Outside of the game's best record and run differential, the Tampa Bay Rays are best known for the chaos they cause on the basepaths. On a near nightly basis you can hear announcers, both home and away, gush over how the Rays speed and aggressiveness frustrates their opposition. But just how much has that really helped the team score runs this season?
One would assume it would help a fair amount. It seems like common sense that a team who runs the bases successfully - i.e. taking the extra bag and doing so at a high percentage - would inherently score more runs. Let's look at the numbers for this season:
Coming into last night's game, the Rays had 51 stolen bases, 12 caught stealing, and 5 pickoff caught stealing. Using linear weights for steals, caught stealing, and pickoffs, show that the Rays have come out ahead by four runs thus far. According to Baseball Prospectus, that puts them third in baseball behind the Rangers(+4.7) and Mets(+7.5). So,the Rays's aggressive approach does seems to be turning out favorable results so far this season.
Looking at the raw baserunning stats on the invaluable baseball-reference.com shows us exactly where the Rays rank in a number of key categories. Their XBT% (The percentage of time a runner advances more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double) of 46% is second in baseball behind the Reds's 51%. Broken down individually, the team is second in baseball in a man scoring from first on a double (15 times), and scoring from second on a single (41 times), among the league leaders in a runner advancing to third on a single (26 times). They're also near the bottom of the league in non-pickoff outs on the bases (13).
Taking a peek at the stats for individual players brings up some interesting, if not fluky, numbers. Would you have guessed that the leader in scoring from first on a double is Gabe Kapler, who has done it three times this season? Even more surprising than that is the fact that Dioner Navarro is tied for second on that list with two(!). What's not a surprise is that B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, and Ben Zobrist lead the team in bases taken with seven apiece. Going back to Baseball Prospectus and using their baserunner metric, we see that the top ranked base runners for the Rays have been Crawford (worth 2.1 runs), Zobrist (1.3), Upton (0.7), and Gabe Kapler (0.6). The worst by far being Jason Bartlett (-1.3) and Navarro (-1.1). Jason Bartlett being rated so low is surprising given his reputation as an excellent runner.
Far too often in baseball the base running game gets overlooked, and sometimes undervalued. The Rays have made it a point of emphasis to do everything they can to exploit the considerable advantage they have on the basepaths. It seems to be paying off in droves this season.