Three MLB All-Stars who have added value thanks to their sneaky-good baserunning

Run a Google search for “Ronald Acuna baserunning” and the results include pages and pages (and pages) of articles admonishing Acuna for not hustling. He brings it on himself to some degree, sure, but you’d have to spend a good amount of time scrolling through the results to learn Acuna is one of the game’s elite baserunners. That shouldn’t be the case.

Acuna led the National League with 37 stolen bases last season — that’s the lowest NL-leading total since Maury Wills led with 35 steals in 1961 — but stolen bases alone do not make a great baserunner. He’s excellent at taking the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) and advancing on pitches in the dirt, on ground balls, and on fly balls to the outfield.

Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs each have their own all-encompassing baserunning metric and Acuna ranks near the top of the 2019 leaderboard in both:

Baserunning is not as valuable a skill as hitting or fielding — the best hitters can produce over 100 runs with their bat in a single season while the best defenders can save north of 20 runs — but, in an individual game, baserunning can be a huge advantage. Those extra 90 feet in the late innings of a close game can change everything, and Acuna is among the best at taking them.

Last week we looked at three pitchers who drastically increased their strikeout rate last season. This week we’re going to examine three players who rank among the game’s best baserunners even though they may not look the part. When you picture a great baserunner, you generally picture someone young and lean with great athleticism. That’s not always the case though. Great baserunners come in all shapes and sizes.

At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant wouldn’t look out of place in an NBA backcourt or spread out wide on the line of scrimmage. He’s a baseball player though, and he uses that big frame to generate enormous power. Bryant’s also very athletic for his size and an above-average defender at third base who can also play the outfield.

Bryant is also an exceptional baserunner even though his size may lead you to believe otherwise. He’s very quick — Statcast had his average sprint speed at 28.2 ft/s last year, well above the 27.0 ft/s league average — and very smart. Bryant may not steal many bases (only six the last two years combined), but he excels at taking the extra base on hits:

  • 2019 extra-base taken rate: 58 percent
  • Career extra-base taken rate: 53 percent
  • MLB average extra-base taken rate: 41 percent

According to Baseball Prospectus, Bryant’s ability to take the extra base on a hit is on par with noted speedsters like Mookie Betts and Byron Buxton. Raw speed helps, absolutely, but baserunning instincts matter too, and Bryant has them in spades. He provides so much with his bat and his glove that it’s easy to overlook his legs. Make no mistake though, he’s an impact baserunner.

“KB is an outstanding baserunner,” former Cubs manager Joe Maddon told reporters, including Robert Kuenster of Forbes, last May. “He’s faster than he looks and he hustles on every ball he hits and whenever he’s on the bases. He goes from first to third as well as any player in the game and a lot of his success on the bases is due to his instincts, which are phenomenal.” ¬†

I say this with all due respect: Max Muncy looks nothing like a top baserunner. He’s barrel-chested at 6-foot-0 and 218 pounds and he looks more like someone who’d hit 70 home runs the last two seasons than someone who’d rank among the top 15 baserunners in the sport. Well, Muncy’s done both. He’s hit 70 homers the last two years and rank as a top-15 baserunner.

Here is a chunk of the FanGraphs’ baserunning leaderboard for 2018-19:

13. Whit Merrifield: +9.0 runs
14. Max Muncy: + 7.6 runs
15. Eddie Rosario: +7.6 runs

Merrifield does just about everything well, including run the bases, and Muncy isn’t too far behind him. He’s not really a stolen base threat (seven the last two years) and, truth be told, his 41 percent extra-base taken rate doesn’t stand out either. That’s exactly league average. Here’s a snippet of another leaderboard. This is what Muncy really does well on the bases:

15. Yoan Moncada: +2.4 runs
16. Max Muncy: +2.3 runs
17. Trea Turner: +2.2 runs

That is the 2019 leaderboard for baserunning runs created by advancing on ground balls. Whether the ball is hit in front of him or behind him, Muncy takes that extra 90 feet as well as burners like Moncada and Turner. I’m sure there’s an element of surprise involved — I can’t imagine many infielders expect him to try to advance on some grounders — but it works.

Like Bryant, Muncy’s game is always going to revolve around his bat. He’s slugged those 70 home runs the last two years and managed a .381 on-base percentage as well. Muncy would be in the lineup even if the ran the bases like he was pulling a tractor. The fact he is a positive contributor with his legs (without stealing many bases) only adds to his game and his value to the club.

Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto is fast, I don’t mean fast for a catcher. He’s just fast. His 28.7 ft/s sprint speed is well above the 27.0 ft/s MLB average and on par with guys like Jose Altuve and Christian Yelich. Last season 28 catchers had at least 100 baserunning opportunities and only five had a league average sprint speed or better. Realmuto is straight up fast. No qualifiers necessary.

Realmuto’s speed translates into a handful of stolen bases per year — he’s averaged eight steals a year the last five years — and a whole lot of extra bases taken. His career 49 percent extra-base taken rate is very good (it was 54 percent last year) and almost unheard of for a catcher. Willson Contreras was the only other full-time catcher with even a league average extra-base taken rate in 2019.

Here is the FanGraphs baserunning leaderboard for all catchers the last two seasons:

  1. J.T. Realmuto: +10.2 runs
  2. John Ryan Murphy: +1.9 runs
  3. Luke Maile: +1.6 runs
  4. Blake Swihart: +1.3 runs
  5. Andrew Knapp: +1.1 runs 

Realmuto is a unicorn. He’s a very good hitter, an excellent defender, and the baserunning equivalent of Barry Bonds at his position. He runs the bases like a speedy middle infielder while being a catcher. It’s remarkable and incredibly valuable. The Phillies go into every game they play with a big advantage behind the plate, and especially on the bases when Realmuto is running.

“Baserunning, in my opinion, is a mindset,” Realmuto told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury in February. “You don’t have to be the fastest guy in the world to be a good baserunner. You have to be on your toes and be an unselfish teammate in the fact that when you’re on the base paths you’re trying to get that guy at the plate an RBI. When I’m standing on first base, I’m begging for him to hit a ball in the gap so I can get the best jump I can and score for him from first base. On second base, you’re trying to get the biggest lead you can, the best secondary lead you can and try to score from second. Everything you’re doing is trying to take advantage of that next base and for me it’s all a mindset. I’m not one of top 10 or 20 fastest in the league. It’s about jumps, anticipating and actually caring about baserunning.”

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