Running Red Sox looking for an advantage one base at a time
BOSTON -- There's no mistaking why the Red Sox made Quintin Berry a late-season addition to their roster. "They ain't coming here looking for my power, man," he joked.
No, Berry is here as a potentially series-altering, late-game weapon thanks only to his legs. He's a perfect 28-for-28 stealing bases in his big league career after swiping second base as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning of ALCS Game 1 with the Sox trailing 1-0 to the Tigers, though he ultimately was stranded there. The most brazen thievery occurs when everyone knows it's coming, such as that one, but the 28-year-old Berry is undeterred.
"I love everyone worrying about me," he said. "I have no fears. I feel like I can get it anytime."
The margin of victory in four of the five ALCS games has been just one run. In such close games baserunning can become particularly pronounced, and it's an area where the Red Sox have a lopsided advantage. They now lead the Tigers 3-games-to-2 after winning a Game 5 in which they had three stolen bases and Will Middlebrooks' daring first-to-third dash on a sacrifice bunt.
Berry is exactly the type of threat the Tigers could use -- which is too bad because they employed him until June of this year and even benefited from him stealing two bases for them during Detroit's World Series run a year ago.
Even before acquiring Berry, Boston was on its way to its best base-stealing season since the Deadball Era. Behind Jacoby Ellsbury's big league-leading 52 steals, the Sox swiped 123 bases, their second-most (behind 2009's 126) since 1916, and most importantly did so at a success rate of 86.6 percent -- the American League's best conversion rate since at least 1920, the first season for which STATS LLC has caught-stealing data. (The generally accepted break-even point to make base-stealing worthwhile is 75 percent. National League data only dates to 1951; only the 2007 Phillies' 87.9 percent rate was better than the 2013 Red Sox.)
"It does get your attention," Tigers starter Justin Verlander said of Boston's base-stealing prowess, "especially in the playoffs when a stolen base and a bloop can win a baseball game."
The Tigers, meanwhile, were the majors' second-worst team at preventing stolen bases, catching just 18.5 percent of runners. Also, Detroit's own runners stole only 35 bases in 2013, the fewest in the majors, and converted just 63.6 percent of chances, which ranked 28th.
Berry is on this team for much the same reason Dave Roberts was on Boston's 2004 roster, when he picked up the most famous stolen base in postseason history off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in Game 4 of the ALCS. That was the most vivid reminder of how speed can change a postseason series, but an eerily similar sequel occurred in the regular season last month when Berry reprised Roberts' role with a ninth-inning, pinch-run stolen base off Rivera, ultimately scoring the tying run in a game the Red Sox won in extras.
"Mariano was doing some new slide steps that nobody had ever seen before," Berry said of the future Hall of Famer who just retired after 19 seasons. "It's good to know that you're making an impact and giving your guys a chance off those tough closers."
Stolen bases are merely the most easily tracked component of baserunning. Going first-to-third and second-to-home on singles, scoring from first on a double and advancing on flyball and groundball outs are also important. In this area, Detroit took the extra base only 33 percent of the time, the lowest rate in the AL according to Baseball-Reference.com, while Boston did so 39 percent of the time, which was the league average.
"Early in spring training, the coaches really emphasized aggressive baserunning," Ellsbury said, "and what I mean by that is, for guys who maybe didn't run or go first-to-third or second-to-home, seeing what they have in spring training and test that boundary. . . . Obviously there's a fine line [if you are] running into outs, but we're doing a good job being aggressive at the right times and being smart on the bases."
The Tigers ran into two outs on the base paths in the fifth inning Game 1, as Jhonny Peralta was caught off second base on a hard grounder to first baseman Mike Napoli and Omar Infante was out by a mile at home when running on contact on a grounder to third.
Baseball Prospectus combines all these areas while computing its baserunning runs. By that metric, the Tigers were the majors' worst baserunning team by far, costing themselves 21.5 runs on the basepaths while the Red Sox were 14th by adding four runs of value with their feet.
"They've got some guys who are smart base stealers and smart baserunners," Detroit catcher Alex Avila said. "That's what makes them successful. There are a lot of guys who are fast that get caught, but in their case they have guys who are very smart."
Personnel is certainly important and Ellsbury is foremost on that list, but signing free agent outfielder Shane Victorino was crucial as well. Victorino, who played for the Phillies where baserunning guru Davey Lopes was a longtime coach, was 21-for-24 in steals this year. Boston's bench coach, Torey Lovullo, coordinates the Red Sox' running game.
"We have a lot of scouting and a lot of understanding of what pitchers are trying to do, but not only that we've got a lot of guys on this team who are willing to steal bases," Berry said. "If you want to be a base stealer, you have to be willing to try to go all the time."
Detroit has had practice trying to limit an opponents' running game, especially in its 19 tangles with the Kansas City Royals, who led the majors with 153 stolen bases and ranked behind only Boston with their 82.7 percent success rate. After the Royals stole 22 bases in the first 15 games, the Tigers slowed them to just three in their final four meetings.
Detroit is cognizant of what it needs to do in the rest of this series.
"That's why [the Red Sox] create so many runs, the ability to steal bases," Tigers starter Max Scherzer said. "For me it comes down to the simple fact I've got to change my timing. I like to hold the ball, I think that disrupts the base runners, you've got to be quick to the plate and you've got to change all different aspects of it. You can't be repetitive, because they can just time you and figure you out."
"That's kind of a Catch‑22," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "You can't get consumed by that as a pitcher, because then you make too many mistakes with the hitter."
That's the ancillary benefit of stealing: just the threat of going can affect the game.
"It definitely has an impact on what pitches he throws to the hitter," Ellsbury said. "If he comes over numerous times, steps off, gets out of his rhythm, that sort of thing, a lot of times that allows a pitcher who might have thrown a curveball in a count gets distracted and leaves a fastball out over the middle and gives the hitter a better opportunity to get a hit and drive me in even from first base or second.
"You feel like you should get an assist for that, right?"
There's no such stat for that now, but there's only one number that matters at the moment for the Red Sox: one, as in the number of wins standing between them and a run at another World Series title.