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Can the Phillies Harness Their Speed?

With a number of quietly fleet-footed runners likely to be rostered, the Phils could be disruptive on the basepaths

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Last year, the Phillies stole fewer than 60 bases - 59, to be exact - for the for the first time since 1973, when they stole just 51. Their 70.2 percent efficiency placed them ahead of the eventual World Series champion Astros by a hair, and gave them only the ninth-lowest rate in the game. It’s a far cry from the halcyon days of Davey Lopes, and Chase Utley going 23-for-23, but at least it...well...leaves a low bar to clear?

Benchmarking pleasantries aside, there’s actually some reason to believe the Phillies could be well-suited for a much more aggressive approach on the bases in 2018; steals, extra bases, the whole lot.

For starters, it helps to understand how the Phillies behaved on the bases in 2017. Have some fun facts on the house:

  • Thirteen players attempted at least one steal, but only six attempted more than one
  • Six of the seven players who attempted exactly one steal were successful; Michael Saunders was caught on a botched hit-and-run with Freddy Galvis at the plate
  • The low volume of steal attempts is, really, a sign of the times: Only six teams (MIL, ARI, HOU, LAA, NYY, TEX) had at least five players attempt 10-plus steals. The Phils’ four places them squarely mid-pack
  • On non-steals, Phillies baserunners took an extra base (i.e., more than one base on a single and more than two bases on a double, when possible) just 37 percent of the time, per B-Ref. That tied for sixth-lowest in baseball with three other teams
  • Philly runners were picked off (safe-on-error included) 15 times, tied for fifth-most in MLB. Apart from CS, PO or simple force outs, Philly baserunners also made 65 outs on the basepaths; that, too, was fifth-most in MLB
  • The most punishing number is that 25 of the team’s 65 basepath outs happened at home plate. Only the Red Sox (29) had more

The tough thing to reconcile in all of this is that the Phillies were fairly conservative while running the bases, and yet were still not wonderfully effective at being safe. Far from a disaster, but still less than ideal.

The encouraging thing behind all of this, though, is that the numbers belie the kind of speed this team actually possesses. Let’s take a look at one of the new measurement methodologies attempting to quantify and codify speed as a tool: Sprint speed.

One of the frontiers Statcast is trying to pioneer is that of true baseball speed. Whereas before we had stopwatches timing home-to-firsts and, less often, first-to-thirds, now we have sophisticated radar systems and gadgetry tracking max effort runs across the bases. It’s a pretty cool conceit! It may not be perfect - most new and emerging systems like this rarely are; ever heard of WAR? - but it provides a decent idea of how fast a runner is while flying around the bases. At least, it sheds light on a corner that’s been relatively shadowy for the past 120 or so years.

When looking at this particular metric, the results are fascinating, and would seem to indicate that the Phillies are well-armed (well-legged?) to wreak a little more havoc, 90 feet at a time. Here’s a breakdown of how the Phillies 2017 wheels stacked up against their positional peers, as well as the rest of the league (451 runners overall).

2017 Sprint Speed

Player Speed (ft./sec.) Position Rank Overall Rank
Player Speed (ft./sec.) Position Rank Overall Rank
Aaron Altherr 28.4 7 62
J.P. Crawford 28.8 1 32
Maikel Franco 26.5 34 322
Cesar Hernandez 28.7 6 38
Odubel Herrera 27.5 55 177
Rhys Hoskins 26.0 57 374
Tommy Joseph 25.7 37 400
Andrew Knapp 27.2 5 223
Cameron Rupp 25.0 51 433
Carlos Santana 26.7 21 295
Nick Williams 29.0 3 20

You can look at the data on BaseballSavant’s UI here, where it’s noted that 27.0 ft./sec. is the league-wide average. For 2017 purposes, J.P. Crawford’s positional group is 3B, while Rhys Hoskins’s is LF. Crawford’s speed would place him fifth among shortstops, while Hoskins would place 31st among first basemen. Jorge Alfaro was not included as he had a sample of fewer than 10 max effort runs to track; his speed was 26.9 ft./sec., placing him just below Knapp among catchers in a ranking that could both undersell Alfaro’s giddyup and highlight Knapp as a surprisingly adept runner in his own right. And Carlos Santana continues to surprise with just how well-rounded he appears to be, as he’s nearly average himself.

Should Cesar be moved this winter (probably unlikely at this point), let us not forget that Scott Kingery grades out as a plus runner in his own right. At worst, it’s something to keep an eye on in September, which we’d presume to be Kingery’s latest ETA as of today.

Anyway, back to the guys currently here. It’s only right to acknowledge that “can” does not always mean “should,” and we know that steals and base-taking ability are context-dependent; sure, the runner has to be fast, but that base also has to be made open, whether by virtue of the runner being the lead runner, or by trailing lead runners who are advancing themselves. And whoever you’re running on should, ideally, not be Yoenis Cespedes. But with a roster that leans toward above average speed as a unit, it seems the Phils are setting themselves up for advancement opportunities not just by lead runners, but also those trailing as a domino effect.

Consider: Seven Phillies hitters had an above average (40-plus percent) extra-base-taking percentage in 2017. Three (Michael Saunders, 65 percent; Hyun Soo Kim, 60 percent; Freddy Galvis, 45 percent) are gone. Another, Pedro Florimon (44 percent) is on track to spend most of his time with Lehigh Valley. While Altherr (63 percent), Crawford (57 percent) and Hernandez (43 percent) are lone returning regulars.

Fortunately, the remaining regulars figure to be fixtures in the upper half of the lineup, giving those more adept runners we can pencil in for the lower half - Williams, Knapp, Alfaro - better opportunities to nab an extra bag. Assuming the discipline displayed by Cesar, Hoskins, Santana and even Odubel, when everything’s clicking, shows up in 2018 and the Phils get more runners on base, an uptick in aggression on the bases may yet suit them.