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What has gotten into the Astros' base running this season?

As I perused the Bill James On-Line team statistics, I found something which surprised me.  Like really surprised me.  Currently the Astros are an above average base running team.  Why did this surprise me?  The Astros were a rotten base running team last year, and they have been a bad base running team for several years.  When I looked at the Astros' base running stats earlier this year, they continued to show the same negative trend.  The team base running is positive now?  How did that happen?  Should we give Brad Mills some credit?  Maybe. He certainly seems to favor a more rational approach to base running than the previous manager.  Are some of the players stepping up with improved work on the base paths?  That seems to follow, ipso facto.  Clack, will you quit phrasing your thoughts as questions?  Maybe.

Since Bill James' stats are subscription based, I won't be overly expansive in using the numbers. The net base running stat calculates positive and negative base running plays, with zero implying that the player was average on the base paths. The web site describes the stat as follows:

A hitter’s overall contribution on the bases. His basestealing, avoidance of the double play, and success at taking the extra base while avoiding being thrown out.

The Astros currently stand at +17 in net base running gains in 2010.  Compare that to -55 last year.  In fact, compare that to the period 2007 - 2009: -50, -1, -55.  The last time the Astros had a positive net base running stat was 2006 (+54). For the season 2002 until now, the Astros are a net -64.  For 2010, the Astros are -6 on base running other than stolen bases, and +23 on stolen bases.  The negative value for non-SB running seems bad -- that is, until you see how much of an improvement it represents over last year.  Last year the Astros were -80 for non-SB running. The current team is much more likely to score from second base (60% vs. 52% last year).  And this team has a lower GIDP rate: 11% vs. 14% last year). 

After the jump will look at some of the players who have contributed to this turnaround.

In the previous two years, the Astros' base running consisted of excellent base running by Michael Bourn and poor base running by just about everyone else. Michael was +55 last season, and he is +34 this year, roughly on course to put up similar base running gains as last  year.  It appears that a greater proportion of Bourn's base running production will come from non-SB running this year.  Since Bourn is Mr. Consistency on the bases, he isn't the cause of the improvement.

Jeff Keppinger is -11 on the bases, which is a major downgrade from Kaz Matsui's +17.  So, we know the improvement didn't come from second base.  Although Berkman is a negative contributor who is gone, that doesn't explain it, given that Brett Wallace hasn't shown himself to be much of an improvement on the bases (-1).  Manzella (0) and Sanchez (+1) have been about average on the bases, but that is a big improvement over Tejada, who was -21 in 2009.  Therefore, the change at shortstop has been an improvement for the base paths.

Now let's turn to the surprises.  I put Hunter Pence, Chris Johnson, and Carlos Lee in the surprise category.

Hunter Pence has been a disappointment on the base paths for much of his career. Frequently the game threads move into a discussion as to why a fast guy like Pence is so bad on the base paths.  Don't look now, but Hunter may have made the kind of turnaround this year that foretells good things for the future.  In 2008 and 2009, Pence was net -13 and -16, with negative numbers for both the non-SB and stolen base components.  However, so far this season Pence is +19.  This is comprised of +3 on stolen bases and +16 on the remaining baserunning.  Hunter has cut down on making outs with his base running.  For whatever reason, he has reduced his GIDP ratio from 23% to 9%.  That is a major improvement.

Chris Johnson does not appear to be an overly fast runner.  He strikes me as average to perhaps slightly above average in footspeed.  That's why Chris Johnson's positive action on the base paths is surprising.  He is +12 on the base paths, which is outstanding for a guy who hasn't been playing full time all season.  He has advanced 8 extra bases without making an out on the base path.  He has a very good 6% GIDP rate, which is outstanding for a third baseman, who as a group tend to plod down the first base line.  After seeing this, I will watch Chris Johnson's base running more closely in games.

I'm sure that Brad Mills wants a cut-losses strategy for Carlos Lee.  At his age and with his weight, Carlos Lee is not going to be a net positive base runner.  But if he can cut his negative plays on the bases, that can be a nice contribution to the team too.  That is the reason that Carlos Lee's improvement is a surprise.  With a net -36 in 2009, Carlos Lee was a major reason that the Astros were a poor baserunning team.  So far this season, Carlos Lee is only -11 on the base paths.  Lee may be on pace to cut his negative base running in half.  Among other improvements, Carlos is scoring from 2d base at a 54% clip, compared to an ugly 25% probability last year.  He improved his ability to go from 1st to 3d from 13% in 2009 to 38% this year. 

Beyond the surprises, the Astros have gotten some nice base running from bench players.  Jason Bourgeois is +9, which is excellent for a guy who plays as little as he does.  Jason Michaels is 0, but that is an improvement over his -9 last year.  Geoff Blum is a negative base runner, but the damage has been minimized because his playing time is reduced, relative to last season.  The catching position perhaps has seen a slight improvement from last year, but so far it is marginal, since both Jason Castro and Quintero have negatives on the bases.

Hopefully this article won't put the TCB Jinx on the Astros' base runners.  Nah, I don't believe in that stuff. (Knock on wood.)