When You’re Young, You Just Run

There are two kinds of unwritten rules in baseball. There are the ones that folks like Brian McCann and Tony LaRussa protect and/or make up at will, like the maximum amount of time one is allowed to take while rounding the bases following a home run or what actions constitute the necessity to throw a solid object directly at another human being’s head at 90 miles per hour. Then there are the more reasoned rules, the mantras that common sense dictates a ball player should follow in order to help ensure the best chance at victory. One of the most well-known of these is “Never make the first or third out at third base.” Jonathan Villar has never heard this rule.

Under Craig Counsell, the Brewers have clearly shown a willingness to be more aggressive on the base paths. They are second in stolen base attempts and fifth in XBT percent, which measures how often runners take an extra base on a hit (advancing two bases on a single or scoring from first on a double), doing so 45 percent of the time. Milwaukee’s assertiveness has been mostly successful – they rank sixth in the league in Fangraph’s base running metric, BsR, which seeks to quantify a player’s contributions via the running game in a single number. Despite his 15 steals, which are thrice more than any other player on the team, Villar ranks just fifth on the team according to this stat as his over-aggressiveness, especially at third base, has weakened his overall positive impact on the winning effort.

Let’s take a look at the where the Brewers are having success and where there is room for improvement. We’ll first investigate Milwaukee’s efforts in stealing bases. The break-even point for stealing bases is, essentially, the rate at which you need to be successful in stolen base attempts in order for the free bases gained to be worth the cost in outs. As a team, the Brewers are 30 for 43 on stolen base attempts at second base, a 69.8 percent success rate that falls very near the break-even range at that base. Of course, that doesn’t mean the Brewers are doing a great job here, it simply means they aren’t shooting themselves in the foot. Over the course of the season so far, they can have expected to score at about the same rate had they just not done anything at all. Of course, Specific game situations color the utility of a stolen base, but the lesson here is, as always, never try.

The break-even point for attempting to steal third base is significantly more dependent on the number of outs but on balance, you need to be succeeding about 80 percent of the time to make the effort worthwhile – 78 percent with no one out, 69 percent with one out, and 88 percent with two outs. The Brewers aren’t close to any of those benchmarks: they’ve been caught four times in nine attempts, 55.5 percent success rate that comes nowhere close to the break-even point. The anecdotal evidence you’ve collected from frustrated viewings has not misled you: the Brewers are running into far too many outs at third base.

Quite unsurprisingly to anyone who has been watching the Brewers on even an occasional basis, a conversation about base running, not just for the team but league-wide, begins with the increasingly reckless Villar. The 25-year-old shortstop’s base running numbers resemble the activities of a relatively conservative team so far in 2016: his 15 stolen bases lead the league and are more than seven entire teams. He’s also near the top of caught stealing leaderboard, however, trailing just Mallex Smith and Nori Aoki, the latter of whom is 2-for-9 and absolutely must stop trying.

There’s more to base running than stealing bases, however. Overall, the Brewers have done well on the base paths during the course of normal play. They’ve made 15 base running outs (not including pickoffs or times caught stealing), which is just below the league average. Once again, however, the trouble spot is at third, where the Brewers have been dreadful. That’s due in large part to the exploits of Villar, who has more base running outs at third (5) than all but five entire teams. Here we see the adverse effects of Villar’s aggressiveness: while his contributions by stealing bases has been largely positive, his decision making during the normal course of play leaves much to be desired. Ultimately, this is a matter that the Brewers coaching staff needs to address. If Villar is being given the green light to take those extra bases whenever he sees fit, it may be time to take the keys to the Benz away from him until he can learn to drive it responsibly. If he’s simply running through stop signs, then a rather stern conversation needs to take place in order to stress upon him the importance of doing what the heck he’s told to do.

Villar is young enough and valuable enough to have a place in the future of this team, even after Orlando Arcia ascends to take his place as Shortstop Of The Future. As meaningless as these errors may seem here in May of rebuild year number one, the habits formed now will be hard to break later. There has been and there will continue to be much weeping and gnashing of teeth as the Brewers go through the growing pains that necessarily accompany a rebuild. Whether you’re Team “Who Cares, Let’s Be Aggressive And See What’s Possible While We’re Bad” or Team “Well, You Still Need To Make Smart Decisions And Learn To Be Selectively Aggressive” (these are horrible team names, I’m workshopping them), you can continue to expect there to be as many base running blunders as there are triumphs in the immediate future.

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