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Do the Indians feel the need for speed?

Several new acquisitions could prove useful on the basepaths

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

In case you have paid no attention to the dealings of the Kansas City Royals this offseason, they’ve only made three moves regarding position players. First they signed Chris Owings, then they added Billy Hamilton, and finally they re-signed Terrance Gore. Besides being outfielders (at least partially in Owings’ case), these men have one significant thing in common: speed.

Every year Baseball Savant has tracked sprint speed, Hamilton has been among the elite of the elite, with top speeds of 30.1 (5th), 30.1 (6th), and 30.2 ft/s (3rd) for 2018,’17, and ‘16, respectively. Gore has never received enough at bats in the big leagues to qualify for a sprint speed leaderboard (although there is this), but the fact that he keeps getting a contract really speaks volumes, because his hitting makes Mario Mendoza look like Barry Bonds. As for Owings, he’s not top-tier but he was 129th last year with an average speed of 28.3 ft/s, well above average (27 ft/s), and as recently as 2016 he was 40th in the league (28.9 ft/s).

The Royals’ offseason would not be notable if they had not quietly loaded up on the fastest players available. Or the fact the Royals already employ some of the fastest players in the league in Adalberto Mondesi (29.9 ft/s, 12th), Paulo Orlando (29.1 ft/s, 42nd), Whit Merrifield (29.0 ft/s, 47th), and Brett Phillips (29.0 ft/s, 57th). Since winning the World Series in 2015, the Royals’ strategy has not particularly been good (who signs literal replacement player Alcides Escobar to a contract with bonuses for appearances, then lets him reach those appearance levels despite playing worse than replacement level?), but targeting speed is not just something the Royals are doing.

So far this offseason, the Indians have added position players Jordan Luplow, Max Moroff, Daniel Johnson, Andruw Monasterio, Trayce Thompson, Jake Bauers, Carlos Santana, Alex Call, and Kevin Plawecki. Luplow recorded a sprint speed of 28.7 ft/s in 2018; Moroff was tracked at 27.7 ft/s; Johnson was rated 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale for speed; Monasterio was rated 55 for speed; Thompson was recorded at 27.9 ft/s; Jake Bauers was tracked at 27.8 ft/s; and Alex Call was rated 50 for speed. With the exception of Santana and Plawecki (both 26.0 ft/s), everyone the Indians have added so far has above-average foot speed (and both Santana and Plawecki are firmly in the middle for first basemen and catchers, respectively; Santana 37th of 63 and Plawecki 25th of 91).

Cleveland has been above league average in stolen bases, run scoring percentage, and bases taken since the 2013 season, which I see as evidence baserunning is a long-term area of emphasis for the team. The same is not necessarily true league-wide, however. A quick scan reveals that as far back as 2013 writers have been documenting the death of the stolen base; likewise, the league-average baserunning contribution to WAR (FanGraphs’ flavor) has been negative more often (-1, 0.4, -0.7, -0.1, -0.4, and 1) between 2013 to last year.

The decline in value that teams place on baserunning seems to be related to the increase in the three true outcomes in baseball. Those outcomes — home run, walk, or strikeout — have led to the widely held belief that hitting over defenders (i.e., increasing launch angle) is the best approach (beating the shift and so on). Thus, teams are not as aggressive with baserunners advancing by steal or taking the extra base because it’s more likely the batter will drive them in (via home run) or not affect their run expectancy at all (strikeout). The pros and cons of this strategy have been debated at length and require no recap here except to say the Indians, by valuing baserunning, clearly see an advantage in stealing bases, taking the extra base, and so on. At the very least, Cleveland seems to want a middle ground between the air ball revolution and more old-school strategy.

Teams valuing baserunning less than in the past has another effect leads to less demand for players with those skills, which naturally depresses the salaries of those players. Gore, of course, has literally zero value aside from his speed, but Hamilton is a different story. Although a big liability with his bat, he is an excellent defender; nonetheless, Hamilton was nontendered by the Reds and then received less than his projected arbitration salary in his deal with the Royals. Similarly, Keon Broxton has nearly elite speed (29.7 ft/s in 2018) as well as good defense and a better offensive profile (plus projected growth) than Hamilton. None of that stopped the the Brewers (teeming with outfield depth, it should be noted) from shipping him to New York last week in exchange for a pitcher who will compete for a bullpen spot (in a bullpen already crowded with talent), a medium-ceiling, low-floor pitcher, and an infielder that could easily be an organizational guy that never sees the big leagues.

With the premium for guys who can impact the game with speed seemingly low, perhaps the Indians loading up on guys with decent speed is a new way to exploit a market inefficiency. As detailed by Jordan Siff, using the run expectancy matrix, to break even on stolen base attempts a runner needs to be successful around 70% of the time. If the Tribe plans to make aggressive baserunning an important facet of its offense in 2019 then adding guys like Luplow (70% steal success rate in the minors) or Johnson (76%) or taking a flier on Thompson (81% in MLB, 74% MiLB) seems worthwhile.

The Royals are obviously seeking to find value in a similar area, as Hamilton (81% steal success rate in MLB) and Owings (84%) have legitimate track records as good runners. But so are, you know, teams that are actually good. The Yankees had just six players (of 19 qualified) with below-average sprint speed in 2018; the Athletics had eight (of 18); the Cardinals had six (of 16); the Rays had six (of 18); the Rockies had seven (of 20). Not all of these teams have budgets like the Indians, but all teams seek to find value in similar ways and all these teams were successful in 2018 and have smart front offices.

The players the Indians have acquired have more to their tool set than just speed, obviously. But it could be that the speed aspect of their game has not been adequately valued by other teams. In identifying this, the Indians could be exploiting a weakness in player valuation that could help them remain one of the best baserunning teams in the league in 2019.