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The Running Man
ALBERT CHEN
July 27, 2009
The science of destroying your opponent one base at a time. Allow Carl Crawford to demonstrate
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July 27, 2009

The Running Man

The science of destroying your opponent one base at a time. Allow Carl Crawford to demonstrate

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Carl Crawford may be baseball's fastest man, but he is not its most elegant runner. While B.J. Upton, the Tampa Bay Rays' spindly centerfielder and leadoff hitter, possesses a fluid running style that inspires teammates to channel their inner poet—"he glides like a deer out there, gracefully and effortlessly," teammate Ben Zobrist says—Crawford grimaces as he runs, with his tongue over his upper lip, as if he's had bad sushi. His muscular thighs, dense as phone books, bulge with each stride. "When he makes that turn around second base to go to third," says Rays general manager Andrew Friedman, "he always looks so out of control, like he's about to fall over." Says Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, "There's a violence to the running, as if he's a running back busting through the line." He adds, "But don't be fooled: Dude can fly."

Dude can also hit; according to Baseball-Reference.com, the 27-year-old Crawford is most statistically similar to Roberto Clemente at the same age. He plays Gold Glove--caliber defense, too, though in his eight major league seasons he has never won a Gold Glove. ("He closes on balls faster than anyone," says Blue Jays centerfielder Vernon Wells. "That he doesn't have one is an injustice.") Crawford is, however, best known for his baserunning: He swiped 30 straight bases to start the year, tied a modern-day record for most steals in a game (six against Boston on May 3) and is on pace to become the first player to steal 80 bases since Rickey Henderson nabbed 93 for the Yankees in 1988. His legs, strong as they are, take a pounding, like a hurler's arm after 100 pitches. "People don't know, but running can take its toll," Crawford says. "My muscles need some recovery time. Earlier this year people were saying I could go for 100 steals. I was like, 'You really want to see me use a walker when I get to 90?'"

Crawford is the most brazen base runner on the most brazen baserunning team in baseball. At the All-Star break the Rays were on pace to steal more bases (242) than any team since the '92 Milwaukee Brewers swiped 256. But does all that running really make a difference? The answer is more complicated than you think. Even in an age of statistical analysis, baserunning remains a mystery. How much does it contribute to a team's overall success over the course of a season? How much is Carl Crawford's speed, Chase Utley's smarts or the Colorado Rockies' boldness on the bases really worth? Who are the game's truly great base runners? "Quantifying how much fun it is to watch Carl Crawford is not hard," says Rays baseball operations coordinator James Click, "but quantifying Carl Crawford's baserunning is more complicated."

When it came to baserunning, Willie Wilson never had a plan. "To be honest, I didn't know what I was doing out there," says the former Royals outfielder. During his 19-year career, from 1976 to '94, Wilson swiped 668 bags, mostly for Royals teams that had a reputation for brash baserunning. ("Guys like George Brett and Frank White, they weren't the fastest, but we used to 'first-to-third' teams to death," he says.) Wilson, now 54 and living in Kansas City, where he runs his eponymous charitable foundation, has no secrets to reveal about the art of baserunning. "You just have to be willing to sacrifice your body," he says. "For me, going into a base was like driving 20 mph and jumping out of the car."

Wilson played in a golden age for burners: Three of the game's top six career stolen base leaders—Henderson (first), Tim Raines (fifth) and Vince Coleman (sixth)—were his contemporaries, though Wilson, who ranks 12th all time, is quick to point out that he could have been higher on the list. "I never stole third," he says. "My teammates didn't like me jumping [around] at second while they were at the plate. They always said, 'We'll just get you home.'

"Rickey," he adds, "had the most steals, but he wanted to break records. I wanted to win ball games. I like to think I was a better overall base runner."

Dan Fox has made it his mission to settle such debates. A former software developer from Kansas City, Kans., who is now the director of baseball systems development with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Fox, like a lot of stat heads, became intrigued by the availability in the last 10 years of detailed play-by-play game accounts from such websites as retrosheet.org. With mounds of new data now available, statistical analysts have been able to measure hitting and defense with far greater precision than before, but Fox believed that baserunning was not getting its due. Stolen bases had been tallied since the earliest box scores, but extra bases taken in other situations had gone mostly untracked, even though they can be just as valuable as stolen bases. Like other fans, Fox had heard descriptions of certain players as good, smart base runners. He wondered, however, how much of it was true.

Four years ago, in a series of essays for the Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times websites, Fox introduced a metric called Equivalent Baserunning Runs (EqBRR), which today is, by far, the most advanced baserunning statistic available. EqBRR combines the contributions of all forms of baserunning: stolen bases; advancement on ground outs, fly balls and hits; as well as advancement on passed balls, wild pitches and balks. Fox examined play-by-play data going back to 1956, the earliest year such information was available, and as expected, those who made the greatest impact on the bases were speedsters such as Henderson and Raines, who, according to their EqBRRs, contributed an average of more than 10 runs a season at the peak of their careers with their baserunning alone. Hall of Famer Robin Yount was one of the best at taking the extra base on hits, adding nearly eight runs in his best seasons with his baserunning even though he never stole more than 22 bases in a season. The best base runner of all time, however, was Wilson, who in his best season (1980) added more than 19 runs with his legs, according to Fox's formula. "I've never been a stats guy," Wilson says, "but I like this stat."

Fox's main purpose, though, was to understand how "running fits into the big picture," he says. What contribution, if any, does baserunning make to a team's win-loss total over the course of a season?

What he found confirmed a few things he already suspected. For instance, a good team can be a bad baserunning team. (Last year's Cubs had the best record in the National League but were 26th in EqBRR.) Also, a bad team can't turn into a good one by virtue of good baserunning. "If you have the talent to win 72 games," says Fox, "you can't run enough to win 90."

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