Opportunity Knocks

A running theme* during spring training so far has been the Royals willingness to mix it up on the basepaths.  After acquiring speedy players like Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain to go along with Jarrod Dyson and Derrick Robinson in camp, it’s a good use of personnel to get a feel for how players read pitchers and what instincts they bring to baserunning.

*No pun intended, though it fits so, so well.

I touched on this subject a little bit last month, but with actual games going on now, I think I can look a little deeper into if aggressiveness on the basepaths will be a trend or if it’s something that’s just being looked at in spring.

On the surface, it seems like a gameplan. Ned Yost talks about how he wants the team to “run wild” and baserunning coach Doug Sisson echoes the sentiment – especially in spring training.

“The best thing a player can hear is, ‘We want you to be aggressive, and it’s OK to make an aggressive mistake. It’s not OK to make a passive mistake. If you think you can make a play, try to make the play and that’s where you find out whether you can or can’t,'” Sisson said.

Last year the Royals were second in the American League in hits, though a higher percentage of those were singles (71.9%) than the average AL team (67.2%).  While the Royals lacked a little pop in 2010 (and might in 2011 until Mike Moustakas and, perhaps, Eric Hosmer get their bearings at the big league level), they had opportunities to steal bases.

If you’ve ever read Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster, you know about Stolen Base Opportunity % or SBO.  For his purposes, he uses it as a way to gauge a player for fantasy baseball and how frequently they attempt to steal when they reach first base.  It’s calculated simply by dividing stolen base attempts by the combined total of walks and singles.  The league average in the American League was about 9.7%.

The Royals ran more last year than that, attempting 165 steals in 1604 opportunities or 10.3%.  They really took off in the summer, attempting 63 steals in 546 opportunities – 11.5% of the time in August and September combined.

Why is that?  I see a couple of factors.

First, the Royals you saw in July were much different than the team you saw in August or September.  While Scott Podsednik was a safe bet to take off from first, he was traded in July along with slowpokes Alberto Callaspo and Rick Ankiel and Jose Guillen was designated for assignment in the first week of August.  David DeJesus, never a real threat to steal, went on the 60 day DL in late July as well.  In their place, the Royals had acquired Gregor Blanco and called up Jarrod Dyson in September, both of whom were let loose on the basepaths.  Blanco’s patience and pitch selection got him to first often and Dyson made ten attempts in just 18 games.

The second factor I see is a managerial change.  Under Yost, the Royals attempted 127 steals in 127 games.  They also had runners moving in 128 instances according to the Bill James Annual for 2011.  Over the course of his career as Royals manager, Trey Hillman had runners moving a total of 247 times in 359 games and there were 272 steal attempts.  Yost has a smaller sample size, but even in Milwaukee, his teams surpassed Hillman’s high of stolen base attempts (117) four times in six years.  Tactically, he’s more open to moving baserunners.

So far in spring, that seems to be a continuing trend.  Last spring, the Royals attempted 24 steals total.  Through Saturday’s game, the 2011 Royals have already made 18 steal attempts (in 92 opportunities – 19.57%).  That may calm down as spring goes along, but with the comments of the Royals coaches, my guess is that they’ll keep the wheels moving.

As things shape up, if I had to guess who will make the team out of spring training, I’d say Mitch Maier and Gregor Blanco survive and Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain head to Omaha.  That’s purely an options-related scenario, as Cain has more upside than both and Dyson has better range than either, but Maier and Blanco have experience and baseball’s rules on their side.  All four have good speed, though Maier rates as the slowest of the group.  So far in spring, though, he’s stolen four bases in nine opportunities.  Cain, Dyson and Blanco are a combined 3/13 in limited time.

It’s just like Sisson said, though, the Royals need to know what they can and can’t do.  In parts of four major league seasons, Maier has only attempted 18 stolen bases.  That he’s attempted four steals this spring seems like they may ask him to run more, or want to at least see if they can run him more.

Likewise, Mike Aviles has never been much of a runner, but in his four times reaching first via a single or walk, he’s attempted three steals.  Since he is the early favorite to leadoff in 2011, the Royals are giving him the opportunity to show he can steal a base here or there.

Let’s face it.  Last year, 16 homers was good enough to lead the Royals as a team.  Corey Hart had that beat in the first half of the season last year.  Speed and aggressiveness on the basepaths can sometimes compensate for lack of power.  Defenses have to be on edge – maybe the shortstop cheats a little towards second, or the first baseman has to hold the runner.  Those couple of steps can mean the difference between a seeing eye single and a 6-4-3 double play.  Or if the runner gets on first and steals second, you now have a runner in scoring position.  Nevermind the attention the pitcher now has to pay to that runner.  Maybe he leaves a pitch up due to distraction, or starts to throw more fastballs.

It can be a risky strategy.  With a team like the Royals, who probably won’t be in the top half of the AL in on base percentage, those times when a runner does get on can be precious indeed.  You don’t want to run yourself out of an inning.  If you’ve read Moneyball, you know the Billy Beane stance is to avoid making outs wherever you can.

This will be something to watch through the rest of spring and after opening day.  Last season, the Royals finished sixth in the AL in steals.  From the sound of it, they might run that number up a bit higher in 2011.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Gregor Blanco Jarrod Dyson Kansas City Royals KC Mike Aviles Mitch Maier MLB Ned Yost Royals Trey Hillman

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