MLB – THE KEY TO WINNING IN BASEBALL IS…

About a decade ago, I heard Don Zimmer say something which I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.

It was during a Yankees pre-game broadcast when Zimmer, the Yankees bench-coach at the time, sat down with a reporter to answer questions, most of which were the run-of-the-mill kind.   But, then, the reporter asked Zimmer the mother of all questions one could pose to a baseball legend: “What is the key to winning in baseball?”

Since Zimmer has been involved in the sport since 1949 as a player (5 years in minors & 12 in big leagues), coach (21 years), and manager (13 years), I was keenly interested in hearing what bounty of info he was going to share.

So, I hunkered down in my seat and waited.  It felt as if someone with first-hand knowledge was just about to tell me where the Holy Grail was located.

After a short pause, Zimmer finally answered: “Baserunning”.

I remember raising an eyebrow to that statement.  I thought Zimmer would reply with something like the pitching, defense, bullpen, homeruns…  Certainly not Baserunning.   I mean, how can this attribute be more important to the overall success of a team than others?

Surely we must believe Zimmer’s opinion as Godsend since he played on teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, and Washington Senators and coached the Red Sox, Yankees, Giants, and Rangers, right?  He’s also considered by some to be the best third-base coach of all time.  Why then, am I still skeptical?

It’s probably due to the fact that there isn’t really a statistic that can tell us the bottom line.

Yes, it’s true that we do have some statistical data to measure a team’s baserunning performance, as well as individual players’ success on the bags.  Dan Fox, formerly of Baseball Prospectus and current advisor to the Pittsburgh Pirates, introduced a saber metric statistic known as Equivalent Baserunning Runs (EqBRR) in the mid 2000s via research published at The Hardball Times.  (EqBRR provides an aggregate that averages how many runs are gained in the categories of:  stolen base attempts, advancing on ground ball outs, advancing on hits and taking the extra base successfully, and advancing on errors).  Beyond that, Baseball-Reference.com also contains a multitude of additional statistical data on baserunning.

While both stats are very helpful, I don’t feel they really give us a complete picture if baserunning is the ultimate contributor to a team’s overall success.

For instance, I pulled the 2012 stats and the five top teams that led the majors last year in EqBRR were: 1) Anaheim; 2) Miami; 3) Atlanta; 4) Texas; 5) NY Mets.  You will notice that none of those teams even made the playoffs, despite having statistically good baserunning.  The World Series Champs San Fran came in #10 on this list.

I also pulled some data from Baseball-Reference.com.  Using San Fran as a measure, the team’s stats show that they are a good baserunning team overall, but only came in 1st in any one category which was “Bases Taken” (Advancements on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks, & defensive indifference).   A few other notables were that the Giants ranked 2nd in Stolen Base Opps; ranked 6th in Run Scoring %; and had one of the least “Outs on Base” (Runners put out while making a baserunning play).

So, according to these statistical tools, am I to believe then, that baserunning is not very important to winning, and Zimmer’s opinion basically squat?  Not necessarily.

As Dan Fox admits in his post dated November 10, 2004, the third base coach influence and the effect of the ballpark (i.e: surface, field, hi/lo) should carry some merit in measuring baserunning, as well as other intangibles.

And, to me, intangibles are what makes studying baserunning very difficult and fascinating. Beyond what actually happened on the field, there are so many intangibles that can effect whether or not a runner will be aggressive and take extra bases in a stealing and non-stealing situation.

This factor of baserunning makes the sport of baseball totally unique and dynamic.  A team isn’t just relegated to scoring goals to get ahead, or attaining rigid downs to an end zone.  In baseball, individual players can have an impact on the bottom line by being aggressive at the right time on the bases, after they’ve actually been up to bat on gotten on base.

In the end, I’ll probably do what I’ve wanted to do these past ten years and just believe Zimmer.  He’s witnessed an awful lot in his experience and for this, I cannot dismiss his opinion.

After all, it really does seem conceivable that if a team has multiple runners with ample speed, intelligence, & instinct and who know when to be aggressive at the right time, it could be a team’s biggest advantage over others.

Heck, if it’s good enough for Don Zimmer, then it should be good enough for me.

 

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