The Cubs were surprisingly good last year, but there is one area of surprisingly goodness that has gone largely overlooked in 2015. That was the aggressive and usually smart baserunning that Joe Maddon instilled in this roster. It is not terribly surprising that the talk around this Cubs team has been focused on the ability to hit the ball very hard up and down the lineup or the deep pitching staff fronted by the reigning Cy Young winner. Baserunning is one of the least important areas in terms of creating or preventing runs, but it is not insignificant either. The difference between the best and worst baserunning teams has been estimated around 50 runs in a season by Bill James more than once.
The Cubs in 2015 were the best baserunning Cubs teams I can recall watching. Up and down the lineup this team made things happen on the basepaths. This is perhaps the best example of just how unordinary the Cubs were on the basepaths in 2015.
The reason this past season was so startling is because Cubs baserunning usually makes one think of Cubes if they are being completely honest with themselves. This is the franchise that led to coining of the term TOOTBLAN after all. This belief is not just recollecting Ryan Theriot‘s exploits or Ronny Cedeno over-sliding the bag to end a game either. A number of sites keep an all encompassing advanced baserunning statistic, but for the purpose of this blog I am going to use Fangraphs BsR. The most accurate version of this statistic has been maintained since 2002, and the Cubs have been an above average baserunning team just three times during that time according to this statistic.
Players certainly determine the success or failure of any facet of the game, but the manager has a fair bit of control in this part of the game as well. Joe Maddon preaches an aggressive philosophy on the basepaths. This philosophy has resulted in some of the best baserunning teams according to BsR. The best team by far using this metric was Maddon’s 2010 Rays and his 2009 club rounds out the the top 5 since 2002.
The 2016 club might not challenge the 2010 Rays but I think it will be the best Cubs teams yet. BsR is like advanced fielding statistics in that it needs more than a year’s worth of data before it stabilizes. So the numbers for many of the young Cubs need to be taken with a grain of salt, but there are some interesting highlights among the Cubs position players.
Kris Bryant was the best baserunner by far by this metric, but in this case the eye-popping number is affirmed by the eye test. Bryant was praised by his manager for his savvy baserunning. Kyle Schwarber ahead of the freakishly agile Anthony Rizzo was a surprise, and it will be something to watch in 2016 to see if he rates as highly again.
Very few Cubs baserunners were solidly below average, but Starlin Castro and Miguel Montero have been among the worst baserunners in baseball according to BsR. There stats are likely an accurate reflection of their abilities. A major upgrade was swapping Starlin Castro for Ben Zobrist. Starlin Castro has the 37th lowest BsR since 2012 in baseball. Ben Zobrist was not much better than Castro in 2015 (-0.9 to -2.1), but it also represented only the second time that Zobrist was a negative baserunner since 2010. Zobrist might not be the baserunner he was earlier in his career as a player entering his age 35 season. It is also possible that 2015 was an outlier as Zobrist recovered from a knee injury. It is safe to say that the Cubs upgraded on the basepaths even if it is a question of by how much.
The Cubs offseason moves will certainly help this area. Only Miguel Montero remains of those negative baserunners in 2015. The Cubs also have added one of the best in baseball with Jason Heyward. Joe Maddon is one of the many people who have complimented Heyward as one of the best baserunners in the baseball. The numbers last year certainly reflect Maddon’s contention that Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward are two of the best in the National League.
The Cubs now boast two of the best in the business with Bryant and Heyward.
The contention I made several times in the offseason is that this is the best baserunning Cubs team I will have seen. Here is one example:
@Cerambam1060 said it when they landed Heyward but this is probably going to be the best base-running Cub team I've ever seen.
— dabynsky (@dabynsky) January 7, 2016
The numbers certainly suggest that this was not hyperbole. The focus in 2016 should be on the Cubs hitters in the batters box, but what they do on the basepaths should be as interesting to watch this year.