In 2016, the Cleveland Indians were one of the best baserunning teams in the majors. Whether leading the AL in stolen bases or FanGraphs' Baserunning Runs (BsR), or even just looking at their excellent rate of extra bases taken as a team (an above-average 45 percent of the time), they were devilish on the basepaths.
It led to wins.
The 2017 Indians are a different team in this respect, mainly since they are down one Rajai Davis and added an Edwin Encarnacion. They're very different players, polar opposites even. They also may get Michael Brantley back, not have any of Juan Uribe or Mike Napoli, and have some other small changes. This is not the same team, for better or for worse. The Tribe made the World Series last year in part through speed and smart baserunning. It has to be wondered how this will be impacted in 2017.
Losing Davis certainly hurts the stolen base numbers, though maybe not as much as one might expect. While they're unlikely to steal 134 bags again, they could crack 100. Something around that would get them in the top 10 of baseball if the numbers hold similar to 2016. Between Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis, that's roughly 60ish. Brantley is likely good for double digits, or at least was when he was healthy. Between Abraham Almonte or Austin Jackson, depending on who gets the job, that could garner another 15 to 20. Tyler Naquin, too. He stole at a 67 percent clip on nine attempts. I expect that go up some simply because he'll be a year older and a year more experienced. He did average 14 a year his last three years in the minors. Base theft isn’t just speed. It’s wiles.
One of the things Davis was good at was reading the pitcher, not just being absurdly fast. The young players on the team need experience with the pitchers they'll be facing — how they behave on the mound, little twitches and tells, things that let the runner know the pitcher is throwing a pitch to the plate. That’s how great base stealers rack up numbers.
The youngsters on the team are getting more and more comfortable with every passing pitch. I think that could lead to a bump in their stolen base numbers Most great swipe artists have had similar arcs. Jose Altuve stole 33 his first full year, then the following years stole 36 and 56, before falling back to 38. Jarrod Dyson stole 30 in 102 games in 2012, then 34 in 87 games in 2013. There's a plateau when speed starts fading, but generally until about 25 or so you get better because you learn the game better. Or you're Rajai Davis, and are immortal.
The real number to watch is whether the Indians are stealing at a rate that's actually helpful. Various publications suggest the minimum optimal stolen base rate is somewhere between 75 and 80 percent. The Tribe sat at 82 percent last season. That’s very good. The bad part? It was heavily buoyed by Davis’ 88 percent clip. Ramirez and Lindor were at 76 percent and 79 percent respectively and as said before Naquin was at 67 percent. But last year only Davis and Kipnis at 83 percent were in a good space while stealing double digits. That’s why the experience is so vital. If they’ve learned the ways of the pitchers they’ll be facing, Lindor, Ramirez, and the other young guys could be hell for opposing batteries.
Baserunning isn't just stolen bases, though. Baseball-Reference keeps track of the rate that players take the extra base when they're on base and a teammate gets a hit. The Indians as a team took the extra base 45 percent of the time last season, five points higher than league average.
With a team full of doubles hitters outside of Encarnacion and Carlos Santana (who still hit 68 last year between the two of them) as well as young walkmen like Lindor and Ramirez among others (not to mention Brandon Guyer, best hit-by-pitcher ever), going first to third or even to home will be vital in their success. There will be a similar rate of home runs, but that won’t be enough.
That's why the Encarnacion signing is a bit of a problem. Not a real problem of course, since 40 home runs needs nothing but a jog, but last year he took the extra base only 30 percent of the time. The Toronto Blue Jays in general didn't do it too much, only 38 percent of the time, so it could be an organizational scheme which sees the Indians going the other way. The Jays were able to thump teams into submission, so having their big sluggers risk outs at third or home was a silly idea when Jose Bautista or Josh Donaldson could just hammer one to the seats. Obviously, it's Edwin that will be doing the thumping here, but one would hope he'd take the demands of the coaching staff to heart.
The young guys on the the Indians certainly took to the aggression on the basepaths. Naquin, Lindor, Guyer, and Almonte all took it half the time they had the chance, and Ramirez led the pack at 60 percent. I was actually a bit surprised to see Kipnis moving at a below average 38 percent considering he was fourth in steals on the team, but that could be driven by who was hitting behind him, along with the presence of Carlos Santana always getting on base in front of him. Context can be a killer here.
For the most part, I do expect similar numbers from a year ago simply because Edwin and Napoli’s extra base rates were nearly identical, and Ramirez is probably going to bat in the same spot as a year ago. It worked then. It’s hard to say whether Edwin is a better runner, but we’ll have to wait and see.
The Indians do have the tools to be more station to station, particularly with Brantley coming back. Incidentally, the last time he played a full season, 2015, he took the extra base 32 percent of the time, less than Napoli did last year (33 percent) but more than Edwin at least. This was before the Indians were really as aggressive as they were in 2016, only going an extra base 38 percent of the time and stealing a mere 86 bases. The coaching staff is smart, they mold the team to what it does best rather than just trying to square peg a round hole. That may mean a bit less running, and some earning of green lights like the one Davis was granted a year ago. Hopefully it doesn't go away though. it was a vital component in the Indians' drive to a pennant, and creates its own paths to winning.
Plus, it's just more fun. Havoc on the basepaths is one of the best parts of baseball. The Tribe needs to carry its torch back to October.