Thursday, April 7, 2011

Royals Running Relentlessly

The season is barely a week old as I sit down to pen this post, yet clearly the Royals emphasis on running the bases aggressively - both in terms of the stolen base and in taking the extra base - that they spoke of and demonstrated in spring training is for real. That's notable because so often we hear teams talk about their desire to run more. About how they're going to let their players loose. Then either nothing happens, or the change is so modest that it's hardly noticeable.

Not for the Royals.

After stealing 115 bases in 2010, 8th most in baseball, they stole 57 in spring training and now they've stolen 14 already in the seasons first six games. That pace, if sustained, would be good for 378 total stolen bases - 206 more than the Tampa Bay Rays league leading 172 last year. It would be a modern record, eclipsing the 346 stolen bases of the 1976 Athletics. Of course, these are early season numbers and they're certain to fall off, but that's not the point. The point is that the Royals are going to run. A lot. What's more, with just one caught stealing on their record, they're experiencing success at an unbelievable rate.

Unlike most teams, such as the Rays or White Sox last year who were 1-2 in stolen bases as a team, the Royals aren't racking up the impressive stolen base totals strictly from one or two major sources. In 2010, the Rays got 47 stolen bases from Carl Crawford and another 42 from B.J. Upton accounting for 51.7% of their teams total thefts. The Sox were even more top heavy after getting 68 from Juan Pierre and another 34 from Alex Rios which made up 63.8% of their stolen bases.

No, the Royals are getting stolen bases from essentially everyone. Already eight players have stolen at least one base, four of them have two, and Jarrod Dyson leads the team with three despite not having actually had a plate appearance yet. Of the Royals regulars, only Kila Ka'aihue, Billy Butler, and Alex Gordon have yet to steal a base. And Gordon probably would've had one tonight if Butler hadn't have fouled the pitch off.

They're stealing early in the game, and they're stealing late. They're stealing when they're up and they're stealing when they're down. If the Yankees sluggers are tigers stalking their prey and bringing them down in a fury of violence, he Royals are more like piranha. The attack isn't constricted to a certain time of game or count, nor does it have a cohesive leader. It's simply pure, unrestrained base running violence.

The one thing that's slowed the onslaught so far was Mark Buehrle's slide step. Short of that, nothing has held it back. As soon as he exited the game, the carousel wheel began spinning again. Though the Sox would eventually prevail, it was a Dyson steal of second that set up the typing run in the bottom of the ninth this afternoon.

Even Gavin Floyd, who is very quick to home with his slide step got lazy and went away from it with a runner on second. Bam, stolen base. Floyd thought he was safe because with a runner on second, there was a lessened chance of the steal. Think again.

In mathematical terms we can quantify the stolen base. For example, the odds of scoring one or more runs increases by a relatively static percentage. From 1993-2010, the number of runs scored in a given inning increased by 0.163 runs every time a runner advanced from first to second without another runner reaching base or an out being recorded (steal, passed ball...). In total, the 12 steals the Royals have registered thus far would've resulted in a mathematical gain of 1.96 runs. Or about 0.2 WAR.

Over the course of a full season, even if the Royals were to maintain their record pace we're talking about an additional 5.4 WAR or so. That would be an unbelievable number to be attributed solely to stolen bases, unfortunately it's not going to come close to covering the deficit needed to become competitive.

But there is undoubtedly another side effect to all the running. It messes with pitchers heads, and that's harder to quantify. As a general rule of thumb, teams hit better with runners on base. The more runners that are on base and the further along on the bases they are, the better teams hit. Part of that is probably nerves, which we just can't measure. But part of it is likely pitch selection. In an effort to try and keep a runner from stealing, pitchers are more likely to throw more fastballs. In doing so, they become more predictable and therefor easier to hit.

Of course for the Royals, the stolen base isn't the only area where they're being more aggressive. After registering 279 doubles in 2010 - 16th best in baseball - they're already racked up 14 two-baggers this season. Again, we're having some fun with early season numbers, but that would put the team on pace for 378 of those as well. And again, that mark would be a record, topping the 376 put up by the 2008 Texas Rangers.

It's not that the Royals are hitting the ball harder than ever before either (well ok, Alex Gordon has been), but they are running on everyone, even when it's not well advised. The fast guys are looking to stretch singles into doubles, and so are the not-so-fast, and downright slow guys. And they've caught every break, even when the ball has beaten them, the opposition has missed tags.

Again, more pressure, this time on the defense. It can start to mess with people's when they know they're going to have to come up gunning on every single play.

Surely this success is going to start to fall off. It pretty much has to. No one steals successfully 93% of the time. Nor does every attempt to stretch a single into a double work out. Eventually you start creating more outs instead of adding additional bases and that drives the run expectancy charts in the opposite direction, undoing a lot of was done by adding additional bases.

Stealing bases and legging out every ball that has a chance at resulting in an extra base isn't going to change the Royals fortunes in 2011, but it will have an effect. For the fans of the team, it'll give them an exciting reason to come to the ballpark. And for the team itself, it'll create a mindset of aggressiveness. This Royals squad is likely on it's way to getting a lot better really soon and for those who will be a part of it's future, changing the mindset that has existed over the past two decades will be as important as anything.

If you're a good team you'll probably beat the Kansas City Royals in 2011. But they're going to make you chase them down first. Don't blink.

Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both,, and He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.

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