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Villar v. Hamilton: first-season baserunning

Jonathan Villar stole more bases and was caught fewer times than Billy Hamilton in his first full season. Does that make him the better baserunner?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers and Reds struggled with different parts of the game in 2016, however, both teams have one attribute which makes their games super appealing to Cardinals fans (myself included): they steal bases. While St. Louis was dead-last in the NL for total stolen bases, the Brew Crew (181) and the Reds (139) were first and second in baseball.

A lot of that success lies with Jonathan Villar and Billy Hamilton. Put either of those players on the basepaths and you are asking for trouble. These guys are super speedy. Yadier Molina, who had seven Gold Gloves at the time, could not throw out Billy Hamilton in 2014. When the time came and Yadi finally threw him out trying to steal second (in 2015!), Yadi’s reaction was priceless:

In summary: it is easier to get tickets to Hamilton than it is to throw Billy Hamilton out at second base. But in 2016, Jonathan Villar was an even tougher runner, so let’s compare their first season in the majors.

In 2016, Jonathan Villar stole more bases and was caught fewer times than Billy Hamilton in his first full season. Naturally, I assumed Villar’s baserunning was better. I was wrong.

Player G SB SB% BsR BRR
Hamilton (2014) 152 56 71% 7.6 5.4
Villar (2016) 156 62 78% 3.2 -2.3

Using FanGraphs’ data, my assumption was in comparing their BsR, Fangraphs’ aggregate baserunning stat, Villar would have a slight edge over Hamilton. It factors in speed, advancing on flyouts, avoiding the double play, stolen bases, etc. My assumption was wrong. Jonathan Villar’s time on the bases added 3.2 runs more than the average baserunner. Billy Hamilton added 7.6 (more than double Villar’s total) during his first season.

That raised my eyebrows so, like a typical human, when the first results were not what I wanted I sought a second opinion. They agree with the first assessment.

Baseball Prospectus has a statistic similar to BsR, which they call “BRR” or “BaseRunning Runs.” It measures runs contributed by a player's advancement. This takes into account when the ball is hit in the air versus on the ground, along with hits, stolen bases, and “other advancement runs.”

All those numbers are factored in, bibbity-bobbity-boo, and how many runs (above average) was each player worth on the bases? Well, if it’s 2014’s Billy Hamilton, it’s 5.4. If it’s this season’s Justin Villar ... He’s below average. He is worth -2.3 runs. What? How is that possible?

Once again, I turn to Fangraphs’ data:

Player PA UBR Spd
Hamilton (2014) 611 4 7.7
Villar (2016) 679 -1.5 6.4

Ultimate BaseRunning, UBR, is the key because it takes into account all sorts of events such as tagging up on flyouts and taking an extra base, but does not include stolen bases. While I was blinded by Villar’s 62, that is only a fraction of all baserunning events. When focused on strategic running and taking extra opportunities to advance, Billy Hamilton’s 2014 season was far ahead of Jonathan Villar’s 2016. Hamilton’s legs were a positive impact for the Reds while Villar was on the wrong side of UBR.

The second stat I took a look at was Spd (speed). This statistic includes stolen bases, in addition to percentage of triples and runs scored. Villar kind of catches Hamilton here, because he is far ahead of Billy in the stolen base department. But Hamilton still bests him, probably because he had eight triples to Villar’s three. Spd is not how fast a player is, but how they apply that speed.

When comparing the first seasons of these two exciting baserunners, my conclusion is Jonathan Villar is the better base stealer but Billy Hamilton is better at nearly everything else on the basepaths. This is not to say Villar is less than explosive than Hamilton, but that since 2014 Billy Hamilton has set the standard in all facets of baserunning.

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Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.