Carl Crawford may be baseball's fastest man, but he is not its most elegant runner. While B.J. Upton, the Tampa Bay Rays' spindly centerfielder and leadoff hitter, possesses a fluid running style that inspires teammates to channel their inner poet—"he glides like a deer out there, gracefully and effortlessly," teammate Ben Zobrist says—Crawford grimaces as he runs, with his tongue over his upper lip, as if he's had bad sushi. His muscular thighs, dense as phone books, bulge with each stride. "When he makes that turn around second base to go to third," says Rays general manager Andrew Friedman, "he always looks so out of control, like he's about to fall over." Says Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, "There's a violence to the running, as if he's a running back busting through the line." He adds, "But don't be fooled: Dude can fly."
This is an article from the July 27, 2009 issue
Dude can also hit; according to Baseball-Reference.com, the 27-year-old Crawford is most statistically similar to Roberto Clemente at the same age. He plays Gold Glove--caliber defense, too, though in his eight major league seasons he has never won a Gold Glove. ("He closes on balls faster than anyone," says Blue Jays centerfielder Vernon Wells. "That he doesn't have one is an injustice.") Crawford is, however, best known for his baserunning: He swiped 30 straight bases to start the year, tied a modern-day record for most steals in a game (six against Boston on May 3) and is on pace to become the first player to steal 80 bases since Rickey Henderson nabbed 93 for the Yankees in 1988. His legs, strong as they are, take a pounding, like a hurler's arm after 100 pitches. "People don't know, but running can take its toll," Crawford says. "My muscles need some recovery time. Earlier this year people were saying I could go for 100 steals. I was like, 'You really want to see me use a walker when I get to 90?'"
Crawford is the most brazen base runner on the most brazen baserunning team in baseball. At the All-Star break the Rays were on pace to steal more bases (242) than any team since the '92 Milwaukee Brewers swiped 256. But does all that running really make a difference? The answer is more complicated than you think. Even in an age of statistical analysis, baserunning remains a mystery. How much does it contribute to a team's overall success over the course of a season? How much is Carl Crawford's speed, Chase Utley's smarts or the Colorado Rockies' boldness on the bases really worth? Who are the game's truly great base runners? "Quantifying how much fun it is to watch Carl Crawford is not hard," says Rays baseball operations coordinator James Click, "but quantifying Carl Crawford's baserunning is more complicated."
When it came to baserunning, Willie Wilson never had a plan. "To be honest, I didn't know what I was doing out there," says the former Royals outfielder. During his 19-year career, from 1976 to '94, Wilson swiped 668 bags, mostly for Royals teams that had a reputation for brash baserunning. ("Guys like George Brett and Frank White, they weren't the fastest, but we used to 'first-to-third' teams to death," he says.) Wilson, now 54 and living in Kansas City, where he runs his eponymous charitable foundation, has no secrets to reveal about the art of baserunning. "You just have to be willing to sacrifice your body," he says. "For me, going into a base was like driving 20 mph and jumping out of the car."
Wilson played in a golden age for burners: Three of the game's top six career stolen base leaders—Henderson (first), Tim Raines (fifth) and Vince Coleman (sixth)—were his contemporaries, though Wilson, who ranks 12th all time, is quick to point out that he could have been higher on the list. "I never stole third," he says. "My teammates didn't like me jumping [around] at second while they were at the plate. They always said, 'We'll just get you home.'
"Rickey," he adds, "had the most steals, but he wanted to break records. I wanted to win ball games. I like to think I was a better overall base runner."
Dan Fox has made it his mission to settle such debates. A former software developer from Kansas City, Kans., who is now the director of baseball systems development with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Fox, like a lot of stat heads, became intrigued by the availability in the last 10 years of detailed play-by-play game accounts from such websites as retrosheet.org. With mounds of new data now available, statistical analysts have been able to measure hitting and defense with far greater precision than before, but Fox believed that baserunning was not getting its due. Stolen bases had been tallied since the earliest box scores, but extra bases taken in other situations had gone mostly untracked, even though they can be just as valuable as stolen bases. Like other fans, Fox had heard descriptions of certain players as good, smart base runners. He wondered, however, how much of it was true.
