You Know, And That

5.24.11//15:14

The Brewers’ Running Game: UBR-Bad?

Edit: Like all good things, you screw up the first time. I edited a few little bits about RAR.

First came the hire: Ron Roenicke, devout Scioscian. Provocateur of aggressiveness on the baseball diamond.

Second came the silver platter that the Brewers Internet community had been so eagerly, insatiably waiting for. Quoth Roenicke:

"At times, you’re going to say, ‘Why are you running so much? Why are you getting thrown out trying to take extra bases?’… At times we’re going to get thrown out. But over the course of the season I guarantee we will score a lot more runs by being aggressive."

     Third came the outcry from the above quote. Paraphrased from various online Brewers fans:

       “He’s going to run us out of ballgames.”

"Aggressive base running is the devil."

"Runnin’ Ron Roenicke. Oh, no!"

"The Angels never stopped running even after they got old and slow. That makes Scioscia tactically nuts, and Roenicke was a party to that nonsense. Ugh."

"Ron Roenicke is the devil."

     Fourth came the anecdotal evidence from the games. Play after play at home, with players egged on by Eddie “Windmill” Sedar. Insane base running by Jon Lucroy and Erick Almonte that nearly lead to a triple play. Casey McGehee being thrown out while trying to advance more than once.

Fifth came some harder evidence presented by Larry Granillo (@wezen_ball on Twitter) at Baseball Prospectus that the Brewers were having somewhat of a tough go of it on the basepaths, primarily due to their inept EQGARness. (Defined: “The number of theoretical runs contributed by a baserunner or baserunners above what would be expected given the number and quality of baserunning opportunities.” To the best of my sleuthing, this statistic is only available on a per team basis, not a per player basis.) More on EqGAR (and EqBRR!) a little later.

Which catches us up to today. Today FanGraphs unveiled a new statistic in their arsenal: UBR, the acronym for Ultimate Base Running. (Or, Ultimate Baserunning, depending on how much of a truncator you are.) Here’s what UBR is, from UBR inventor Mitchel Lichtman:

Base running linear weights or base running runs, or Ultimate Base Running (UBR), is similar to the outfield arm portion of UZR. Whatever credit (positive or negative) is given to an outfielder based on a runner hold, advance, or kill on a batted ball is also given in reverse to the runner (or runners). There are some plays that a runner is given credit (again plus or minus) for that do not involve an outfielder, such as being safe or out going from first to second on a ground ball to the infield, or advancing, remaining, or being thrown out going from second to third on a ground ball to SS or 3B.

Runs are awarded to base runners in the same way they are rewarded to outfielders on “arm” plays. The average run value in terms of the base/out state is subtracted from the actual run value (also in terms of the resultant base/out state) on a particular play where a base runner is involved. The result of the subtraction is the run value awarded to the base runner on that play.

In other words, UBR measures the ability to advance extra bases on balls in play. UBR does not factor stolen bases or caught stolen bases in to the equation.

Let’s pause for just a few words on the Brewers’ stolen base game this year. The Brewers have stolen 35 bases this year, good for 11th best in baseball and 5th most in the National League. That’s good, but what’s better is that the Brewers have the 3rd best stolen base percentage in baseball at an 80% success rate. Only Houston is better in the National League. The Astros have stolen successfully 85% of the time.

The Brewers have created offensive value with their stolen base prowess. Here’s why. In order to break even with stolen bases and create no value, you have to steal about 2.4-2.6 bases for every base you get caught attempting to steal. In terms of percentages, you have to have a steal success rate above 67% (or slightly more, depending on the overall run environment - click on that link) to make stealing bases worthwhile. The Brewers are well above that. In terms of runs it has created, and using Tom Tango’s estimates, the team has created about 2 extra runs so far this year via the stolen base. Using the 10 run rule, those 2 extra runs have created about 1/5th of a win. That’s something. If they keep up their stolen base pace, it could be a full run by the end of the year.

