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The Guardians got bad at baserunning

A big part of their success last season, the Guardians are mediocre on the bases at best this year

MLB: JUL 09 Royals at Guardians Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the most important things that made the 2022 Cleveland Guardians a successful team in the regular season was the team’s approach to baserunning. Logically, you can’t have a lineup full of slap-hitting shit goblins unless you’re going to be aggressive on the basepaths.

Unfortunately, though the lack of power has returned for 2023, the aggressiveness on the basepaths has not. This shows up most obviously in the team’s run creation, which was not great in ‘22 and has gotten worse, with the team’s wRC+ falling from 99 last year to 91 in 2023. On a more anecdotal level, it looks like this:

Most troubling, there’s more than just anecdotal evidence to suggest the Guardians have been worse at running the bases this season.

Besides wRC+, the most all-encompassing number that exemplifies the team’s decline on the bases is FanGraphs’ BsR, base running runs above average. Per their glossary, this stat measures the “number of runs above or below average a player has been worth on the bases, based on stolen bases, caught stealing, extra bases taken, outs on the bases, and avoiding double plays.” In 2022 the Guardians had a BsR of 13.2, this year that number is 1.3; last year the team ranked 4th, this year they rank 12th.

To get more granular, let’s look at some individual components that go into BsR. First, there’s an idea that @mattdallas27 threw out on Twitter, that the team gets a lot of hits and fails to drive those runners in. You can see his work in the tweet linked, but if you strip out the hitting aspect and look just at the baserunning part you get run-scoring percentage, the percentage of time a baserunner eventually scores a run, which is tracked by Baseball-Reference. Last year Cleveland was at 31% and the league average was 30%; those numbers have flip-flopped for 2023, with the league at 31% and Cleveland at 30%.

Another good measure of basepath aggressiveness is extra bases taken, which tracks when players take more than one base on a single and more than two bases on a double, when possible. Last year the Guardians were slightly above league average (41%), with 43% XBT%, and this year they are slightly below league average (43%), with 42% XBT%.

Looking at raw numbers instead of percentages, things look worse for the Guardians. The team manages to come in above average at going first to third (or home) on a single this year, doing so 55 times (league average is 50, the team ranks fifth). But when it comes to scoring they are exactly average going from second to home on a single, doing so 58 times (they rank 19th). Over the full 2022 season, the Guardians went first to third (or home) 115 times, more than any other team and 36% better than league average (84). Likewise, they went from second to home on a single 103 times, which was 7% better than league average (96).

Despite rules that would seem to benefit a speedy team like the Guardians, the team’s stolen base percentage has not improved either. In 2023, the Guardians are exactly league average with a stolen base rate of 79%. Last year, the team was successful 81.5% of the time when stealing, which was 8% better than league average (75%).

Perhaps the most damning baserunning statistic of all, however, is outs on base. The definition from Baseball-Reference pretty much sums it up: “runner is put out while making a baserunning play.” This is the anecdote from earlier: it’s bad choices killing run-scoring opportunities — and it’s a problem for Cleveland. Over the entire 2022 season, the Guardians had 43 OOB, which was below league average of 47. Through the first half of 2023, the Guardians have 40 OOB, well above league average of 25. Creating a quick plus-minus stat for this, we see the team has gone from 91 OOB+ last year (9% worse than average) to 160 OOB+ (60% worse than average) in 2023.

I’m not sure exactly where the cause of this problem lies. The average age of the team in 2022 was 25.9 years, and this year it’s 26.8 and Cleveland has been eclipsed by Kansas City as youngest in the league. So, logically it seems like an older and more experienced team would make better choices on the basepaths. Since that’s not the case, do we continue to blame the players for all the TOOTBLAN? Or, like we’ve done with so many things this season, do we turn a critical eye toward the coaching staff? If you have an answer, please deliver it to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.