- Want to keep an eye out on one key factor in tonight's Wild Card Game? It's the Cubs' baserunning.
Everything is magnified in the postseason, baseball’s ordinary little things—the hustle on a groundball to first, a perfect route in the outfield—are blown up to carry extra weight. Here, then, is one little thing worth paying attention to: The Cubs’ baserunning.
The easiest number to pull out here is the scariest one. With 70 outs on the basepaths this season, Chicago was the worst team in baseball here, well above the major league average of 53. That’s certainly not good, but it’s also just one small piece of information about the team’s running game. Baseball-Reference tracks outs on the bases as a category totally separate from caught stealing, meaning that it includes guys trying to take the extra base or advance on a fly ball (or a wild pitch, or passed ball, or so on), but it doesn’t measure steal attempts. A high outs-on-the-bases count can potentially just be a sign of aggression, a team that takes more chances, leading to more extra bases and more outs—and, again, there’s more to baserunning than just this. So what do the numbers say about the Cubs?
The Cubs actually led baseball in stolen base opportunities, which are categorized as any situation with a runner on first or second and the next base open. The vast majority of stolen base opportunities don’t mean anything, of course; it still registers as an “opportunity” even if that’s true in name only, when a team is winning by eight runs in the ninth inning or when the person on base is the plodding backup catcher or whatever. But it’s still worth taking note. The Cubs had more of these opportunities than anyone, and they didn’t do very much with them. With 66 stolen bases, they ranked 24th of 30 teams, a good clip behind the major league average of 82 SBs. It wasn’t for lack of trying. They were close to the bottom of the league in success on stolen base attempts, at 63%. The conventional wisdom holds that a team should feel comfortable going for a steal if its success rate is around 75%, and the major league average is close to that, at 72%. The Cubs, obviously, weren’t in that neighborhood.
Almost one-third of Chicago’s stolen bases came from one player—Javier Báez, with 21 on a success rate of 70%. No other player had more than eight. (The Cubs have five players that have caught stealing more times than they’ve successfully stolen a base.) Báez, not surprisingly, is also the team’s fastest regular player by sprint speed, in baseball’s 89th percentile. None of his everyday teammates can claim a spot above the 75th. The 25-year-old infielder adds value with just about everything that he does, and this is just one more example of that. The Cubs’ baserunning may not be great, as is, but it would look significantly worse without Báez.
Beyond Báez, there are some other bright spots. While the team’s basestealing has been lackluster, they’ve been a bit brighter in other areas of the running game. On 43% of their chances, the team took the extra base to stretch a single into a double or a double into a triple, which is a touch above the major league average. (That’s driven up in large part by Báez, who really shines here: 63%, one of the best figures in baseball.) FanGraphs’ baserunning runs, which comes up with one number to measure baserunning in the aggregate, has the team smack-dab in the middle of the pack. The Cubs’ 2.2 baserunning runs rank 15th out of 30. In other words, there’s a little more to the picture than the number of outs made on the basepaths.
For Cubs fans who are still nervous? Look no further than who was left on (and off) the postseason roster. Perhaps motivated by their lackluster running game, the team picked up speedster Terrance Gore from Kansas City in August; although he quickly showed off his baserunning bona fides, he’d be an easy choice to leave off the roster in October. After all, the fact that he has more stolen bases (six) than plate appearances (five) since joining the team is a great fun fact, but there’s a reason that they’ve been so hesitant to let him hit. To put it simply: Gore can’t hit. But he can run, arguably better than anyone else in baseball, and that was enough to get him on the roster. His presence doesn’t fix a larger problem, but it sure can help, and—maybe just as important to note—it can be an awful lot of fun to watch.