If You’re Gonna Play in Texas, You Gotta Have a Little Running Man

Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Watching playoff baseball is like cramming for a test. Most people watching are either casual fans of the sport or diehard fans of one team only, so it’s incumbent on national writers and broadcasters to get their audiences up to speed quickly. Sometimes that takes the form of an information dump; other times, a team gets distilled down to a couple of talking points. And for a team that was not expected to make the World Series, has a lot of young players, and doesn’t play in a particularly fashionable media market — like, say, the Arizona Diamondbacks — the talking points can be a little crude.

In this case, the Diamondbacks are like a preschooler on a sugar high: Young, small, and always running.

For the first five games of the NLCS, this bullet point looked a little silly, as Arizona attempted just a single stolen base against a Phillies team that holds runners well. But in Games 6 and 7, the Diamondbacks opened up the taps and reaped the rewards: eight stolen bases in eight attempts, leading directly to two runs. Which in turn led to, as you know, winning the pennant.

Can they repeat the trick against the Rangers in the World Series?

During the regular season, the Diamondbacks were sixth in baserunning runs, second in stolen bases, second in stolen base success rate, and fifth in go rate, the number of stolen base attempts divided by the number of stolen base opportunities. (Here, I’m using stolen base opportunities, as tracked by Baseball Reference, as the denominator for go rate, rather than the estimated number in my original version of the stat.) The Diamondbacks ran roughly once every 11.6 opportunities, which makes them the most aggressive basestealing team of any club that made the playoffs. Even with Jake McCarthy and his 26 stolen bases sidelined by injury, the Diamondbacks have speed up and down the lineup.

The man in charge of keeping the Diamondbacks put is Rangers catcher Jonah Heim. Assuming Texas brings the same group of position players to the World Series as the ALCS, Mitch Garver and Austin Hedges will also be on the roster. Garver made about a third of his starts in the regular season at catcher, but he has not yet made use of his glove in the playoffs. Hedges seems to be along in what soccer fans would recognize as the same role Pepe Reina played on the Spanish national team in the aughts: Sit on the bench and cheer as loud as you can, and if the entire team gets hit by lightning then maybe we’ll think about putting you in a game.

This is Heim’s ship, in short.

Heim caught 29% of would-be basestealers this season, which is the fifth-best rate among players who caught at least 500 innings in the regular season. (No. 1: Arizona’s Gabriel Moreno, so the fast guys on the Rangers shouldn’t get any ideas.)

Jonah Heim’s Anti-Bastestealing Ranks
CSAA Pop Time Exchange Time Arm Strength
6th 33rd 56th 20th
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Regular season and playoffs combined, out of 64 catchers

Heim’s measurables aren’t that impressive, but he seems to get the job done in terms of controlling the running game. He might not have a monster arm or a stunning average pop time, but he is astonishingly consistent in terms of accuracy. The ball always seems to end up right where (usually) Marcus Semien sets up to catch it, and within easy reach of a tag.

I know you’re all astute students of the game, and I can almost hear you sliding your glasses up your nose and inhaling a breath to say, “Actually, controlling the running game is just as much on the pitcher as it is the catcher, if not more so.” And that’s true. Controlling the running game is a group project, one the Rangers excelled at.

Texas allowed the fifth-fewest stolen bases this season and the fifth-lowest opponent stolen base percentage. The easiest way to prevent a stolen base is to prevent a stolen base attempt, and the Rangers were good at that too, with the fifth-fewest stolen base opportunities allowed and the eighth-lowest opponent go rate: a mere .058.

Let’s break this down by pitcher:

Opposing Baserunners vs. Texas Rangers Pitchers
Starters/Long Relief SBO Go Rate SB CS SB% Pickoffs
Jordan Montgomery 271 .055 14 1 93 1
Nathan Eovaldi 175 .069 8 4 67 1
Max Scherzer 179 .056 9 1 90 0
Andrew Heaney 234 .060 11 3 79 0
Dane Dunning 252 .044 7 4 64 0
Jon Gray 218 .096 12 9 57 2
Martín Pérez 219 .018 3 1 75 0
Short Relief SBO Go Rate SB CS SB% Pickoffs
Cody Bradford 81 .025 2 0 100 0
Aroldis Chapman 84 .190 15 1 94 1
José Leclerc 80 .050 2 2 50 0
Josh Sborz 62 .065 4 0 100 0
Will Smith 74 .122 7 2 78 2
Chris Stratton 50 .040 2 0 100 1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Includes full-season stats for players acquired midseason

I also compiled these stats for each pitcher over the past five years, considering that a single season for a relief pitcher is such a vanishingly small sample that it’s hard to learn anything. However, that introduces all sorts of confounding variables — different catchers, different teams, the pitch clock — and for the most part didn’t add much to the conversation.

