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Why are the Cardinals so bad at running the bases?

The Cardinals’ baserunning was very bad in 2016, but was it bad enough to make a difference?

St. Louis Cardinals v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Cardinals relied so heavily on home runs in 2016 that sometimes we forgot about mistakes on the bases. It didn’t matter how fast they ran if the ball was over the fence. They lost a lot of home runs with the departures of Brandon Moss and Matt Holliday, so baserunning could be even more important this upcoming season. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny hinted they’d go over the basics this year in spring training.

Last August I wrote about how bad the Cardinals were at running the bases, with the caveat that they were about to get better. I thought a team could be so laughably bad at a fundamental part of the game for only so long. They were the worst in the league by a wide margin, and they’ve actually been bad for a while.

Of all the fundamental parts of the game, baserunning is the least likely to affect the outcome of a team’s season. In fairness to the Cardinals, it has not stopped them from making the postseason before. I probably wouldn’t be so salty about it if St. Louis hadn’t missed their chance at the postseason by one game.

To demonstrate how awful St. Louis has been, take a look at Fangraphs’ BsR stat. It factors in a myriad of plays like tagging up on flyouts, advancing an extra base, and speed. Here’s the year-by-year breakdown from 2013-2016:

Year BsR NL Rank
2013 -9.9 13
2014 -14.5 15
2015 0.7 6
2016 -19.8 15

The Cardinals had their only recent BsR total above zero in 2015, primarily due to Jason Heyward’s 7.0. I also wanted to compare Fangraphs’s conclusion to Baseball Prospectus’s Baserunning Runs (BRR) stat because they aggregate these plays differently. They prefer the Cardinals’ 2013 roster to the 2015 lineup, but Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs agree that 2016 was dismal.

Year BRR NL Rank
2013 13.4 2
2014 -7.9 14
2015 -6.1 15
2016 -10.2 t-13

Baserunning is clearly not indicative of a team’s record, because the Cardinals have gotten pretty far in October while being rather bad. But the past is merely prologue to this upcoming season and I have three lingering questions:

  1. How bad were the Cardinals compared to the rest of the National League?
  2. Why were they so awful?
  3. What’s the outlook for 2017?

Just how bad were they?

The Cardinals were terrible compared to the rest of the National League:

Team BRR BsR
Padres 18 24.8
Diamondbacks 19.4 18.2
Nationals 15.6 16.7
Cubs 0.7 15.9
Brewers -0.2 5.1
Marlins 4.6 4
Dodgers 0.6 2.8
Rockies 11.1 1.5
Phillies -3.4 0.5
Giants -12.7 -2
Reds 5.5 -3.8
Braves -8.3 -6.6
Pirates -3.2 -7
Mets -10.2 -7.6
Cardinals -10.2 -19.8

According to FanGraphs, if you take the next-worst team (the Mets) and double their BsR total, they still would not be as bad as the Cardinals. BP disagrees and thinks the Giants lost more runs on the bases, but the Cardinals still lost double-digit runs by either metric.

It seems like they are the National League’s example of what not to do on the basepaths. Take a look at all the National League teams and their cumulative BsR totals from the 2013-2016 seasons:

Team BsR
Nationals 34.4
Padres 29.8
Cubs 25.5
Mets 22.6
Diamondbacks 13.6
Rockies 12.8
Reds 69
Phillies 1.9
Pirates 1.7
Marlins -6.1
Giants -6.5
Brewers -9.8
Dodgers -19
Braves -19.4
Cardinals -43.5

Over four years, the Cardinals were twice as bad as the next-place Braves. And the team hit its nadir last year. Here are the eleven Cardinals players who ended the 2016 season with more than 300 plate appearances:

The graph above correlates plate appearances (green bars) with players’ BsR scores (red line). My prediction that the Cardinals would get better over the last month did not come to fruition. The three players with the most plate appearances had the worst baserunning totals. Piscotty fell about a half-point after my article in August. Matt Carpenter’s score dropped about 0.3 points in that time. Yadier Molina’s BsR somehow decreased.

What caused such low scores?

