The runner inches slowly off first base. He extends his lead one small step after another as his eyes remain focused on the back foot of the pitcher. He toes the loose dirt with his cleat, his spikes digging for that extra bit of traction. Then he’s off.
Baseball highlights are mostly comprised of home runs, strikeouts, and diving catches. The stars of the game are the big power hitters, workhorse pitchers, and defensive stalwarts. And more often than not, these are the types of players who end up winning the games. But hidden in the midst of all of this action is the craft of baserunning.
For all the highlight-reel plays that fill post-game recaps and SportsCenter countdowns, there’s always that one key tag up, stolen base, or extra base taken that flies under most fans radars. Despite this season’s spike in home runs (up 14% from 2015), the marked decrease in power since the steroid era has forced teams to manufacture runs in ways other than simply jacking the ball out of the park.
Arguably the most important part of scoring runs is getting baserunners. And while getting on base is half of the equation, the skills around the basepaths are just as important. As most baseball fans know, a runner is not really considered a scoring threat until they reach second base. With nearly 75% of all baserunners beginning at first (singles, hit by pitch, walks) in 2016, getting to second base suddenly becomes an immediate priority in this era so dearth of power.
Being adept at running bases essentially comes down to two things: baseball IQ and speed in that order. Yes, you read that correctly, speed is not the most important feature of a good baserunner. In fact, let’s start with that.
In 2004, the Boston Red Sox did the impossible by winning four straight ALCS games against the New York Yankees to become the first MLB team to overcome a three-game deficit. While that series is filled with countless iconic moments, perhaps the most important play in the entire series, or postseason for that matter, wasn’t David Ortiz’s walkoff homer or Curt Schilling’s bloody sock game. It was Dave Roberts’ ninth inning steal of second base in Game 4.
With the Red Sox down three games to none in the ALCS and facing a one-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning against Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, their World Series hopes looked bleak. But after a leadoff walk to Kevin Millar, little used outfielder Dave Roberts was chosen to pinch run. On Rivera’s first pitch, Roberts stole second to set up what would be the tying run. The Red Sox would go on to win that game as well as their next seven, ultimately capturing their first World Series title since 1918.
The Red Sox could have chosen to keep Millar’s bat and glove in the lineup and relied on their other hitters to tie the game, but with their season on the line, they turned to baserunning. For all the differences between Millar and Roberts, the decision essentially came down to speed. The Red Sox chose to put the fastest runner on base simply because he could get from first to home faster than anyone else on the roster.
Of course speed is a determining factor in the ability of baserunners; there’s no denying that. When listing the best baserunners of all time, names like Ichiro, Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, and Ty Cobb come to mind. And there’s no denying that they were great baserunners as they all are ranked in the top 40 in terms of career stolen bases. Pure speed is an asset in almost any sport, and aside from running go routes in football, it may be most easily recognized on the basepaths. But stealing bases is only a small part of baserunning, and speed is only one of the aforementioned factors.
Game 7 of the 2016 World Series was one of the craziest, heart-wrenching, tear-jerking, legendary baseball games of all time. While Kris Bryant’s power display in the previous two games wasn’t present in the clincher, his clutch baserunning directly contributed to two very vital Chicago Cubs runs.
Faced with a 1-1 tie in the top of the fourth, Kris Bryant found himself on third with one out. On the first pitch of the at bat, Addison Russell hit a soft pop up to shallow center field.
Now we’ll pause here for a bit of exposition. Tagging up, especially from third, gets more and more complicated the shallower the fly ball is. While we’ve seen speedsters like Billy Hamilton tag on similar depth pop ups, the odds were significantly more stacked against Kris Bryant. Having stolen only 8 bases on the season (not to mention at a subpar 62% clip), Bryant isn’t traditionally fast. With Davis charging in on the ball and Bryant at a standstill on third, it seemed more logical to stay on third, avoid the double play, and allow Wilson Contreras the chance to drive in the run.
But, as we know, Bryant instead tagged up and beat the throw home, allowing the Cubs to regain the lead. Despite his lack of speed and the placement of the pop up, Bryant saw that Davis wasn’t directly behind the ball, instead coming at it from the left-hand side. In addition to Davis’ angle of approach, his arm strength, as compared to other center fielders, is documented as lacking. Taking these factors into account, in the brief moments between the ball leaving Russell’s bat and hitting Davis’ glove, Bryant made a very calculated and informed decision to tag up.
Later in the game, Bryant worked a walk against Andrew Miller (a tough feat as it is). Three pitches later, Anthony Rizzo ripped a single into right field. In most situations, a runner would hold at second with some going to third. But with the 1-2 count and two outs, Bryant again made a calculated decision. With Miller already having given up a hit and a walk in the inning and on the verge of getting the third out, the odds of him throwing another strike were decently high. Bryant, considering that Rizzo was in protect mode and Miller was more than likely to throw a strike, decided to run on the pitch. With a great jump, Bryant was not only able to get to third, he straight up scored.
For as much emphasis as we put on speed around the bases, baseball IQ is almost undoubtedly more important.
Take for example Herb Washington. A world class-sprinter turned designated pinch runner, Washington was recruited by the infamous Charles Finley to play for the 1974-75 Oakland A’s. For his “career”, he stole only 31 bases, while getting thrown out 17 times, a poor percentage for anyone, let alone an Olympic sprinter. As A’s legend Reggie Jackson pointed out, “He’s a great athlete, but he’s not a baseball player.”
Whereas speed can manufacture runs in specific situations, IQ is applicable in every situation. The ability to take in a range of external factors and calculate them all in what is often just more than a split-second is an unteachable talent that can change the outcome of a game or even a series.
Home runs will never lose their pizzazz. Strikeouts will never go out of style. And diving catches will never lose their allure. Though baserunning may never be as championed as the aforementioned plays, it is still an extremely vital aspect of the game. But maybe, just maybe, fans will begin to focus more on the journey around the bases than the destination at home plate.