So Runnin’ Ron has the Brewers stealing bases effectively. Back to this UBR thing…

Again, UBR measures how well a baserunner (or a team of them) advances on balls in play. And by UBR, the Brewers, as a team, haven’t been very good. The club’s aggregate UBR is -2.8 RAR (runs above replacement - in this case, runs below replacement). That’s good for 5th worst in baseball, 3rd worst in the National League. They are one of 15 MLB teams with a UBR under the replacement level of zero.

There are two important points I want to make about the Brewers’ UBR:

  1. Adding in the Brewers’ stolen base success mitigates the -2.8 UBR RAR somewhat, making the total running game value somewhere around -0.8 RAR.
  2. We need to break down the team UBR to individual player UBR to see who’s responsible for this.

     Who is responsible for the Brewers’ crappy UBR? Two people, primarily: Casey McGehee and Prince Fielder. Remembering that the Brewers’ aggregate UBR is -2.8, McGehee and Fielder combine for a whopping -6.0 UBR about two months into the season. In other words, they have sucked a lot of offensive value out of the club and all of the value out of the running game. The only other Brewers regular with a negative UBR is Carlos Gomez, and he’s at -0.1, or just about replacement level.

To make matters worse, Rob Neyer pointed out today that by UBR, Prince Fielder has been the worst baserunner in baseball since the beginning of the 2008 season. It is not likely he’ll become a good baserunner for the remainder of the season. Oh well, at least his contract is up.

Casey McGehee has not been a terrible baserunner in his career. Coming in to this season, he had a -0.1 career UBR: 0.0 in ‘08, 1.5 in ‘09 and -1.6 in ‘10. That he has been so bad this year leads me to believe one of two things is happening with him. Either his knee is bothering him again and he’s trying to push through it to accommodate Roenicke’s aggressive baserunning style, or the sample size for UBR is too small and he’ll regress closer to his career norms as the year wears on.

The Brewers’ UBR leaders year to date are Ryan Braun (1.6), Yuni Betancourt (1.1), Rickie Weeks (0.6) and Corey Hart (0.3) and it seems reasonable that all four of those guys, as well as a healthy Nyjer Morgan, should finish in a decently positive UBR zone, between 1.0 and 4.0.

The hope that McGehee is able to limit his 2011 baserunning damage to what has already happened, combined with the continued baserunning and base stealing success of a number of other offensive regulars means that I would not be surprised to see the Brewers’ overall UBR to improve by the end of the season, even with the likelihood that Fielder’s UBR will continue to slide.

I promised that I would talk about EqGAR and EqBRR again, and here is: since the Granillo article, the Brewers EGBRR (Baseball Prospectus’ overall baserunning metric) has improved from -1.6 to 0.7. Taking both EqBRR and UBR together along with the Brewers’ stolen base data, it would seem as though the club is somewhere around the break-even point for baserunning this year.

I began this inaugural blog post about Ron Roenicke, and I’ll finish it by tying in what all this information means about Roenicke. In fact, I’m going to say something that I never thought I would say about Roenicke at the beginning of the season:

If the Brewers are able to finish the year somewhere with a neutral UBR or higher, which I think is very possible, Roenicke’s baserunning style will have made a positive impact on the club. For the past two years under the grandfatherly leadership of Ken Macha, the Brewers finished with UBRs of -4.4 and -6.4, and overall the club added little to no value via the stolen base. The Brewers now seem to be turning that around and may at least not subtract any value from the club with their baserunning.

And for what it’s worth, the exploits that many thought would get Roenicke in trouble and grind the offense to a halt… well, they have been muted. I have not noticed myself possessing the strong desire to hurl large, heavy objects at the television much more often than I have in previous years. There have been moments - the near triple play, the unnecessary windmilling of Sedar - that have bugged me, but I think Roenicke’s style will, in the end, be an overall improvement from Macha’s station-to-station ways.

Maybe it doesn’t hurt so much to be a little aggressive.

Now, just to wait for Fielder’s contract to be up so we can REALLY improve the baserunning.