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Rajai Davis is still an elite baserunner

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Even at age 35, the Cleveland outfielder hasn't lost a step.

Draw me, like one of your 35-year-old outfielders.
Draw me, like one of your 35-year-old outfielders.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Can Rajai Davis hit? Not really, no. He's run a wRC+ of 92 across 3,864 major-league plate appearances. His offensive formula is generally that of the classic mediocre slap-hitter: hack away, and hope you fluke your way into an infield hit or a dying quail. Nor can he play defense, for the most part – in 7,920.1 career innings in the outfield, he's cost his many teams nine runs by DRS and 13.9 runs by UZR. While he's not terrible in either regard, Davis doesn't stick out at the plate or in the field.

But on the basepaths, oh man, is he something. Only five active players have racked up more base-running runs, or BsR, than Davis's 55.8. And that hasn't declined as Davis has gotten older – like a fine wine, his baserunning just gets better with age. In 2016, he's amassed 6.9 BsR, upon which I will not remark further, over 360 trips to the dish; that slots him third in the majors among qualified hitters. With Michael Brantley on the mend and Marlon Byrd on something else, the Indians have needed a steady presence in the outfield, which Davis has happily provided.

That 6.9 figure alone might not look like anything particularly special – after all, two others hitters have beaten it. But it is; to prove that, we have to adjust for two factors, starting with playing time. Although Davis is on track to qualify for the batting title, he probably won't do it by much, as FanGraphs' Depth Charts expect him to finish the season with 511 plate appearances. On a per-plate appearance basis, Davis's BsR improves to second:

Rank Name PA BsR BsR/600
1 Billy Hamilton 356 9.2 15.5
2 Rajai Davis 360 6.9 11.5
3 Starling Marte 419 7.9 11.3
4 Brett Gardner 439 6.8 9.3
5 Mike Trout 475 6.8 8.6
6 Wil Myers 472 6.5 8.3
7 Jose Ramirez 404 5.5 8.2
8 Mookie Betts 508 6.7 7.9
9 Jackie Bradley Jr. 437 5.4 7.4
10 Ian Desmond 476 5.6 7.1

Then comes the second, more significant adjustment: age. Davis is 35! That's pretty old! Look at all the other young hitters on that list – Hamilton, Marte, Trout, Myers, Ramirez, Betts, Bradley, and Desmond are all 30 or younger, and the first seven players max out at 27. (Gardner is 32, which makes him an outlier, which makes Davis all the more incredible.) While most players see their energy and speed wane as they get older, that fate hasn't yet befallen Davis.

His age doesn't just set him apart this year, but in recent history as well. Since FanGraphs started tracking the full version of BsR in 2002, no one 33 or older has come close to Davis's 2016:

Rank Season Name Age PA BsR BsR/600
1 2016 Rajai Davis 35 360 6.9 11.5
2 2008 Randy Winn 34 667 9.7 8.7
3 2006 Dave Roberts 34 567 7.9 8.4
4 2008 Ichiro Suzuki 34 749 10.3 8.3
5 2004 Tony Womack 34 606 8.1 8.0
6 2007 Ichiro Suzuki 33 736 9.8 8.0
7 2003 Kenny Lofton 36 610 7.2 7.1
8 2009 Johnny Damon 35 626 7.3 7.0
9 2009 Ichiro Suzuki 35 678 7.6 6.7
10 2004 Brian Giles 33 711 7.9 6.7

Part of Davis's present excellence stems from advancement – going from first to third on a single, scoring from first on a double, and the like. He's accrued 2.6 UBR runs by taking an extra base in 60 percent of his chances, per Baseball-Reference; on average, major-league hitters have pulled this off 40 percent of the time in 2016. Davis has moved ahead carefully as well, making a mere two outs on the bases. The combination of speed and caution has helped Davis's cause immensely.

Where Davis has really dominated, though, is stealing bases. Given 117 chances to swipe – i.e., instances where he was on first or second with the following base open – he's taken off 31 times and succeeded on 28 of those tries. That's translated to 4.2 wSB runs; because this metric dates back much further, we can find out just how rare that production is for someone of Davis's age:

Rank Season Player Age PA wSB wSB/600
1 1974 Lou Brock 35 702 11.2 9.6
2 1923 Max Carey 33 699 8.6 7.4
3 1993 Rickey Henderson 34 610 7.5 7.4
4 2006 Dave Roberts 34 567 6.9 7.3
5 2016 Rajai Davis 35 360 4.2 7.0
6 1978 Davey Lopes 33 665 7.6 6.9
7 1998 Rickey Henderson 39 670 7.6 6.8
8 2000 Eric Young 33 690 7.7 6.7
9 1988 Ozzie Smith 33 669 7.4 6.6
10 1997 Rickey Henderson 38 509 5.6 6.6

Here, we see the top qualified basestealers from 1920 to now, ages 33 and up, on a rate basis. wSB takes into account the MLB-wide stolen-base environment, so in an era where players don't steal as often, Davis looks even more incredible. Any time you share a leaderboard with three Rickey Henderson campaigns, you've done something right.

What really impresses me about Davis in this area is how little he's changed across the years. He hasn't altered his form or tweaked his strategy to remain a stolen-base threat – he's killed his opponents the same way over and over again. Don't believe me? Let's compare two of his steals, first from September of 2010 against the Angels...

...and second from last month versus the Blue Jays.

Six years later, Davis still relies on the same technique from start to finish. Taking a solid lead, yet staying fairly close to first?

DavisLead

Check.

Bolting for second as soon as the pitcher's leg comes up?

DavisBreak

Check.

Sliding in headfirst (a practice that his current manager Terry Francona doesn't oppose)?

DavisSlide

Check.

Making sure some part of the body remains on the bag, no matter how awkward it may be?

DavisStay

Check, to the annoyance of the Blue Jays. No matter what jersey he wears or whom he faces on the mound, Davis approaches base-stealing the same way – pounce on an opportunity once it arises, and do everything necessary to make it in safely – and that consistency has paid off.

In his career prior to 2016, Davis had accumulated 4.6 wSB/600, already a solid level of play. He's performed far above that level this year; along with his advancement ability, that's made him a 35-year-old force on the basepaths. Even if his output thus far has some luck to it, simply regressing toward his career norms would give him spectacular full-season numbers.

Davis still isn't much of a hitter, or a defender. But what kind of fan comes to the ballpark to watch guys hit home runs or make slick catches? For the true baseball lovers, baserunning – be it a move ahead to third or a swipe of second – stands out as the true attraction. Throughout his 11-year career in the Show, Davis has catered to these fans' esoteric interests, and he doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon. The man who's described himself as "always [being] faster than everyone else" has backed up, and should continue to back up, that proclamation.

. . .

All statistics as of Monday, August 8th.

Ryan Romano is a contributing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot and MASN Sports, and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee.