clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Here’s why the Rays are thriving on the basepaths

They’re smart. That’s how

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at San Francisco Giants Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

One of the emerging themes in the early days of the 2019 Tampa Bay Rays season is the club’s impressive start on the basepaths. Through Tuesday’s win over the White Sox, the team has 14 steals, one behind the Seattle Mariners for the most in baseball.

No team other than the two surprise (well, TB is a surprise to some…) American League upstarts has reached double-digits in terms of thefts this season.

Even more impressive for the Rays: they are a perfect 14-for-14 in those attempts. As such, the team already has earned a league-leading 2.6 Baserunning runs, per FanGraphs, a solid margin over Seattle in second (1.9) and well above Washington in third (1.0). (The stat also weighs baserunning outside of steals, but thefts weigh heavy.)

During Tuesday’s broadcast, it was noted that Rays manager Kevin Cash attributed their quick start on the basepaths to the Rays collection of intelligent baserunners in 2019.

That checks out: With Mallex International Speedway (14th in 2018 Statcast Sprint Speed) having moved to the Pacific Northwest, the Rays lineup doesn’t have any classic burners. In fact, their fastest player by 2018 Statcast Sprint Speed was, rather surprisingly, Avisail Garcia at 60th overall (with Kevin Kiermaier in a virtual tie at 61st).

If you don’t have blazing speed, be smart. That makes sense. But there may be another factor to consider. As Michael Baumann wrote in a piece for The Ringer last week:

“Blocking, and especially throwing, have been deemphasized for catchers because there isn’t as much to gain by excelling at those aspects of the game as framing, or offense, it should be said. On Baseball Savant’s 2018 leaderboard for catcher pop time (time from the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt to hitting the fielder’s glove on a stolen base attempt), the bottom two—Tyler Flowers and Max Stassi—were two of the three best framers in baseball, and the third- and fourth-best defensive catchers overall.”

Then, a few paragraphs later, Baumann made the following observation:

“On Saturday, the Rays stole three bases off Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos, who is a better hitter than framer, but like his teammate Stassi, is a below-average thrower. One stolen base attempt resulted in a throwing error, and in the eighth, Tampa Bay pulled off a double steal with Tommy Pham (who’s fast) and Ji-Man Choi (who isn’t) on the battery of Chirinos and Chris Devenski, a right-handed reliever against whom opposing base stealers are 30-for-36 lifetime.”

That sounds an awful lot like stealing bases because of smarts. Or maybe more accurately: being prepared.

But is the Rays stolen base prowess in 2019 tied to vulnerable catchers? and is this sort of success sustainable throughout the season as a whole?

Steals so far

Here’s a lot at all 14 Rays stolen base attempts in 2019:

Rays Steals (2019)

SB attempt Result Pitcher Catcher 2018 TRAA (out of 117)
SB attempt Result Pitcher Catcher 2018 TRAA (out of 117)
Pham Success Cole Stassi 93rd
Meadows Success McHugh Chirinos 117th
Choi Success Devenski Chirinos 117th
Pham Success Devenski Chirinos 117th
Pham Success Shaw Iannetta 116th
Lowe Success Marquez Wolters 12th
Kiermaier Success Marquez Wolters 12th
Garcia Success Davis Iannetta 116th
Kiermaier Success Dyson Posey 18th
Diaz Success Pomeranz Kratz 98th
Robertson Success Rodon McCann 1st
Pham Success Rodon McCann 1st
Pham Success Rodon McCann 1st
Meadows Success Santana Castillo 26th

In just a dozen games, the Rays have managed to face both the literal best and literal worst catchers by 2018 Baseball Prospectus throwing runs—and they ran on both of them. That would lead one to believe that maybe Baumann’s hypothesis isn’t quite accurate.

However, it should be noted that those three steals off McCann came with Rodon on the mound; Rodon ranks 19th-worst (interesting note: Glasnow ranks last) in terms of pitcher stolen bases allowed since 2018.

So maybe it is that the Rays are going to be choosing their spots and picking on the weak links all season. (And yes, obviously, any team is going to pick on the worst catcher/pitcher combos more, but the point is to see if it is to an extreme.)

Steal to the future

So, if that’s the case, knowing that the Rays will face each division foe 19 times this season, making up nearly half the schedule, how do things look within the AL East:

SB outlook AL East

Team Catcher #1 rank Catcher #2 rank Vulnerable pitchers (IP/SB rank)
Team Catcher #1 rank Catcher #2 rank Vulnerable pitchers (IP/SB rank)
Boston Red Sox Vazquez (22nd) Swihart (87th) Porcello (75th)
New York Yankees Sanchez (14th) Romine (91st) Hutchison (26th); German (51st); Gonzalez (93rd)
Toronto Blue Jays Jansen (104th) Maile (27th) Borucki (3rd); Gaviglio (7th); Sanchez (47th); Shoemaker (60th); Stroman (92nd)
Baltimore Orioles Sucre (38th) Severino (21st) Karns (14th); Ramirez (32nd); Bundy (50th); Cashner (66th); Hess (76th); Straily (79th); Cobb (95th)

The AL East is a tough division to steal in.

The top dogs, Boston and New York, both having starting backstops with great arms and pitchers who excel at shutting down the running game. There are potentially games when the backup catcher is in and either Porcello or German are on the mound that could see the Rays looks to exploit an advantage, but that may be one game this season. The Orioles, despite being generally bad at everything, have a couple of catchers with good arms (hey, Sucre!) but plenty of pitchers to take advantage of. The Jays offer the most intrigue, with young Danny Jansen appearing to be vulnerable, and a pair of arms in the top ten among steals allowed per inning pitched.

In all likelihood, if indeed the Rays are looking to take advantage of some of the top framers around the league who don’t necessarily have the best arms, those advantages will come outside the division: Roberto Perez when the Rays play Cleveland; Russell Martin when the Dodgers pop into St. Pete for a two-game series in May; Austin Hedges when the Rays and Padres meet in the World Series…

The Rays are always looking to the margins for any advantage. This could be just another example of that, or maybe it’s just a well coached team being prepared.