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The continued bad baserunning of the Seattle Mariners

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We've got the TOOTs. We've got the BLANs.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, according to FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and the eyeballs of baseball fans everywhere, the Mariners were far and away one of the worst baserunning teams in MLB. They were slow, bad at stealing bases, and seemed to commit bone-headed outs on the basepaths every damned game. It was frustrating to watch.

Enter new hires Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto. Although these gentlemen inherited a roster from the Jack Z regime that was not particularly fleet of feet, Scott and Jerry promised to make significant changes to the M’s run game. They both acknowledged that the team had struggled on the basepaths in '15 and there was ample room for improvement. This was an issue that they felt sorely needed to be addressed.

Here are a few baserunning-related quotes from Servais (recorded by Larry Stone during spring training):

"We talked all offseason about how this team is built. It’s a different team, and we certainly want fans in Seattle to recognize that."

"To win those games late, it’s not usually a home run or double off the wall. It’s getting a leadoff guy on, getting him over, creating some havoc [...] We have to create other opportunities to win ballgames."

"To be good, I think an 80 percent [stolen base] success rate is kind of what you’re shooting for. Some guys won’t be that high, others will be higher. But again, it’s a feel. It’s knowing when to anticipate a breaking ball, who is up to the plate, how is that guy getting pitched, to being into the game. That’s what great base-stealers do. Obviously it helps to be fast, but to have feel on the bases is really important."

With the signings of Leonys Martin (who is fast) and Norichika Aoki (who averaged more than 20 SB per season with a not bad SB% between 2012 and 2015), it seemed like maybe their talk of placing an increased value on competent baserunning was more than just the posturing of a new hire.

Unfortunately...

In 2016, according to FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and the eyeballs of baseball fans everywhere, the Mariners are far and away one of the worst baserunning teams in MLB. They are slow, bad at stealing bases, and seem to commit bone-headed outs on the basepaths every damned game. It is frustrating to watch.

FG currently has the Mariners tied for last in baserunning (with the Royals) with a BsR of -12.7. BP ranks them dead last with a BRR of -12.3, which is almost three runs worse than the next worst team. Woof. Although these metrics are based on slightly different equations the takeaway is the same. The Mariners stink. Below, to provide some perspective about who has been particularly lousy, I've included the normalized base running values for every MLB batter with 200+ PA in 2016. (I opted for BsR over BRR for this chart largely because FG's website is a little easier to use and looks a little bit less like it was designed by a B-average middle school student in 1999.)

Looked at differently, here are the data for M's players in table form:

Player BsR BsR percentile Rating (according to FG)
Leonys Martin 1.9 69% Above average
Ketel Marte 1.2 62% Above average
Chris Iannetta -0.7 45% Average
Kyle Seager -0.7 43% Average
Seth Smith -0.9 41% Average
Robinson Cano -1.4 36% Below average
Norichika Aoki -2.5 28% Below average
Adam Lind -5.3 12% Awful
Nelson Cruz -6.0 7% Awful
Dae-ho Lee -10.4 1% Awful

Any stat that attempts to be ~all-encompassing (like BsR) is bound to be imperfect, but after looking at these numbers/ratings and comparing them to the ol' fashioned eye test it's tough to find anything that feels grossly amiss. Tabbing Seager, Smith, and Iannetta as "average" baserunners seems a bit generous, but they're near the bottom of that ranking bin so it doesn't feel like too much of a stretch. Meanwhile, Leonys and Ketel have been fine and just about everyone else has been a train wreck; this seems reflective of real life. (It should be noted that Guti and O'Malley have both been slightly above average baserunners this season, but they failed to reach the 200 PA cutoff. If they see more playing time going forward, this has the potential to help the team's baserunning a little bit, but not enough to significantly right the ship.) Anyway, it's convenient to look at a single number to get an idea about what's going on, but what are the individual causes that have led to this overarching craptastic performance?