Four years ago, in a series of essays for the Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times websites, Fox introduced a metric called Equivalent Baserunning Runs (EqBRR), which today is, by far, the most advanced baserunning statistic available. EqBRR combines the contributions of all forms of baserunning: stolen bases; advancement on ground outs, fly balls and hits; as well as advancement on passed balls, wild pitches and balks. Fox examined play-by-play data going back to 1956, the earliest year such information was available, and as expected, those who made the greatest impact on the bases were speedsters such as Henderson and Raines, who, according to their EqBRRs, contributed an average of more than 10 runs a season at the peak of their careers with their baserunning alone. Hall of Famer Robin Yount was one of the best at taking the extra base on hits, adding nearly eight runs in his best seasons with his baserunning even though he never stole more than 22 bases in a season. The best base runner of all time, however, was Wilson, who in his best season (1980) added more than 19 runs with his legs, according to Fox's formula. "I've never been a stats guy," Wilson says, "but I like this stat."
Fox's main purpose, though, was to understand how "running fits into the big picture," he says. What contribution, if any, does baserunning make to a team's win-loss total over the course of a season?
What he found confirmed a few things he already suspected. For instance, a good team can be a bad baserunning team. (Last year's Cubs had the best record in the National League but were 26th in EqBRR.) Also, a bad team can't turn into a good one by virtue of good baserunning. "If you have the talent to win 72 games," says Fox, "you can't run enough to win 90."
But baserunning can make a difference. Over a typical season, Fox concluded, the difference between a good baserunning team and a bad one was on the order of three wins. "That can be very significant," he says. "If you are in all other ways a team with a true talent level to win 87 games, that is probably the difference between going to the playoffs and not going to the playoffs."
For the Pirates, who are trying to get to the 87-win level, any improvement helps. Every week Fox e-mails a baserunning report to Pirates third base coach Tony Beasley. "At first I was skeptical," says Beasley. "Now I think [Fox is] a genius. The numbers reveal things you don't really see with your eyes. You see that last year [first baseman] Adam LaRoche didn't go from first to third a lot and didn't take a lot of chances in general. Now he's being more aggressive and is one of our best base runners. These numbers give the players something of substance to work for. Players want to hear the truth as long as you can back it up. And now we have numbers to back up everything."
The Phillies, who finished first in the NL East in both 2007 and '08, by a combined total of four games, were the best baserunning team in baseball during those two seasons, according to Fox's data. Two big reasons: the stolen base efficiency of shortstop Jimmy Rollins (he swiped 88 bases with a 91% success rate in '07--08) and the extra bases taken by second baseman Chase Utley (in '07 and '08 he went from first to third on a single 22 times in 43 opportunities, nearly 10% more successfully than the average major leaguer). Philadelphia's baserunning excellence may have been overlooked by many, but not by Maddon, whose Rays lost to the Phillies in five games in last year's World Series. "That was a very big reason why they weren't just a very good team—they were a great team," he says.
Last year the Rays were a bad baserunning team, ranking 25th in the majors in EqBRR. Says Maddon, "Our efficiency on stolen bases was not high"—the Rays had a 74% success rate—and "we were also too passive taking the extra base." At the team's first spring training meeting this year, Maddon spoke to the players about how this year's team could improve upon a season in which they won 97 games. Atop his list was baserunning. A disciple of Angels manager Mike Scioscia, whose 2006 team rates as one of the top 10 baserunning outfits of all time according to Fox, Maddon vowed that the Rays would play with more abandon. "We err on the side of being aggressive," says Maddon, even though that makes the front office squirm a bit. Click, who was a Baseball Prospectus analyst before becoming Tampa Bay's baseball operations coordinator, cowrote a 2006 book called Baseball Between the Numbers in which he argued that Henderson's historic 130-stolen-base season in 1985 was effectively just two runs better than lead-footed slugger Pete Incaviglia's that year because Henderson was caught stealing so often (42 times). "Taking the extra base is good," Click concluded, "but getting on base, not getting thrown out and eventually scoring is better."
