Saying the Cleveland Indians are a prolific base-stealing team is a bit of a fallacy. Sure, they led the American League in stolen bases during the regular season with 134, but a whopping 43 of those came from Rajai Davis alone. Jose Ramirez was the only other Indians baserunner with more than 20 steals, while Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor rounded out the only four with double-digit stolen bases.
What the majority of Indians players lack in blinding speed they make up for in smart baserunning. I have written on this before with a special focus on Roberto “Wheels” Perez, but the Indians, as a group, are great at knowing when and how to steal.
Indians baserunners had an 81 percent success rate in 2016, second behind just the Arizona Diamondbacks, who successfully swiped bases 82 percent of the time. The Indians also led the American League with 29 steals of third base while only getting caught six times. That’s not exactly something I would quantify as “smart”, but it worked more times than not, even if Jose Ramirez and Rajai Davis were giving me heart attacks with two outs.
More important than the Indians’ ability to seal bases is the Toronto Blue Jays’ inability to stop anyone from doing so. The Blue Jays, as a unit, stopped just 20 would-be thieves in 2016. That’s tied for worst in the majors with the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins’ Kurt Suzuki.
Russell without the muscle
Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin is known for his great framing. Stopping base stealers? Not so much. His ability to throw out baserunners completely dropped off a cliff in 2016. Then it hit a few sharp rocks and ridges on the way down. Then it landed in a pit of spikes. Then it bounced. Then it landed in another pit a few feet lower.
After throwing out an impressive 32 of 40 possible potential base stealers in 2015, Martin caught just 11 of 61 in 2016 — by far the worst mark of his career. That’s just 18 percent. I will admit to not being good at a lot of things, but I do not know if I have failed at doing anything 82 percent of the time when I’m being paid to do it.
Maybe it’s just age or opponents’ luck, but no one should be afraid to run on Martin right now. The Texas Rangers, who were swept by the Blue Jays in the ALDS, are not much of a basestealing team and they did not bother challenging Martin in their three losing efforts. Their only stolen base came in Game 3 when Carlos Gomez ran on Aaron Sanchez. The Blue Jays cannot expect the Indians to let a weak arm like Martin’s go untouched.
The Indians need every edge they can get against a dangerous Blue Jays team
In the Indians’ own ALDS sweep, they did not run on the Boston Red Sox very often, either, but that should be the exception, not the rule. Mike Napoli, of all players, registered the only Tribe stolen base of the series. With a team as downright scary as the Blue Jays coming to town, it seems like a good for the Indians to dust off those wheels and enjoy a good old fashioned advantage.
Unless Francisco Liriano is able to return from his concussion to start a game or two, Rajai Davis may only see one start in the ALCS. In 2016, Davis has been the primary starter against left-handed pitchers, while Tyler Naquin has taken the same duties against righties. Outside of Liriano, the Blue Jays’ only lefty starter is JA Happ, who could end up being the fourth starter.
There’s a chance Terry Francona continues to throw convention out the window and start Rajai against the Blue Jays’ right-handed starters, but don’t count on it. At this point, I think Naquin would have to look absolutely awful (he has already looked pretty bad) against righties to get yanked altogether. Otherwise, Davis could see time as a pinch-runner late, or it will be up to Jose Ramirez to really push Martin’s weak arm to the limit. Anyone else who has ever dreamed of stealing a base in a big moment should be thinking about it every time they are standing on first base.