During the long rebuild, the Phillies took the time to try a number of different players at a number of different positions. Many of them were young players and prospects who were learning on the fly and, not unexpectedly, making mistakes.
That was especially true on the basepaths, where the team generally didn’t do much to help their cause. But this year has been different. The additions of players like Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto and, of course, Bryce Harper, has helped transform the Phillies baserunning numbers, making it the most improved part of the team in 2019.
Yes, Cesar Hernandez made a terrible baserunning gaffe in Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Rockies, a gaffe similar to ones he has made many times in his career before. It was frustrating and a call-back to when this sort of thing happened a lot more. But so far this year, plays like that have been the exception to the rule.
Fangraphs has a baserunning statistic called BsR (Base Running) that takes into account stolen bases, caught stealings, taking extra bases on balls in play, getting thrown out on the bases and other statistics, and turns that into one overall number that calculates how many runs above or below average a team has been on the base paths that season.
So far this year, the Phillies have the 3rd-best BsR in baseball (3.2), meaning they have scored 3.2 runs above average based on how they’ve run the bases. Only the Cardinals (3.3) and Mariners (5.4) have been better. Compare that to last year, when the Phils were 12th in BsR, but were at 2.9 overall. The Phils are already 0.3 runs above average better than last season, and are light years better than 2017 when they were 25th with a -9.5 BsR. That’s despite the Phils having just five stolen bases this year, the 2nd-fewest in the league.
Hernandez’ mistake aside, the Phillies have simply not been getting thrown out on the basepaths and have been doing a good job taking extra bases when the opportunity presents itself.
The Phillies are currently 7th in the NL in XBT% (extra-base taken percentage) at 41%. In 2017, they were 12th out of 15 NL teams at 37%. We’ve seen McCutchen and Realmuto steal extra runs for the Phils by advancing to third base on singles thanks to great, veteran reads on balls as they’re in the air, and as a team, the Phils have gone first-to-third on a single 12 times (the league average is 10).
But one area where the team has really excelled is scoring from first on doubles.
According to Baseball Reference, the Phils are tied with the Braves with nine runs scored from first on doubles. They’re also 5th in the NL with 21 runs scored from second on singles, and are third in Bases Taken, a number that includes bases advanced on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks and defensive indifference. They were tied for 7th in ‘17 in Bases Taken.
McCutchen and Harper have already gone first-to-third on singles three times this season, and Realmuto has done it twice. No one else on the team has done it more than once. McCutchen and Realmuto have also scored from first on doubles twice this year, and again, no one else has done it more than once (stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, and small sample size caveats apply).
There are ways to create more runs for yourself outside of stealing bases (an artform Gabe Kapler and the Phillies don’t appear to want to acquaint themselves with anytime soon) and the Phils are taking advantage of all of them. They aren’t the best team in baseball running the bases, but they are significantly better than they were a year ago and light years more adept than two years ago.
That’s what happens when you add established, athletic veterans to a team.
On Episode 279 of “Hittin’ Season,” we discussed the Phils’ baserunning improvements as well as the series in Colorado, some improvement shown by Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff’s encouraging first start and the upcoming series against the Mets in New York.