Philadelphia Phillies Have Become among the Best on the Basepaths

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Philadelphia Phillies Have Become among the Best on the Basepaths
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Over the past few seasons, the Phillies have been very good at a lot of different things.

The defense? Spectacular. The power numbers? Amazing. The bullpen? Pretty good, despite Brad Lidge’s 2009 meltdown. The Phillies have also been very good at something else the past few seasons: baserunning.

Yes, we’re talking about baserunning, and it’s the elephant in the room that some managers don’t want to really speak of. In a day and age where it seems like many teams sit back and wait for the long ball, the Phillies have helped support their already capable offense with impressive numbers on the bases.

However, 2009 was a bit of a down year in terms of sheer volume of stolen bases.

The quick and dirty explanation? Jimmy Rollins’ .296 OBP often led Charlie Manuel to hold back Shane Victorino from running when he reached base. The reasoning? Manuel didn’t want to see the Phillies run into outs with Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, and Raul Ibanez coming up in the batting order.

Victorino went on to steal just 25 bases in 2009, down from his 36 steals in 2008 and 37 in 2007.

Meanwhile, Rollins had just 31 steals, and was caught eight times. He had 47 in 2008 and 41 in 2007. Now, with Rollins’ proclamation that he wants to steal 50 bases in 2010, baserunning conversation has been on the forefront at spring training.

Plenty of the Phillies’ success on the bases in 2010 rides on Rollins. Thankfully for the Phillies and Manuel, there are many other capable runners on this team, which can translate to success on the basepaths.

Thanks to our friends at Baseball Prospectus, we have various stats to look at while trying to sum up the baserunning debate.

EqBRR is a relatively reliable stat that “measures the number of runs contributed by a player’s advancement on the bases, above what would be expected based on the number and quality of the baserunning opportunities with which the player is presented, park-adjusted and based on a multi-year run expectancy table.”

In a day and age where many people question the use of sabermetrics, it seems as if the people at BP have created a valuable stat, because it has been rather consistent.

While the Phillies were 11th in the majors in EqBBR in 2009, they were second in the league in 2008 and tops among all teams in 2007. Many give credit to Davey Lopes for turning around the team’s baserunning fortunes. But the Phillies were also ranked third in 2006, a year before Lopes got here.

Don’t underestimate Lopes’ impact, however. If anything, Lopes has been able to make the Phillies a smarter team on the bases. They rarely make mistakes.

In 2007, they set a record for best stolen base percentage of any team in MLB history, with an 87.9 percent success rate. Last year, they led the league in stolen base percentage once more, at 86 percent. And while they stole less than previous years, they stole effectively.

A lot of people call Joe Maddon a brilliant manager. We’ll never forget the epic moment when Maddon staged the five-man infield in the 2008 World Series.

On national television, he looked like he was directing and preparing a Union charge against the Confederates. People seem to love Maddon because he diverges from the norm.

The Rays were picked off 23 times last year as a team, most among anyone in the majors. While this at least shows a dedicated appreciation to a return of the art of the stolen base, it also shows a bit of recklessness on the bases on the Rays’ part.

Efficiency reigns supreme in the baserunning debate. Teams like Tampa Bay are only hurting themselves with miscues while trying to steal. While they led the league with 176 steals last season, the Rays were also caught 47 times. It’s an advantage to have gifted and athletic players such as Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton, but the Rays are not using them to the best of their abilities.

While half the battle is having fast, talented, and efficient baserunners, the coaching staff and manager are also vital to a team’s success on the bases. The Phillies have lucked into both. Rollins, Victorino, Utley, and Werth are all above-average baserunners.

And, as long as the stats and the on-field evidence continue to prove it, the Phillies have the best coaching staff in baseball in terms of strength on the bases.

Manuel has also taken advantage of the double steal, and it’s a wonder that the creativity has seeped out of the game as teams continually look for the home run.

The Phillies attempted 17 double steals and were successful on 13 of them. The Rangers’ Ron Washington sent his runners into 19 double steals, and succeeded 17 times.

It seems as if the teams that have committed the time to baserunning skills in spring training are seeing it pay off during the season, and it’s baffling that more teams haven’t been able to succeed with a simple aspect of the game. It’s not rocket science, it’s just a way to try and get an extra base or two.

This is also a great time to take some space to praise Utley, who has become one of the best baserunners in the game.

John Dewan, of The Fielding Bible , named Utley the second best on the bases. Dewan ranks Utley at a +96 over the past five years, behind only Grady Sizemore of the Cleveland Indians. Essentially, Dewan says that the best way to look at the stat is to say that Utley has taken 96 more bases than the average runner over these last five years. Last year alone, Utley was a +27.

While the Phillies have become one of the best offensive powerhouses in recent history, it’s important to remember that they aren’t just doing it through the home run.

The round-tripper is an important part of the Phillies’ offense, but the Phillies continue to show that they have increased their offensive output through smart baserunning and good decisions on the bases.

While they had a bit of a down year in 2009 in terms of the amount of stolen bases, the Phillies are hoping to be better than average again in 2010.

Hey, Jimmy, let’s get 50.

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