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The Rajai Davis effect

Davis’ effects on the team might be more important than his play.

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Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The bullpen is [insert expletive here] right now, but if there’s one thing positive during this no-good, very-bad stretch of Cleveland Indians baseball, it’s that there is no quit in the offense. Four runs in the eighth on Sunday, six runs between the eighth and ninth on Friday, 13 runs after falling behind in the second game of Thursday’s double-header; sure, the recent record is not very pretty, but there’s something encouraging about the fight in this team.

One way that fight is evident is the way the team has been playing aggressively using the running game, which is something of a throwback.

In 2001, half of all MLB teams stole more than 100 bases; in 2011, 17 teams stole at least 100 bases, and then 19 did it in 2012. Since 2000, however, those are the only times a majority of teams have cleared the rather low bar of 100 steals. In 2017, just seven teams had more than 100 steals, and none more than the Angels’ 136.

The individual single season record, set by Hugh Nicol in 1887, is 138 stolen bases. The modern record was set by Rickey Henderson in 1982, when he stole 130 bases.

Simply put, the age of three true outcomes is not the age of the stolen base.

The Indians swiped 100 bags in a season just four times in this millennium, with three of those coming during Terry Francona’s tenure. The most successful year of basepath aggression under Francona was 2016, when the team stole 134 bases in 165 attempts.

Already this season the Indians seem to be showing aggressiveness similar to ‘16 on the basepaths. Anecdotally, this was evident in the first game of the Blue Jays double header last week, when the Tribe took advantage of Russell Martin’s aging skillset and went 3-for-5 on stolen bases. This year, the Indians are on pace for 100 stolen bases in 143 attempts, which would represent a 13.6% increase in attempted steals from 2017 and put the team closer to its 2016 output.

Of course, there’s a common thread between this year and 2016 that was absent in 2017. It’s the guy leading the team in stolen bases and attempts, the guy with the fastest sprint speed on the team (note: Bradley Zimmer passed Davis in the most recent sprint speed update, after the article was written), and also the oldest guy on the team.

This is the Rajai Davis effect.

I’ve made my thoughts about Davis’ role on this team clear, but I don’t think I considered how his presence affects decision making, specifically in terms of baserunning. Visually, it’s pretty apparent which of the past four years Davis has been on the Indians roster (2018 numbers are what the team’s pace).

Now, I’m still of a mind that Davis does not have a long-term home on the 25-man roster. He leads the team in times caught stealing, he’s responsible for one of the team’s two pick offs, and he has one of three outs at home (nevermind Francisco Lindor has the other two), all of which add up to a neutral contribution via runs from baserunning (0). Greg Allen recorded a 28.8-mph sprint speed in his time in the majors last year, just a tick under Davis and equal to Jarrod Dyson this year, and was five-for-six on stolen base attempts in Columbus. With Allen on the roster (and service time no longer an issue), Davis’s days may be numbered, as they fill similar roles but Allen offers considerably more upside considering the 13-year age difference between them (25 vs. 38).

But when Davis is gone, I hope the Raj effect stays.

Cleveland has speed and they are more fun and, arguably, better when they use it. Relative to league average (27 mph) sprint speed, the Tribe have more above-average (Allen, Davis, Brandon Guyer, Lindor, Tyler Naquin, Jose Ramirez, Zimmer) and average (Jason Kipnis) than below-average runners (Yonder Alonso, Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Yan Gomes, Erik Gonzales). Though what really makes the Raj effect work, like anything, is good management.

Of the Indians 30 attempts, only six (20 percent) have come against a catcher with above-average pop time (Drew Butera: 1.98 s pop time, 18th, and Gary Sanchez: 1.96 s pop time, 7th), and the Indians were still successful four of six times against those backstops. The rest of the team’s attempts have come against catchers with pop times 2.04 seconds or slower, none of whom rank in the top 30.

This kind of aggressiveness is smart, and not only would I like to see it continue, I’d like to see the Tribe be more aggressive when taking the extra base. The team’s extra base taken percentage (which measure how many times players advanced more than one base on a single and more than two bases on a double) is just 36 percent presently, its lowest in the last four years; in 2016 the Indians XBT% was 45.

As detailed by Russell Carleton in The Shift, the success rate of sending runners is very high, to the point that reward greatly outweighs risk (I’m not going to share his exact numbers because it’s a newly released book, one I highly recommend you buy as a baseball fan and also to support a native Clevelander). The Indians aren’t going for that reward, though, as runners have gone first to third or second to home on a single just 37 times, on pace to do so 176 times, which would mark their lowest total in four years (the ‘16 and ‘17 Indians took that extra base more than 200 times). Mike Sarbaugh needs to start windmilling his arms and greenlighting more runners, even if it ends up with guys thrown at the plate... like Davis.

The Raj effect, naturally, will have some unwanted side effects: a few more times caught stealing, a few more times thrown out on the basepaths. These things will feel bad, will make some fans angry with the decision-making. But even when the Indians run into outs on the bases, the benefits of being aggressive will pay off, especially if the team continues to be smart and challenge catchers or outfielders with poor arms.

Currently the Indians rank ninth in stolen bases and seventh in attempts among all MLB teams, ahead of all likely contending American League teams (Red Sox, Angels, Yankees, Twins, Astros, in order), but they’re 25th in both XBT% and taking two or more bases when a single is hit and below league average (17th) taking two bases when a double is hit. If the Tribe can balance steals and taking the extra base, as well as the risk and reward that come with such decisions, it could go a long way toward optimizing the never-say-die offense we’ve seen.

It could also make the bullpen woes a little less glaring. And, man, do we all need that.