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Breaking down the Rays running game

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or, how can you be bad at stealing bases but still score well on most running metrics?

MLB: ALDS-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

The running game was one of the strengths of the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays were one of five teams to put up double digit BaseRuns according to FanGraphs.com. The way they got there is quite unique.

Their +11.2 BaseRuns were earned by +5.3 UBR (Ultimate Base Running), +10.8 wGDP (Weighted Grounded into Double Play Runs), and -4.9 wSB (Weighted Stolen Base Runs). The Rays were sixth in UBR, first in wGDP, and tied for 26th in wSB.

Stealing Bases

Most fans equate baserunning with base stealing, but the Rays were not great at stealing bases. The Rays stole 88 bases which was tied for seventh most in the majors, but they were caught a league leading 42 times. The Rays 68% success rate was fourth worst in the league.

Randy Arozarena led the team with 20 stolen bases but also led the team in times caught stealing at 10. His 66.6% success rate is not ideal.

Brett Phillips was 14 of 17 (82.4% success rate) was the best of the high-volume stealers. Brandon Lowe didn’t try often, but when he did he usually succeeded. Lowe was successful on 7 of his 8 attempts (87.5% success rate).

The only player who was caught more often than he was successful was Willy Adames who was 1 for 3.

One thing that jumps to my mind is the Rays tendency to run in a full count even with runners that lack traditional base stealing speed with less than two outs in order to stay out of groundball double plays. The Rays had the fewest groundball double plays at 75, and they were one of only two teams that had fewer than 90. This probably came as part of a trade off that cost them stolen base runs, but helped them pace the league in wGDP by avoiding double plays.

Taking the Extra Base

Stolen bases aren’t the only way to provide value on the bases and Baseball Reference has a great resource to show teams and player ability to take the extra base when available.

The Rays led the league in XBT% (Extra Base Taken %) at 47%. The league average was 40% with the Seattle Mariners coming in last at 34% to give some context.

When a runner was on first Rays runners made it to third 35.5% of the time on a single compared to league average rate of 28.7%.

When a double was hit the Rays runner scored from first 42.5% of the time compared to a league average 38.6%.

The Rays scored from second base on a single 69.1% of the time compared to the league average of 65.9%.

Rays runners were very aggressive at taking the extra base at every opportunity and most importantly weren’t caught an excessive amount of time on the bases. They ran into 45 outs on the bases not counting stolen bases. The average team was caught 46 times.

Among Rays qualified batters who took the base very frequently Brandon Lowe (55%), Austin Meadows (52%), and Randy Arozarena (49%) being well above average. Yandy Diaz (38%) came up just shy of league average.

Aggression leads to runs

The Rays prioritized timely aggression to lead the league with their base runners scoring 35% of the time compared to the league average of 31%.

In the analytics era there has been a tendency to become more conservative with base-stealing, with the understanding that the risk of the out is not worth the gain of the extra base. The Rays, however, have continued to run. Maybe the Rays determined that teams have become too passive and in the counter-cyclical analytical fashion typical of their front office they have decided to move in the opposite direction.

2022 will bring back most of the same position players, so if their philosophy remains the same expect to see a similarly aggressive style, with the downside of a lot of caught stealing but the upside of fewer double plays and more runs.