Says Friedman, "Any concerns that I had [about Maddon's philosophy] are gone. The execution has been nearly flawless." The Rays' 81.3% success rate in steals at week's end was second only to the Rangers'. Tampa Bay has been just as impressive in other baserunning situations; for much of the season the Rays have been the American League's top baserunning team, according to Fox.
No one has made a bigger difference on the bases this season than Crawford. In his prime Henderson went from a standing lead at first base to second in 3.2 or 3.3 seconds. According to bench coach Dave Martinez, Crawford reaches full speed after two strides and covers the same ground in 3.1 seconds. On May 3, at Tropicana Field, when Crawford tied the modern-day record for steals in a game by swiping six in a 5--3 win over the Red Sox, Boston manager Terry Francona noted that his starting pitcher, Brad Penny, had thrown twice to the plate in 1.28 seconds on pitches that Crawford reached second on, and catcher Jason Varitek had gotten both balls to the base in 1.9 seconds. "Can't go faster than that," the manager said.
If Crawford resembles a football player running the bases, it is because, at heart, he is. Growing up in Houston's Fifth Ward, Crawford always thought football would be his meal ticket. ("And everyone around me thought so too," he says.) When Carl was 13, his father, Steve Burns, wanted him to focus on football, but Carl's Little League coach, Ray Bourn, the father of Astros outfielder Michael Bourn, visited the Crawford home to persuade Burns not to pull Carl from the team. "I think there's something special here," the coach said. "You might regret it someday if you do."
As a senior at Jefferson Davis High, Carl signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at Nebraska, but when the Rays took him in the second round of the 1999 baseball draft and offered him a $1.55 million signing bonus, he changed his mind. ("I still remember watching video and seeing the sick athleticism," says Turner Gill, who was then the Cornhuskers' quarterbacks coach and recruited Crawford. "Carl was a natural-born playmaker on the level of [Nebraska quarterbacks] Eric Crouch and Tommie Frazier—but he was a better passer."
Says Crawford, "If the money weren't there, it would have been football."
It wasn't until his first year in the minors that Crawford even realized the value of baseball larceny. "The first game I ever started I hit in the five hole, and on a ground out I ran pretty fast to first," he says. "When I got back to the dugout the coach said, 'Man, you're pretty fast. You should steal some bases here.' The next day I was hitting leadoff and stole my first base."
He has been running ever since. In 2003, only 22 and in his first full season, he stole 55 bases and became the fourth-youngest player to lead a league in steals, behind Ty Cobb, Henderson and Raines. He has since topped 50 stolen bases three times. Last season he became the seventh player in history to reach 1,000 hits and 300 stolen bases before his 27th birthday, but 2008 was also his least productive season because of a nagging hamstring injury, an injury that actually turned him into a better base runner. At the end of last year Crawford was forced to add an extra step to his leads. He took better angles around the bases. "I watch him on TV, and it's subtle, but he's a different runner now," says his childhood friend Bourn, who led the National League in steals with 34 at week's end. "It's like he's smarter, but technically he's better too. He's not just relying on his speed."
The result is that Crawford is now a true difference-maker on the bases—at week's end he had contributed more than five runs with his legs alone, according to Fox, the second-highest total in the majors, behind Bourn. He is stealing bases at a career-high 86.8% rate (on 46 of 53 attempts) but also picking the most opportune times to take off. "Carl's not running just to run; he's picking the highest leverage situations to go, and that's what makes him so great," says Friedman. "Sometimes when you see guys with gaudy stolen base numbers, they're doing it when they're up or down big. He doesn't run just to run."
Maddon believes that Crawford's running game helps the team in ways that are still unquantifiable by the most advanced metrics. "The metrics are a very valuable tool. I look at them often, but they don't tell the whole story," says Maddon, who believes that good baserunning actually adds five to 10 wins to a team's record. "The part that is so hard to put a number on is what it means to a pitcher's head or where the pitch is thrown, what it means to the catcher before he puts his finger down. [Third baseman] Evan Longoria hitting behind Carl is seeing more fastballs because Carl's causing so much chaos. If the opposition is consistently trying to stop Carl's running game, a hitter behind him is going to see a better pitch, and that's something that's hard to define or quantify.
"Though I have no doubt," he adds, "that someday, probably soon, someone will."
