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The Mistake Index — baserunning mistakes explained

In my Mistake Index, I introduced a number of factors without giving them full explanations. This is the first of three posts that gives enhanced definitions to the general groups of mistakes, as well as add individual players to the mix.

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Starlin Castro was out by a smidge on this play
Starlin Castro was out by a smidge on this play
David Banks/Getty Images

In my last post, I described my Mistake Index, in which I attempt to quantify and visualize the number of mistakes that teams make, as well as their opponents. Every time I write that post, I feel like I'm cramming far too much information without giving adequate explanation, but temper that against keeping the post to a manageable length and not writing 3,000 words or so. I break types of mistakes into three broad categories — pitching, fielding, and baserunning — and in this post I'll give a fuller definition of what baserunning mistakes are.

My definition of baserunning mistakes is quite simple and quite draconian: It's any time a runner is thrown out trying to advance, no matter how close the play is. It can be something like this play where David Ortiz lines out to Chase Headley and Dustin Pedroia is doubled up off first by a country mile, or it can be a bang-bang play like this one where Starlin Castro attempted to reach third on a single by Chris Coghlan but was gunned down by Ryan Braun. It doesn't seem fair, and maybe it isn't, but that's how I measure it. I don't include forceouts, since it's not the fault of the runner that the batter grounded the ball directly to an infielder. In addition, I don't even take base stealing or pickoffs into account — my baserunning mistakes are all instances where the baserunner was thrown out trying to advance on the basepaths.

So far in this young 2015 season, these are the "leaders" in getting thrown out on the basepaths (data through Friday, May 1st):

Name PA Tm OOB
Kole Calhoun 84 Angels 4
Nori Aoki 106 Giants 4
Dexter Fowler 90 Cubs 4
Cody Asche 83 Phillies 3
Erick Aybar 94 Angels 3
Adam Eaton 83 White Sox 3
Dustin Pedroia 104 Red Sox 3
Starlin Castro 90 Cubs 3
Corey Dickerson 86 Rockies 3
Jedd Gyorko 57 Padres 3
Wil Myers 106 Padres 3
Salvador Perez 93 Royals 3
Gregory Polanco 87 Pirates 3
Anthony Rizzo 94 Cubs 3

Astute readers will notice a couple of things, as well as one interesting omission. Jeff Gyorko gets his money's worth when it comes to getting thrown out on the basepaths, since he's on the list with around half of the plate appearances of the others. In addition, the Cubs are certainly more aggressive than they've been in the past. As a frequent watcher of the Cubs, I wouldn't call them rash as much as aggressive, but I will admit it can be a very fine line between the two.

Consider the Castro play referenced above (and pictured in the photo). For Castro to be thrown out, four things had to occur: Ryan Braun had to field the ball cleanly, make an accurate throw, have that throw fielded cleanly by Luis Jimenez at third, and have the tag applied. All of this occurred, and if Castro had been even .1 second quicker, he would have been safe. It's difficult to call this a mistake as much as one of those plays that didn't go the Cubs way, but that's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. TOOTBLAN: no. Baserunning mistake using my criteria: yes.

Where this can be illuminating is looking at the differences between teams and opponents. This table shows the top 5 differences at both ends of the scale:

Team eBR oeBR Diff
Rangers 5 14 9
Nationals 5 12 7
Blue Jays 5 11 6
Marlins 4 8 4
Yankees 5 9 4
Dodgers 9 6 -3
Red Sox 8 3 -5
Rays 10 4 -6
Phillies 13 6 -7
Angels 12 4 -8

eBR are the baserunning mistakes teams make, and oeBR are those their opponents make, and a team wants to be in the positive column and make fewer mistakes than their opponents. Some of these difference are due to rashness, some to a willingness to take risks (these are not the same) and often has little to do with raw speed as much as smart baserunning and good coaching.

The Dodgers are near the bottom, and will likely increase that total as the current king of the TOOTBLAN, Yasiel Puig, continues to pad his total. In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James coined one of my favorite terms, the Juan Samuel triple crown (p522), in which players lead the league in errors, strikeouts and caught stealing. Leaving aside the fact that Juan Samuel never won the Juan Samuel triple crown, I think it's hilarious shorthand to describe something fairly complex and boil it down to something people can more readily understand. Years from now, historians will see the TOOTBLAN and scratch their heads, and when someone says "You know, the Puig," they'll go "Oh, that — why didn't you just say so?" Puig led the league in getting thrown out on the basepaths in 2014 and tied for third in 2013 in two-thirds of a season. It's not necessarily all negative — at least he was getting on base — but he's shown a willingness to take extra bases that possibly warrants some caution.

The other two factors of baserunning are relatively straightforward: bad sacrifice bunts and pickoffs. Pickoffs are often just a lapse in attention, and also tend to occur as base stealers get aggressive with their leads. A bad bunt is an occasion where a player bunts with players on base and makes an out without advancing the runners. Sometimes this is a hitter trying to bunt for a hit, and that gets swept up into the mix. I possibly make too much of bad bunts, since I probably shouldn't include any by pitchers. Pitching seems to have evolved to the point that anything to do with hitting is ignored. I did a quick check — of the 76 bad bunts so far this year, 44 were by pitchers, of which 39 were in the National League.

Of all the types of mistakes, baserunning mistakes are the easiest to correct with concentration and coaching. As stated earlier, it's a fine line between aggressiveness and reckless. Referring back to the Starlin Castro play, the game was in the bottom of the sixth with one out and the Cubs leading 1-0. #6 hitter Chris Coghlan hit the single, and he was going to be followed by David Ross and Jon Lester, the active leader with the most career plate appearances without a hit. As Cubs broadcaster Jim Deshaies stated, in a tight game, Castro probably served as the best chance to score a run since the bottom of the order coming up.

Any effort to quantify mistakes is imbued with the clarity that only 20/20 hindsight can give, but making attempts to reduce the mistakes can translate into more wins. In this era, even one additional win might be the difference between making the playoffs and watching them, and less recklessness and more aggressiveness can be extremely beneficial. In my next post, I'll discuss the pitching mistakes in greater detail — stay tuned.

All data from Baseball-Reference

Scott Lindholm is a contributor to the Baseball Prospectus Cubs site BP Wrigleyville. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.