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Cardinals Taking Conservative Approach to Baserunning

The Cardinals have been very conservative on the bases this year, and that has put them squarely in the middle of the pack in terms of baserunning.

Many fans want their team to be aggressive on the base paths because it’s more fun to watch a player fly around third base than see him hold up after going just one base on a single. If you’re one of those fans, then there has been something bothering you about this season’s Cardinals: they don’t take chances on the base paths.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as how aggressive you are on the bases should depend on the composition of your roster more than anything. Also, getting caught going an extra base is far more costly than getting that extra base is helpful, so staying put is often the correct decision.

With that being said, the Cardinals have been extremely cautious on the bases this year, and here are the numbers behind it.

For starters, the Cardinals have stolen only 15 bases this year, which is fewer than all but three other teams in the major leagues, despite having a stolen base percentage just below average. That is probably a good thing, as the Cardinals success rate is 65 percent (league average is 69 percent), and that is not good enough to make stealing bases a big part of your gameplan.

The break even rate for steals depends on how many outs there are in each situation and which base the runner is trying to steal, but it is higher than 65 percent. There are many teams who have done worse than the Cardinals in steal success rate but keep trying to swipe bags. Those teams end up with a huge net negative in the steal department. The Cardinals, on the other hand, don’t run and don’t hurt themselves.

The other area that shows how conservative the Cardinals have been on the bases this year is taking extra bases. That includes going two bases on a single or three bases on a double when possible. The Cardinals have only taken an extra base 36 percent of the time, compared to the league average of 40 percent. That mark also puts them third from the bottom in the majors.

While I’m not saying that it is good that the Cardinals aren’t taking extra bases, the flip side is that when they do try to take an extra base, they almost always make it. Despite having the most opportunities to take an extra base in the league, the Red Birds are tied for the fourth least outs on the bases with 14.

To show how much that helps the team, I’ll derive the break even rate for an in-game scenario. If a player is on second base with no outs and the batter hits a single, there are three options: runner stays on third, runner is out going home, or runner scores. Here are the run expectancies for all three scenarios:

1st and 3rd, 0 out: 1.784

1st, 1 out: .509

1 run scored, 1st, 0 out: 1.859

The first thing you’ll notice is that you lose more than a full run by getting thrown out at the plate. The second thing you’ll notice is that you hardly gain anything by scoring on that play. Those both make sense given that there are 0 outs to start the play, as the same cannot be said when there are two (or even one) outs.

By doing some algebra and measuring how often you need to be safe in order to make up for one out, the break even rate comes out to 94.4 percent in this scenario. The Cardinals have attempted to go from second to home on a single 42 times and made it safely 41 times. That is a 97.6 percent success rate, and it’s important to remember that the actual break even rate is much lower than the one I just gave because very few of those singles came with 0 outs.

The league routinely beats the break even rate on these plays, but they don’t beat the Cardinals. The league is safe on 92.7 percent of such singles, which is well below what the Cardinals are doing. The only reason that this team is not towards the top of the league in baserunning is because some teams are able to successfully take the extra base more often.

Some teams like the rival Chicago Cubs take a lot more extra bases and still don’t make many baserunning outs. The style the Cardinals play on the base paths will not gain any extra runs, but it won’t lose them either, which is more than a lot of teams can say. In fact, Fangraphs has a baserunning runs above average metric and the Cardinals sit at exactly 0.0, good for 14th in the majors.

You may want this team to be more aggressive on the bases because it’s more fun to watch, but they’re avoiding mistakes well. Many people expected the Detroit Tigers to be better this year, but they have cost themselves seven runs on the bases, making it harder for them to do what they wanted.

When you have a team with some slower players (Yadier Molina, Matt Adams, Brandon Moss) you have to know how much you can hurt yourself. That is exactly what the Cardinals have taken into account when they decided to take few risks on the bases this year. Some of the guys you would want to run are still doing that (Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty), but a conservative approach has not hurt the Cardinals; it has kept them from hurting themselves.

Photo Credit: Benny Sieu – USA TODAY Sports