The Indians lead all of baseball in pitching fWAR by a considerable amount (27.5 compared to 22.1 in Arizona). Breaking that down further, they have the best starting rotation and second best bullpen (7.8 to 7.9 of the Yankees) by the same stat. They are second in offensive production behind Houston (really far behind Houston) and slightly above league average defensively, which combined with the incredible K-rates in the pitching staff, have the Indians with the least amount of runs allowed for the season, six ahead of Los Angeles.
These things, as well as the Indians winning streak and overall record are well documented. As a team, however, the Indians are at least a five tool player and their prowess on the base paths has been greatly overlooked thanks to their success in other aspects of the offensive game.
To start, fangraphs has them at 8.4 runs above average from base running alone. This ranks sixth in all of baseball, third in the AL behind the Twins and Royals. This is despite being a fairly power heavy team that doesn’t steal bases often (their 79 ranks 12th in MLB). In fact, it’s very probably the fact that they have hit for so much power (.450 SLG ranks third in MLB, second in AL) that they’ve been able to get so much value out of so few attempts.
While stealing 79 bases, the Indians have only attempted 101, giving them the 5th best success rate in MLB and third in the AL by fractions of a percent. Because they don’t need to steal to score, then can pick and choose their places better than many teams (like the Giants who have attempted 100 and been safe just 68% of the time) or not at all in the case of the slower players. This includes Austin Jackson, who used to be a major base stealing threat, but has just stolen two bases in three attempts this year.
Terry Francona has also helped his team’s caught stealing numbers by never using the hit and run. Despite the team’s incredible high OBP and lack of moving runners, they’re in the middle of the pack as far as GIDP (113), likely because they have one of the lowest overall ground ball rates (43%) in baseball.
Of course, there’s more to baserunning than stealing, and because it isn’t officially tallied, I keep my own stats that I call “extra bases” and “tag outs.” They are as simple as they sound, counting every time a runner advances more than the minimum for the former and every time they are tagged out on the bases for the latter. Times tagged out doesn’t include attempted steals or if the runner would have been forced out anyway. The chart below shows the totals for each of these stats as well as stolen base numbers for everyone who has played for the Indians this year.
There are a few things worth noting on this list, ignoring the first couple entries due to lack of sample size.
- While Jackson hasn’t been stealing, he’s been fairly active on the bases otherwise and has only been tagged out once between his 18 extra bases and three steal attempts.
- Much like his defense, Carlos Santana‘s base running is criminally underrated. This year, he’s third in extra bases attempted and has been thrown out just three times in addition to his five steals on six attempts.
- Jose Ramirez is the team’s most aggressive base runner, but Francisco Lindor has been significantly more successful in just slightly fewer attempts.
- Things may not continue in this fashion as two of the top three base runners are likely out for the season.
Officially, there’s been no time table set for Michael Brantley and Bradley Zimmer is expected to miss about six weeks. Either way, Brantley is currently unable to run under his full weight and Zimmer would be able to resume playing during the last week of October. Based on their injuries, Brantley would likely be nothing but a bat if he returns at all, which is unfortunate as he’s been one of the best base runners in Indians history, while Zimmer would potentially be the opposite. With no chance to play rehab games, it would be tough to throw the rookie into the ALCS or World Series as more than a pinch runner/defensive replacement.
Even without the two that have been the best, the Indians are pretty well set in the base running department. Greg Allen stole 157 bases while being caught just 38 times during his minor league career and, while he hasn’t turned it on yet in the Majors, with a month under his belt he may be more open to the idea in October.
It is in October (and beyond) that this skill could come into greater importance. In general, facing the best pitching staffs in baseball, home runs drop and runs are at a premium. With players like Santana and Lindor taking extra bases at a high rate and being successful the vast majority of the time, the Indians may be able to squeak out a few more runs than teams that are even more reliant on the home run and significantly poorer on the base paths. The perfect example here is the powerhouse that is Houston. While they’ve attempted and stolen more bases than Cleveland, they’ve only been successful 70% of the time compared to 78% for the Tribe. Boston, New York, Minnesota and Los Angeles, on the other hand, have been right with the Indians in terms of both number of attempts and success rate.
Thanks largely to the win streak, the Indians are finally getting the recognition they deserve and each individual unit (starting pitching, relief pitching, defense and offense) has been among the best in the league. Now it’s time to recognize that their base running is right there with those other aspects of their game.