Cubs Thrive On Basepaths Without Base-Stealing Specialists

Let’s get straight to the point: here’s a look at some stolen base numbers from last season. Feast your eyes!

Team Stolen Base Ranking (Win Ranking) Team Stolen Base Leader(s) MLB Ranking
1 (29) Cincinnati Reds Billy Hamilton 2
2 (18) Arizona Diamondbacks A.J. Pollock 4
3 (10) Houston Astros Jose Altuve 5
4 (24) Miami Marlins Dee Gordon 1
5 (4) Kansas City Royals Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson 8, 10
6 (8) Texas Rangers Elvis Andrus 12 (tied)
7 (2) Pittsburgh Pirates Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco 7, 9
8 (26) Colorado Rockies Charlie Blackmon 3
9 (3) Chicago Cubs Dexter Fowler 28 (tied)
10 (12) San Francisco Giants Nori Aoki 51 (tied)

As you can see, the Cubs were one of only three teams to crack the top 10 in team base-stealing without having a top 10 base-stealer. That’s somewhat unusual. Since the Rangers had Elvis Andrus—the 12th overall base-stealer—it was really only the Giants and the Cubs who cracked the top 10 without a true standout base-stealer. In Chicago’s case, this was by design. Let’s talk about that a little bit.

Since the beginning of his time in Chicago, Joe Maddon has urged players to “respect 90” and run hard on the basepaths. He has also encouraged baserunners to take chances with stealing bases (within reason). This has led to, among other things, Anthony Rizzo blowing past his previous season high of six stolen bases in 2013 to 17 stolen bases in 2015. In Dexter Fowler’s words, “everyone has the green light, until [Maddon] takes it off.” In short, the Cubs were great at stealing bases last season, despite not having a single base-stealing “specialist.”

And they’ll probably get even better next year.

Why? One reason is Jason Heyward. Even if Dexter Fowler ends up returning to the Cubs, Heyward will still be the Cubs player who had the most stolen bases last season. His 23 stolen bases in 2015 were a career high, but he also has had two other seasons with 20 swipes, and has averaged 17 stolen bases per 162 games thus far in his career. If he keeps up this pace, he should at least replace Fowler’s stolen base output from last season.

Another upgrade to account for is Ben Zobrist, who’ll be taking over Starlin Castro’s old(ish) stomping grounds at second base. At first glance, the two seem to be equally capable base stealers, with Zobrist racking up 14 steals per 162 games over 10 years and Castro doing the same over six years. Of course, Zobrist only had three steals last year while Castro had five, but he also had double digit steals every season from 2009 to 2014 while Castro peaked with 25 in 2012 before dropping to nine the next season. Assuming Anthony Rizzo’s aforementioned leap in stolen bases is indicative of Joe Maddon’s impact on stolen base totals, we can perhaps expect Zobrist to surpass Castro’s contribution to the Cubs’ base stealing totals.

But stolen bases aren’t all there is to baserunning, and that’s what’s important to take away here. Jason Heyward was fourth in the league last year with 6.1 BRR (a metric that measures the overall contributions made on the basepaths, in terms of runs), while Dexter Fowler was 683rd with -1.0 BRR. That’s a big upgrade, and it doesn’t all show up in stolen base totals. (For example, Kyle Schwarber actually led the Cubs in BRR last year, coming in 38th with 3.4 BRR.) As for Zobrist, his 1.2 BRR last year (good for 131st in the league) far outpaces Castro’s 769th place-earning -2.2 BRR. If the Cubs’ new center fielder and second baseman seem similar to their predecessors when it comes to stolen bases, they blow them out of the water in BRR.

This fits with “respect 90″, which puts an increased emphasis on BRR (smart, opportunistic base-running) over forcing as many stolen bases as possible. In landing Heyward and Zobrist, the Cubs elected to improve the team’s BRR rather than look for a single base-stealing specialist. Maddon seems to prefer having all of his potential base runners comfortable enough to steal bases in the right situations without forcing it. This makes sense, because it seems more convenient to have base stealing potential built in throughout the lineup, without needing to rely on pinch runners in crucial situations. It also makes sense because stolen bases might help good teams grab an edge, but they are not necessary for success, and they do not guarantee it.

Five of the top 10 teams in baseball last year (by wins) were also in the top 10 for stolen bases, with the Blue Jays nearly making it six by coming in at 11th. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, we’ve seen similar results, as an average of four top 10 teams (by wins) have also finished in the top 10 for stolen bases. Four of the last six World Series winners have been in the top 10 for stolen bases, but only two of these teams had top 10 individual base-stealers. Indeed, the top three base-stealers in baseball last year could not help their teams avoid bottom 10 finishes. Which is to say, base-stealing on its own isn’t a particularly reliable indicator of success.

Since the rest of the lineup—besides Heyward and Zobrist—will probably stay about the same, we can expect the 2016 Cubs to match or surpass their base-stealing from last season, and improve on their baserunning overall. The Cubs’ approach to baserunning, it seems, is to focus on smart baserunning, in general, over stolen base totals, and to expect the whole team to be competent on the basepaths rather than banking on one or two specialists. That’s in keeping with the team’s move towards flexibility as a whole, and it’s just another thing the Cubs expect to do well in 2016.

Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports.

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