There were some exceptions; opposing basestealers have gone 2-for-4 against Leclerc, but those are the only two that have been caught in the past five years. Some Rangers starters hold runners better than others, but most of the starters are in the 70s on opponent stolen base percentage, and the relievers are a couple ticks worse. Of the 13 pitchers on the ALCS roster, 12 were below either the league-average go rate of .065, or the league-average stolen base rate of 80%.

The good news for the Diamondbacks is that the four best pitchers at controlling the running game — Dunning, Gray, Pérez, and Stratton — are probably going to end up pitching relatively low-leverage innings. Opponents were 2-for-2 on Stratton this year, but since 2019, Stratton has held them to 16-for-22, or 73%, with two pickoffs. The only runner Pérez caught stealing this year was at home, but the man threw 141 2/3 innings and only three other guys even bothered trying to steal off him, and there’s got to be a reason for that.

But if the Diamondbacks are into these pitchers with the game still in the balance, that probably means it’s a high-scoring affair and they can keep the line moving with more station-to-station baserunning anyway.

On the other side of the equation, you’ve got four Rangers pitchers who allowed a stolen base success rate of 90% or higher on four or more attempts: Scherzer, Sborz, Montgomery, and Chapman.

Throughout his career, Scherzer has been solid at keeping opponents from running on him, partially because he doesn’t allow many baserunners. This year, it’s been different. Opponents were 9-for-10 in the regular season, and once the calendar turned to October, Scherzer has been terrible. His 9.45 ERA is dead last among the 42 pitchers with at least five innings pitched this season. I’d give Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas, and their buddies the green light to run on Scherzer, but the 39-year-old has much, much bigger problems than holding runners at the moment.

Opponents are 4-for-4 against Sborz this year and 17-for-21 for his career; that falls under the stereotype of high-leverage relievers not holding runners well, but it’s not anything worth game planning for specifically.

The two most interesting players on this list are a pair of midseason acquisitions: Montgomery and Chapman.

Montgomery’s opponent basestealing record this season surprised me. (Though I concede that I saw a big left-hander who started his career with the Yankees and has good postseason numbers and the first place my mind went was Andy Pettitte.) Monty’s historical track record is much better, though hardly spectacular.

The first nine stolen bases Montgomery allowed this season came before the trade deadline, when he was pitching on a Cardinals staff that went completely to pieces after being separated from its emotional support Molina. But the only caught stealing on Montgomery’s record this season, on either side of the trade, was on a pickoff; a catcher has yet to throw out one of Montgomery’s basestealers this season. Over the course of the regular season, he’s kept attempts down enough that this hasn’t been a problem, but in the narrow focus of a seven-game series, the Diamondbacks could try to exploit Montgomery.

Which brings us to Chapman. Over the course of his career, Chapman hasn’t been bad at holding runners, but in the first half of this season he was absolutely horrendous. With the Royals, opponents attempted to steal 16 times on 36 opportunities, out of just 122 total plate appearances. Noah Syndergaard probably has the worst reputation for holding runners among average pitchers; his opponent go rate was .269, compared to the .444 Chapman posted in Kansas City. And 15 of those 16 would-be basestealers reached the next bag safely.

It’s enough to make you think that when Julien Baker wrote the lyrics, “You’re gonna run when you find out who I am / Yeah, you’re gonna run / You’re gonna run / It’s all right, everybody does,” she was specifically envisioning Chapman’s tenure with the Royals.

You want to hear something wild? Since Chapman arrived in Arlington, he’s faced 154 batters between the regular season and playoffs. That’s 37 appearances, 35 1/3 innings, 26 hits and 20 walks allowed. You know how many stolen base attempts he’s allowed?

Zero. Not stolen bases. Attempts.

There are other ways to get at Chapman now; his 1.42 playoff ERA is accompanied by a 6.41 FIP, a juxtaposition that is spit-out-your-coffee funny unless you’re a Rangers fan watching him try to hold a lead. But he’s undergone a transformation in terms of holding runners.

It turns out, the Rangers are just plain good at shutting down the running game, perhaps even as good as the Diamondbacks themselves are at running. Given how badly the Diamondbacks ran over the Phillies late in the NLCS, they might just be able to run on anyone, but Texas isn’t going to make it easy.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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7 months ago

This is either Baumann’s best or his worst headline pun. I cannot decide which

7 months ago
Reply to  YardGoat

He’s outdone himself yet again

7 months ago
Reply to  kmoser

I vote for best but this Alabama song was my favorite when I was about 2-3 years old.