The Miami Marlins always pride themselves on doing the "little things" when they won championships. Baserunning was one of those "little things" that was critical to the Fish in their 2003 World Series-winnIng team. But flash forward to 2013 and Juan C. Rodriguez of the Sun-Sentinel points out that the Marlins were actually among the worst baserunning teams in the majors last season.
The Marlins after last season were in desperate need of a base running overhaul. BIS calculates base running gains and stolen base gains (or losses if the number is negative). Zero represents average. The Marlins' -52 BR gain was ahead of only the Brewers (-61). They were a +20 in SB gain, giving them a net gain of -32, tying them with the Tigers for worst in the majors.
Where the Marlins fell short was in bases taken, finishing last in the majors with 109 – 53 fewer than what the 29 other teams averaged. Players receive credit for a base taken when advancing on a wild pitch, passed ball, balk, sacrifice fly or defensive indifference.
That may come as some surprise for a young team like this one, but the Marlins last year were indeed an ugly baserunning club. A 32-run deficit versus the league average in baserunning is equivalent to about three wins lost during last season because of poor baserunning skills. This could have been due to a lack of extra bases taken or getting caught too often with taking extra bases. Either way, the Marlins failed to swipe those extra bags when they were afforded the opportunity.
But wait, there is some controversy to the numbers provided by BIS. FanGraphs runs its own baserunning algorithm based on similar principles, and it had the Marlins rated as the tenth-best baserunning team in baseball at just under four runs above average. What gives? The scales the two systems were working under appear to be a bit different, in that there are more extreme positive and negative values in the BIS system than there are in Fangraphs; the lowest-rated team according to FanGraphs were the Detroit Tigers at a shade under 20 runs below average.
You can see the discrepancy in some of the names that were considered negatives in the BIS system and not so negative in the FanGraphs system. The biggest losers on the BIS side appeared to be Placido Polanco and Logan Morrison, who accounted for 22 runs below average on their own according to BIS but were barely a run worse than average according to FanGraphs. The worst culprits on Miami according to FanGraphs were Donovan Solano, Jeff Mathis, and Adeiny Hechavarria, all of whom were a bit over two runs worse than average.
The Marlins, of course, dropped Polanco and Morrison, who were clearly poor baserunners even if the numbers did not mention it. But they also lost Juan Pierre, who contributed almost five runs above average on the bases with his usual speed. So how will the Marlins improve in 2013? Part of it may be due to the coaching of new third base coach Brett Butler, a former speedster on the diamond himself. He revealed a little bit of his theory and strategy behind "aggressive smart" baserunning.
"For me, I was always an aggressive guy," said Butler, who will serve as third base coach. "I would push the envelope. That's what we're going to teach here: aggressively smart. You're going to see guys going first-to-third and they're not going to look at me. Make the decision. Second-to-home, they're going. I have certain things I believe in where it's a foundational aspect."
If batted balls hit the infield grass, Butler encourages guys to take the extra base. If it hits the dirt on and gets through, the rule of thumb is to proceed with more caution and when it reaches the outfield grass on a line chances are a guy isn't going more than 90 feet.
These are the sort of simple guidelines that can help players create quick algorithms to work with when making decisions on the fly. Rather than force players to make their own judgments, the majority should follow simple rules like the one described above and take it from there. This will avoid the problem of indecisiveness on the part of both the player and the coach, something that seemed to happen somewhat regularly under old third base coach Joe Espada. Leave the decision to the third base coach only when it is a borderline case.
The other way the Marlins could improve is by simply having better baserunners over the course of the season. Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna will get full seasons to strut their athletic talents on the field. Last year, Yelich produced five runs above average in just over 200 plate appearances. He is not likely to repeat that performance, but he could very well be a good positive contributor on the bases this season. Likewise, Ozuna is another athletic talent who could excel on the bases if given the right guidance. On the flip side, the Marlins may prevent baserunning disaster by having a better runner like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who is around league average most likely, replace the poor running of Jeff Mathis and Rob Brantly.
The Fish have better players and, it would appear, a better coach for the 2014 season. Maybe they were not as bad as BIS qualifies them, but the hope is those improvements will make them a better baserunning team capable of doing some small things better. General manager Dan Jennings spoke of that importance.
Added Jennings: "Maybe it's something that will just create a one-step advantage, but that one step could be the difference in safe or out, or a win."
This may not vault Miami into contention, but it's a building block on the road to constructing a winning team.