Remove stolen bases from Fox's baserunning metric, and what remains is a measure of how teams run the bases in ways that aren't apparent in the box score. No team has been better this season at taking the extra base than the Rockies. They are, in one way, the anti-Rays. "Speed is not our greatest asset," says Colorado G.M. Dan O'Dowd. While they are not good at stealing bases—they ranked 22nd in the league with a 69% success rate over the season's first half—the Rockies are still an exceptional baserunning team. "When you have an awful season, like we did last year," says O'Dowd, whose team finished 74--88 after a World Series appearance in 2007, "you look at where you can make drastic improvements, and baserunning is where we thought we could make a difference."
The Rockies' lineup is full of examples of how you don't have to be a speedster like Crawford to take an extra base. On any pitch in the dirt they're ready to advance a base. "The coaches have hammered it home," says shortstop Clint Barmes, who despite his average speed was a top 15 player in EqBRR rankings at week's end. "When the ballpark's quiet, I bet half the stadium can hear [manager] Jim Tracy yelling from the dugout, 'Be ready for the dirt ball.' Then you get to first base and [first base coach] Glenallen Hill says into your ear, 'Get ready for the dirt ball.' Then he says it again. By then, you're like, O.K., where's that dirt ball?"
Coors Field, the Rockies' home park, was once a home run haven, a symbol of the game's power era, but now Colorado is scratching out runs with base hits and aggressiveness on the base paths. At week's end Colorado, according to Fox, had scored more runs strictly because of their baserunning (9.6) than any team in the National League. O'Dowd, whose team was only a half game out of the wild-card lead despite a 20--32 start, credits his team's turnaround to the bold baserunning. "When we started winning games, it seemed like every game it made a difference," he says. "[On June 22] against the Angels, [outfielder] Brad Hawpe singles in the second inning. There's a ball in the dirt, and he moves to second. There's another ball in the dirt, and he moves to third. The next hitter brings him home, and we're on the scoreboard." The Rockies went on to win for the 17th time in 18 games.
Carl Crawford is, of course, the kind of player O'Dowd and every scout and every coach is talking about when they say how a downsized game is becoming less about the hulking slugger and, once again, more a game for the pure athlete. Crawford may have once felt out of place in the game—"It's tough when you come from a sport where you play out of raw emotion, and you come here and have to be all mild-mannered and follow rules," he says. But he now feels at home on the baseball field, partly because he, too, feels that the game has changed. "I'm no stats guy," he says, "but I see what's going on. Teams aren't sitting back and waiting for the three-run home run. They're letting guys like me run wild and try to get runs another way. And maybe that's the wave of the future."
The baserunning guru agrees. "As the run environment shrinks, aspects of the game like defense and baserunning become more important," says Fox. Further technology will, of course, make measuring baserunning, and other heretofore unseen aspects of the game, more precise and comprehensive. Cameras used for digital tracking systems will not only measure the exact speed and location of the ball on the field but also the movement of players as well; who, for instance, takes the most efficient routes from first to third, or second to home? "That will change the conversation quite a bit," says Fox, who has been meeting with professors at Carnegie Mellon University about building such tracking systems for the Pirates. (A system is being tested in San Francisco.) "The metrics we have now are going to look like vast approximations of what we will have."
In the meantime today's brazen base runners have no intention of letting up. Not the Rockies, not the Rays, not Carl Crawford. They blaze ahead on the road to October, one, two, three bases at a time.
Now on SI.com
Joe Posnanski's megalist of the 100 best players in baseball at SI.com/bonus
The 21st-Century Thief
Advanced baserunning metrics tell the complete story: Not only is Crawford the game's most dangerous base stealer, but he's also one of its most efficient runners.
The Lethal Plodder
The Rockies' middle infielder has average speed but ranks among the NL's top 15 base runners thanks to his ability to take the extra base, a skill vital to his team's turnaround.
The First-to-Third Wizard
A highly efficient base stealer (69 of 80 in his career), the Phillies' star goes corner to corner on a single at a rate nearly 10% higher than the average player.
The Complete Package
Even if you remove steals from the equation, the Angels' top thief has increased his runs scored through his baserunning by 37% more than the average player.