MLB's Best (And Worst) Baserunners

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Okay, so the Rapture didn't happen exactly as scheduled. But when it does happen, the anticipation will only make it better.

Plus, if the world as we know it had ended last Saturday, we wouldn't have been treated to the latest offering from FanGraphs: Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Base Running (UBR).

From the primer* ...

* By the way, did you know the word "primer" rhymes with "swimmer"? True story. Now go forth and multiply.

Base running linear weights or base running runs, or Ultimate Base Running (UBR), is similar to the outfield arm portion of UZR. Whatever credit (positive or negative) is given to an outfielder based on a runner hold, advance, or kill on a batted ball is also given in reverse to the runner (or runners). There are some plays that a runner is given credit (again plus or minus) for that do not involve an outfielder, such as being safe or out going from first to second on a ground ball to the infield, or advancing, remaining, or being thrown out going from second to third on a ground ball to SS or 3B.

Runs are awarded to base runners in the same way they are rewarded to outfielders on "arm" plays. The average run value in terms of the base/out state is subtracted from the actual run value (also in terms of the resultant base/out state) on a particular play where a base runner is involved. The result of the subtraction is the run value awarded to the base runner on that play.

Some of that might sound like gobbledygook to the uninitiated, but it's really not so complicated and there follows an elementary explanation, with a list of the baserunning plays that can result in credit (or discredit) for a baserunner.

The point is that everyone's got the same goal: to count what can be counted, and ultimately construct a framework that allows us to value baseball players as precisely as possible. Bill James wrote something once, I don't remember where, that's so elementary it shouldn't need to be written but I find myself saying it all the time anyway ...

Everything counts.

This does not mean that we can count everything. But we should try, and what we can count should count. There was a pretty ridiculous book published this spring, and I wound up not writing much about the book because I didn't think I had much to add to the discussion (such as it was). But one of the more ridiculous things about the book was the authors' insistence that various elements in baseball can't be counted ... even though guys like Mickey Lichtman were, at that very moment, counting them.

Here are the leaders in Ultimate Base Running, 2008-2011:

1. Chone Figgins  +17.4
2. Elvis Andrus   +13.9
3. Colby Rasmus  +13.5
4. Michael Bourn  +11.7
5. Shane Victorino  +11.7

Andrus is the most impressive here, since he spent 2008 in the minors. You might have noticed a running theme among those five players, but we'll get to that in a moment. First, the 2008-2011 trailers:

1. Prince Fielder  -22.7
2. Paul Konerko  -18.5
3. Carlos Lee  -17.1
4. Billy Butler   -14.7
5. David Ortiz  -14.6

Yes, the guys in the first list are fast and the guys in the second list are slow. I totally get that.

So this is not a measure of baserunning smarts as baserunning ability, which is tied more closely to actual speed than anything else. Granted, nobody needs a number to tell them Michael Bourn is fast. But if your goal is to precisely value a player's performance, don't you have to include a baserunning component? Don't you want to give credit to the players who create runs with their baserunning, and take credit from those who don't?

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