1. The Mariners are bad at stealing bases

This year, the Mariners have successfully stolen 26 bases while being thrown out 22 times. That's a SB% of 54.1%, which is very last in MLB. (The league average is 71%). It's easy to blame this on Aoki who has an atrocious SB% (4 for 11 - just 36.4%!) and the worst SB% of any player with 8+ SB attempts. Despite having only the 53rd most SBA, only two players in MLB have been thrown out more often than Aoki. HOWEVER, it's not just Norichika's fault. Even if you take away his "contribution", the team's SB% is still below 60%. In fact, the only Mariner to have a better than average SB% is Shawn O'Malley who has gone 2 for 2. The inability to correctly read a pitcher, get a good jump, and make a good slide appears to be a systematic problem for the Mariners.

2. The Mariners ground into a lot of double plays

The Mariners have grounded into 81 double plays this year. Only the Angels, Blue Jays, and Royals have done so more often. Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager "lead" the way for the M's with 11 GIDP each (T-22 in MLB). On the one hand, you might be tempted to blame these large numbers on the fact that Seattle has had a lot of baserunners this year, so of course they're going to be near the top in GIDPs! However, as a team, the Mariners also have the 5th highest GIDP%. They've had lots of opportunities to hit into double killings and man have they taken advantage of them. It has been tough to watch sometimes.

3. The Mariners are bad at taking the extra base

Baseball-reference keeps track of a stat referred to as the "percentage of extra bases taken" (XBT%). This reflects the percentage of the time that a runner moves up more than one base on a single and more than two bases on a double (when they're able to do so). The Mariners have an XBT% of 38%. This is tied for 7th worst in baseball. Once again, they find themselves near the bottom of the league in a baserunning stat. A lot of these missed opportunities are probably related to the fact that the average Mariner is not fast. Or they could be caused by bad reads by Seattle baserunners. Or they may even reflect the reluctance of an M's basecoach of waving a slowpoke around third on a single to right field. Marte and Guti have actually been pretty good taking the extra base, but their gains have been more than wiped out by the plodding pace of Lind and Lee.

4. Too many TOOTBLANs!

According to bbref, the Mariners have committed 36 outs on the basepaths this season. (OOB excludes caught stealing numbers and force plays.) That is tied for 5th highest in MLB. 17 of those outs have come at second base, which is the very most in baseball. Stop trying to stretch singles into doubles if you're slow! 36 OOBs in 95 games is "only" one every ~three games, but it sure feels like they goof more often than that. Of course, maybe that's because some of those blunders have been particularly memorable...

- - -

None of the above information is particularly groundbreaking. It's mostly there to show that the Mariners are currently ranked poorly in just about every pertinent baserunning statistic. Some teams excel on the basepaths, while others are good at stealing bases but commit a lot of TOOTBLANs (rendering them fairly average). But the Mariners... the Mariners are just bad at all of the things. A lot of these shortcomings can be tied to the fact that this team is kinda old and kinda slow. But if that's the case, they should know their limitations and avoid making silly outs on the bases! Just because your legs won't move fast doesn't mean your brain/decision making skills should also be slow. Get it together, fellas. It's not easy to watch.

Finally, a few more "fun" facts to finish up this article.

  • Leonys Martin is the best baserunner on the Mariners (by BsR) by a wide margin. He would be the fifth best baserunner on Cleveland and the seventh(!) best baserunner on the Padres.
  • The Mariners currently have a laughably low SB% of 54.2%. Only one team in the Wild Card era has had a worse season-long SB% (in 2005 the Nationals had a SB% of 50.0%).
  • So far this season, the Mariners two best baserunners/base stealers have suffered three combined injuries while stealing bases, forcing them to miss a total of 32 games. Even the guys who are good are bad! Injuries are not uncommon in baseball, but this trend could hint at the fact that maybe the Mariners coaching/training staff could be doing more to help their players not look like nincompoops when they’re running around on the bases.

goms