookie of the Year Award. Both Trout and Montero were top prospects, and Trout was staring at some regular outfield playing time while Montero was looking to catch and hit designatedly in Seattle. Trout eventually won the award, turning in an all-time great season. Montero did not win the award, and his season, while not disastrous, was closer to being a disaster than to being magnificent. Trout didn’t beat out Montero because of his baserunning — he beat out Montero because of everything — but, my goodness, the baserunning. The differences in baserunning.
Baserunning is sort of WAR’s forgotten component. For position players, obviously, everybody’s aware of offense, and everybody’s aware of defensive position. The big controversy surrounds the defensive measurement, and UZR is why some people don’t pick up what WAR is putting down. WAR also includes baserunning, and most people don’t talk about it. It’s just there, making a small difference, or no difference. How important could baserunning be?
Absolutely, baserunning is limited in spread. Last year, there were 143 qualified position players. Baserunning values are shown on the FanGraphs leaderboards and player pages. Evened out to BsR per 600 plate appearances, 117 of those players finished between -5 and +5 runs contributed. With such little spread, it makes sense why baserunning gets so little attention. But there are extremes, and they’re worth looking at. By BsR/600, last year’s most valuable baserunner was Mike Trout. By BsR/600, last year’s least valuable baserunner was Jesus Montero. By BsR/600, the difference between Trout and Montero would’ve been about two wins.
Trout shows up at +11.3 runs per 600 plate appearances, three runs higher than anyone else. Montero shows up at -7.3, for a separation of 18.6 runs. Let’s put this in terms of hitting per 600 plate appearances. By hitting value, in 2012, Cody Ross shows up at +10.8 runs. Ben Revere shows up at -7.1. Most of the time, baserunning doesn’t make a big difference. Some of the time, baserunning can make an enormous difference.
Which can sometimes be hard to wrap your head around. I think one of the reasons a lot of people are underrating Michael Bourn right now is because a lot of his value comes from his baserunning. A lot of sluggers lose value on the bases, but that lost value isn’t as obvious as the value gained from going deep. Baserunning is generally a quiet part of the game, but to help show how it can matter, I thought it would be fun to put Trout and Montero’s baserunning side by side. We see their calculated baserunning values. Where did those values come from? What does this all mean in terms of bases gained?
We’ll begin with representative .gifs:
Those Trout .gifs came just pitches apart in the same half-inning. The Montero .gif doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand how Jesus Montero gets picked off. Jesus Montero got picked off! Let’s get into more detail.
The most obvious component of baserunning value is stolen-base attempts. Some people think of them as being one and the same. Those people forget about the rest of the things one can do on the bases. Last season, Montero stole zero bases, and was caught stealing twice. He’s not a burner. Trout stole 49 bases, and was caught stealing five times. He was 43/47 stealing second, and 6/7 stealing third. Somehow he never stole home, which Bryce Harper did, so it should go without saying that Bryce Harper > Mike Trout.
But now we can advance beyond base-stealing. Not counting pick-offs and caught-steals, Montero made six outs on the bases, while Trout made twice as many. That’s bad, for Trout! But there’s so much more. Let’s put this in list form.
Advances from 1st to 3rd on singles:
Montero: 3 times, out of 22 opportunities
Trout: 28 times, out of 45 opportunities
Advances from 1st to home on doubles:
Montero: once, out of four opportunities
Trout: seven times, out of 11 opportunities
Advances from 2nd to home on singles:
Montero: four times, out of 11 opportunities
Trout: 20 times, out of 29 opportunities
Montero was thrown out at home twice trying to score from second on singles. Trout was never thrown out advancing on a hit. If you prefer a very rough measure, Jesus Montero scored 21% of the time that he reached base. Trout scored 44% of the time that he reached base. That has a lot to do with the hitters coming up in the order, but that also has a lot to do with legs. Trout was easier to drive in, because Trout has the ability to move himself.
Look at those Trout .gifs above. On July 5, in the bottom of the sixth, Trout reached on a walk. A few pitches later, he stole second, and a few pitches after that, he stole third. On a throwing error, he came home. Trout wasn’t 100% responsible for that run, but he basically created it himself. Several times over the course of the year did Trout help the Angels to manufacture a run by moving up or taking the extra base. Jesus Montero’s running was such that the Mariners have asked him to work out with a running coach this offseason. Jesus Montero is a 23-year-old, high-level, professional athlete, and he doesn’t know how to run right. It cost his team in 2012, and it’ll probably continue to cost his teams over the rest of his career.
There usually isn’t anything surprising about the list of best and worst baserunners. You know who’s fast, you know who’s slow, and typically that’s the driving factor. The fast guys often have to be fast, because they don’t hit the crap out of the ball. The slow guys often don’t have to be fast, because they hit the crap out of the ball. Baserunning is only a small part of total value. But it is a part, and sometimes it can make an enormous difference. Plenty of things separated Mike Trout’s performance from Jesus Montero’s performance in 2012, but the baserunning separation was not insignificant. Given a more detailed idea of how those extra bases are taken or not taken, maybe you’ll think more about baserunning next time you find yourself messing with WAR. There are a lot of opportunities to gain on the basepaths, and those little opportunities add up, as they do.