I was perusing fangraphs today, doing some research for an upcoming post about postseason award frontrunners when I noticed that the Red Sox are an attrocious baserunning team. At 6.8 Baserunning Runs Below Average, this year’s Sox grade worse than any AL team except the Tigers and A’s. The Red Sox have been at least 3.7 runs below average every year since fangraphs started tracking BRAA in 2001, and were historically bad (-21.2) in their championship season of 2004.
Is it possible that the Red Sox are just that bad on the basepaths? Sure. David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez do a lot of the team’s baserunning, and no one’s arguing that they do it well. Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, the two fastest players on the team, get caught stealing a little too much (26% and 31% of this year’s attempts, respectively), so their baserunning value may not equal their speed. Previous teams were weighed down by the likes of Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell.
Stolen bases, though, don’t even count in Baserunning Runs Above Average, a metric based (to the best of my knowledge) on runners taking additional bases on subsequent hitters’ at-bats. Could it be that Fenway Park inhibits players’ abilities to take extra bases?
In larger parks, a lot of singles are hit to outfielders playing deeper than they would in Fenway. It’s easier to go first-to-third or score from second on a single if the outfielders are playing deeper.
Fly balls to left field tend to fall into one of two categories: wallball singles/doubles that would have been outs in other parks and wallball singles/doubles that would have been home runs in other parks. As hitters are concerned, the wall giveth and the wall taketh away. Lazier fly balls off the Monster usually require runners to hold up and see if they’ll be caught, which typically results in the hitter running right behind the baserunner- taking second if the runner goes to third and holding at first if the runner has to hold as second. Line drives off the wall might allow the runner to go to third, but a savvy hitter will take a big turn at first in case a visiting fielder misplays the ball, again often ending up at second.
A third situation in which Fenway runners may be at a disadvantage in terms of BRAA is actually a big advantage to the hitter. The goofy right field wall is just 302 feet from the plate at Pesky’s Pole, but 420 feet in the triangle in right center, and it hooks around in such a way that a visiting right fielder rarely guesses correctly where a bounce will take a ball. Balls hit into the right field corner or the triangle area tend to roll a while, allowing the hitter to leg out doubles and triples on balls that may have been singles and doubles in other parks. This is an advantage for the hitting team, of course, but runners who could have gained BRAA points by scoring from first on a double don’t earn those points if the hitter ends up with a triple.
It’s clear that Fenway is a hitters’ park, and that the quirks tend to work to the offensive team’s advantage (except when the Monster eats up would-be home runs). You’ll never hear a baserunner complain that he feels stifled by the dimensions of Fenway Park. But when we’re evaluating baserunners based on their ability to take an extra base, it’s very possible that Fenway is selling them short.
It’s possible that Baserunning Runs Above Average are park-adjusted and this is all moot, but I’d be somewhat surprised if they are, since park effects are much more obvious in relation to hitting, pitching, and outfield defense. It seems the best way to study this effect would be to identify players who have played at least three seasons since 2001 in Boston and at least three seasons elsewhere and see how their average annual BRAAs compare.
It’s a surprisingly small sample. As active as the Red Sox are on the free agent market, their roster doesn’t turn over all that much. Right field has been manned by two players (Trot Nixon and JD Drew) for the entire decade. Center field has essentially been Damon and Ellsbury. Left was Manny, who didn’t play three full seasons after he left, and a sequence of one year-guys, much like Nomar and the parade of one- and two-year shortstops after him. Varitek has been in Boston for the whole decade, and his various backups never accumulated enough plate appearances to make their baserunning splits mean anything.
Let’s take a look:
Nomar Garciaparra was worth 2.5 BRAA/year with the Red Sox and negative 1.2 the rest of his career. Of course, he left Boston at age 31 and was never particularly healthy or effective after that.
Johnny Damon was worth 3.2 BRAA/year in Boston and 3.0 elsewhere, but again, he was getting old when he went to New York, so it’s impressive that his baserunning was even comparable to that of his prime years.
JD Drew was a productive baserunner with various teams early in the decade, averaging 1.6 BRAA and peaking at 4. He came to Boston and fell off a cliff, averaging 0.5 BRAA. Of course, he was 31 when he signed with the Sox. I’m 31 and would have a hard time going first-to-third on a double to right field in Petco Park.
Mike Lowell best supports by theory. He was a bad baserunner in Florida, averaging negative 2.2 runs, but was worse in Boston (-4.0). Again, he only played for the Sox in his 30s.
At this point, I’d like to turn the reins over to someone a little more savvy than I am- someone who might know whether there’s been work done to park-adjust baserunning numbers already or how to make better use of the data available to determine whether Red Sox baserunners can’t be properly evaluated by BRAA. It’s possible that park effects encompass hitting and baserunning, but the negative adjustments for Fenway’s positive effects on hitters actually offset the understatement of the same hitters’ baserunning value.
Anyone want to take it from here?