Base running is important. This isn't news, but teams don't seem to value it all that highly, at least compared to hitting and defense, which makes sense. But for some players, base running is all they have. They don't hit and some even add poor defense to the equation. For these guys, base running is their most useful offensive output. Which players are these? I'm glad you asked.
Before we dive into the base running-only guys, though, I should explain the methodology for finding these oddly-productive players. I relied heavily on Fangraphs' base running statistic, BsR, to find the value of running the bases. BsR is a combination of two other advanced base running stats, ultimate base running (UBR) and weighted stolen bases (wSB). UBR estimates the value in runs a player generates by advancing on the bases and/or avoiding running into outs compared against the average on a play-by-play basis. wSB estimates a player's contribution, again in runs, by stealing bases and being caught stealing. Combine these two elements and you have BsR.
To track offensive output, I chose to use weighted on-base average (wOBA). As constructed, wOBA doesn't use base running as an input; therefore, BsR and wOBA can be compared without duplicating information. While I generally prefer wRC+ to wOBA, in this case I stuck with the latter because it isn't park adjusted and neither is BsR. This, at least in my mind, created a more true comparison.
To do that comparison, I selected all batters with at least 1000 plate appearances over the last three seasons (223 total players) and then found the difference between each player's BsR and wOBA. For ease of comparison, I multiplied wOBA by 100 to put it on a similar scale to BsR and some notable names appeared.
|Eric Young, Jr.
Hey, look at that! The names here may not take you by surprise, but there are some incredible BsR totals and some abysmal wOBAs. There are guys who excel at swiping bags, some excel at running the bases, and others are good at both. No player on the list has a wOBA above .310 but all have stellar contributions on the base paths. There's some kind of value there, and teams are apparently willing to invest in these guys, at least in some capacity.
An easy conclusion to jump to is that all of these players also supply defensive value, something that the game has placed an increasing emphasis on over recent years. If that crossed your mind, well, that's more than reasonable. Alcides Escobar and Elvis Andrus are wizards at shortstop and Leonys Martin can really run it down in center field. But after that, things start to diminish. Drew Stubbs, Everth Cabrera, Emilio Bonifacio, Eric Young Jr., and Ben Revere offer just average-ish defense at their respective positions, although Bonifacio's defensive flexibility is surely worth something. In the cases of Rajai Davis and Dee Gordon, well, their defensive numbers are below average since 2012, suggesting that the only real value they do provide is on the bases.
Is there stability for a player in having his base running provide a large portion of his value? For guys with the chops defensively to help offset the low production at the plate, I think it's safe to say that teams are willing to keep that player type around, especially in a National League bench-bat and pinch-runner capacity. As you may have noticed, of the seven players on this list who play average or worse defense, six of them are from the National League, something that may not be a coincidence.
Of course, I did have to pare this list down to arrive at the types of players you see above. There were some outliers whom I culled simply because they didn't fit the low wOBA profile I was looking for (.310 or less). A list of notable omissions is below.
With my earlier wOBA cutoff set to .310, a couple guys on the list above narrowly missed the preceding list. Jimmy Rollins and Desmond Jennings were in danger of being included the first time around, but outside of them, we see some more respectable wOBAs. Of course, we also see some really great base running totals, which is largely what gets these players recognized in this capacity. A bunch of these guys also exhibit outstanding defense, led by Mr. Trout, and are just solid all-around players.
But back to the original group, I think we can see that there is a place in baseball for players with base running as their best attribute. It's not likely to lead to a long, fruitful career full of massive contracts, but these guys do have a role with some clubs and can help a team win, so long as they're properly utilized. If they couldn't, they'd be unemployed. Finding outliers in any capacity can be fun, and for this group, they're surely in a category of their own.
Jeff Wiser is an editor emeritus at Beyond the Box Score and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, an analytical look at the Arizona Diamondbacks. He and Ryan Morrison are the hosts of The Pool Shot Podcast and you can find his work on craft beer at BeerGraphs. Follow him on Twitter @OutfieldGrass24.