Yadier Molina

He has never been fast, but the great thing about Yadi is that he’s a smart baserunner and knows his limits.

Yadi’s lack of speed manifests in a couple different ways. He only advanced on fly balls, wild pitches, or passed balls ten times in 147 games. He only stole a base three times in 230 opportunities. But he was never picked off and he was caught stealing just twice. It’s worth noting he had more stolen bases than Brandon Moss, Matt Carpenter, Jedd Gyorko, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, and Jhonny Peralta, who combined for a grand total of one stolen base in 2016.

Fangraphs has Yadi’s Spd score for 2016 at 2.3, which is ranked as “awful.” It’s something the Cardinals are (quite understandably) willing to live with given everything else he brings to the team.

Matt Carpenter

How did this happen? Matt Carpenter has the highest OBP of all eleven players (.380) listed on the graph above. The Cardinals’ best on-base guy is, apparently, one of their least-consistent baserunners. This is, however, the first time his BsR score was below 0, so I do not anticipate Carpenter will post a negative score in 2017. (The Steamer projections agree.)

In 261 opportunities, Carpenter stole a grand total of zero bases and was caught four times. He tended to advance only one base on singles, heading to third in a mere 14 of 34 opportunities. This contributes to his negative Ultimate BaseRunning score on FanGraphs, of -2.0. He doesn’t often take an extra base. His wSB score is also -2.0 because he was unsuccessful in all four stolen-base attempts. Matt Carpenter took more risks than his teammates, but they didn’t always pay dividends.

Stephen Piscotty

I’m still surprised by this one because Piscotty is such a consistent ballplayer. He stole seven bases in 2016 and was caught five times, good for a 58 percent success rate. On top of that, he made only twelve attempts in 245 opportunities. He was on first base 33 times when a single was hit, and he reached third base only seven times. Matt Carpenter went to third twice as many times in 34 opportunities. Piscotty’s extra bases taken total is 36 percent, which is also lower than Matt Carpenter’s.

While he stole more bases overall, Stephen Piscotty was even less adventurous on the bases than Matt Carpenter. He is not a risk-taker, and that contributes to his -3.4 BsR.

The Cardinals are either slow on the basepaths or risk-averse, and they rarely attempt to steal.

What does this mean for 2017?

The outlook for St. Louis isn’t nearly as dismal as their 2016. Both Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong are likely starters for the Cardinals in 2017, at left field and second base, respectively. The Cardinals’ BsR total is likely to benefit from those two getting more at-bats.

I took a look at the Steamer projections for each team in the National League. Since the Cardinals’ bad baserunners were the guys with the most playing time, I added up the BsR scores for every player with more than fifty projected games. The Cardinals are not last, largely due to their addition of Dexter Fowler, who scores a 1.8.

Team BsR
Reds 19.8
Nationals 6.5
Cubs 3.9
Rockies 2.6
Diamondbacks 2.5
Padres 2.4
Marlins 2.1
Brewers 0.2
Mets 0
Giants -0.3
Pirates -0.6
Phillies -1.4
Cardinals -3.5
Braves -4.2
Dodgers -5.0

The Steamer projections have Cardinals players regressing closer to the mean. For example, Yadier Molina’s projected score is -2.7, far above where he ended 2016. Matt Carpenter’s projected score is positive again, at 0.4. Piscotty is still sitting pretty at -1.4, but that does bump him up a full two points from where he ended 2016.

BP has a comparably favourable outlook on Matt Carpenter in 2017, projecting he will steal three bases — which is three more than he stole in 2016. They also project he will get caught stealing three times, bringing his success rate up from 0 percent to 50 percent. They keep Yadier Molina at three stolen bases with one caught stealing, for a 75 percent success rate. Stephen Piscotty doesn’t get any more adventurous on the bases, repeating his seven steals. I do believe he will outperform that number.

This team will not rely on baserunning, and it's still projected to be near the bottom of the pack. What the Cards can hope to do is get closer to average. The Cubs are projected to do well at just about everything, so to keep pace in the division St. Louis must improve these fundamental areas that cost it so many runs. Is baserunning pivotal? No, but it is an important flaw the Cardinals should address.

. . .

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