A base-stealing wizard in his playing days, Davey Lopes joined the Phillies in 2007 as a first base coach. Due in large part to his wisdom, the Phillies transformed into one of baseball’s most aggressive and most efficient base-stealing teams. Their ability to take an extra base was crucial in 2008, when they ended their World Series drought, then approaching 30 years. Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, and Jayson Werth repeatedly went into double-digit stolen base totals with success rates in excess of 80 percent.
Even outside of stealing bases, the Phillies took advantage. In ’07 and ’08, the Phillies finished third and second in Equivalent Base Running Runs (EQBRR), a stat from Baseball Prospectus which measures base-advancement on hits, outs, balls on the ground, balls in the air, and stolen bases.
As the Phillies have gotten older and moved on from Lopes, who left after the 2010 season, their base running abilities have declined. They had the third-worst EQBRR last year and have been the worst in baseball so far this year. They’re still stealing bases — their 37 stolen bases is the fourth-most in the National League, and their 83 percent success rate ranks at the top as well. They are hurting themselves on the bases in other ways.
Five players have cost the Phillies at least one run, according to EQBRR: Placido Polanco (-1.1), Pete Orr (-1.3), John Mayberry (-1.3), Cole Hamels (-1.4), and Hunter Pence (-2.0). Comparatively, only one Phillie has added at least one run: recent call-up Mike Fontenot (1.0). In fact, only five Phillies have contributed positively at all: Fontenot, Brian Schneider (0.4), Jimmy Rollins (0.2), Cliff Lee (0.2), and Freddy Galvis (0.2).
Pence exemplified the Phillies’ incompetence in Sunday afternoon’s loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Phillies were down 7-1 in the top of the sixth inning. Pence had led off with a double against starter Adam Wainwright, bringing up clean-up hitter Carlos Ruiz. With the count 1-2, Wainwright threw his patented curve ball in the dirt. Catcher Tony Cruz kept the ball within his reach. At the same time, Pence broke for third base. Cruz quickly recovered the baseball and fired to third baseman David Freese to nail Pence for the first out of the inning.
As Paul Boye noted on Twitter at the time:
Down six runs, there is virtually no shift in win expectancy by successfully advancing to third base. In fact, the win expectancy table listed in Tango/Lichtman/Dolphin’s The Book doesn’t even list figures for a six-run deficit. Scoring that one run, at the risk of an out, is not the goal. Rather, the goal is quickly accumulating as many base runners as possible while making as few outs as possible. The Phillies’ on-base percentage is .319 and they had 12 outs remaining. If you use PA/OBP as a proxy for base runners, the Phillies are averaging about three base runners per run (598/200), as they have not displayed much power this season. To score six runs, they would need about 18 base runners in the remaining four innings. That seems like quite an uphill battle, and it is, but it is certainly not impossible. After all, the Phillies banged out 18 hits in the series opener against the Cardinals on Thursday.
Should Pence have been doing all of that complex theoretical math in his head while on the bases? No, but he should have been running through various scenarios while standing on second, such as A) he is not going to attempt to steal third base, B) he will take a shorter lead off of second base than normal, and C) he will advance to third base on a wild pitch or passed ball only if the ball is well beyond the catcher’s reach. Two feet to the catcher’s right, of course, does not constitute “well beyond”.
The Phillies are two games over .500, which is about as good as we have expected them to be without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard through the first two months of the season. They have succeeded despite giving away runs and, eventually, wins with poor bullpen management, bunting, and incompetent base running. Imagine how good they could be if they plugged these relatively minor holes — they could once again become the class of the NL East.