The Basepath Misadventures of Jose Pirela

As baseball analysis has grown, the advanced metrics have begun to find their way into television broadcasts more regularly. Announcers will occasionally mention win probability in terms of game context. Pitcher FIP will be brought up alongside ERA. The slew of batter statistics — wOBA, wRC+, ISO, et al — will be used to shed further light on hitters. Even fielding metrics like UZR and DRS have slowly started creeping their way into viewers’ homes, at least from national television broadcasts.

The one quantifiable area of the game that seems to get a little less sabermetric coverage from broadcasters is baserunning. Stolen bases are of course referenced, and Statcast sprint speeds are a relatable number that does occasionally get mentioned. However, the concept of baserunning runs (BsR) has not made its way to television in the way that its fielding counterparts have.

While the introduction of Statcast sprint speeds to the public is a step forward in understanding how good a baserunner is, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Rather, it tells something more akin to the potential baserunning value that a player can bring. Activating that potential involves no small amount of baserunning instincts for basically anyone who lacks Billy Hamilton’s speed. Looking at one player in particular from 2018 clearly shows us why in explaining runner ability, broadcasts need to go beyond sprint speed.

Jose Pirela isn’t slow by any stretch of the imagination. His sprint speed — according to Statcast — is 28.6 ft/s, good for 78th-best in baseball. He’s not Byron Buxton, but he’s certainly not Albert Pujols either. He stole 30 bases in a minor-league season at age 20 and bested 15 stolen bases on four other occasions in the minors. He certainly should be able to be an asset on the basepaths for the Padres.

However, speed alone is not enough for a player to excel. Players need enough baseball instinct and awareness to take advantage of baserunning situations and avoid mistakes — what my wife calls “base discipline.” This is not to say that Jose Pirela definitively lacks this discipline, but he certainly has a level of aggressiveness on the basepaths that can get him in trouble in spite of his speed.

In 2018 to date, Pirela has contributed -5.2 runs on the basepaths, sixth-worst among all major-league hitters. All five worse players — Eduardo Nunez (-5.6 runs), Justin Bour (-5.8), Justin Smoak (-6.4), Wilson Ramos (-7.8), and Yangervis Solarte (-7.8) — have average to below-average speed, ranging in sprint speeds from 23.3 ft/s (499th in baseball) to 27.4 ft/s (233rd). These players low baserunning runs are a function mostly of their speed, but Pirela’s numbers cannot be blamed on his speed.

However, in addition to his overall low numbers on the basepaths, Pirela leads baseball in one ignominious distinction. Along with Jose Abreu and Matt Duffy, Pirela has been thrown out on the basepaths (like a nincompoop) five times — excluding caught stealing. Yes, Pirela is the TOOTBLAN co-leader.

TOOTBLAN Leaders, 2018
Player TOOTBLAN BsR
Jose Pirela 5 -5.2
Jose Abreu 5 -2.6
Matt Duffy 5 -3.6
Cameron Maybin 4 -0.8
Derek Dietrich 4 -0.5
Eduardo Nunez 4 -5.6
Kole Calhoun 4 -0.2
Wilmer Flores 4 -3.7

Now, admittedly, TOOTBLANs are often the result of a combination of many factors. There is the role, of course, of the runner, but these events also involve base coaches and fielders making throws. But TOOTBLANs are easier to visualize than esoteric bases not taken when they should have been. So let’s look at Pirela’s TOOTBLANs to see why pure speed has to be combined with aggressiveness in moderation.

April 6th, Padres vs. Astros

Here, Pirela rounds second after a double, assuming — maybe not unreasonably — that the cutoff throw from Carlos Correa was going home. Instead, first baseman Marwin Gonzalez—who has much experience taking cutoffs as a middle infielder — cuts off Correa’s throw and catches Pirela between second and third. A quick rundown later finds Pirela on the ground and out.

It’s hard not to blame Pirela here. He is looking back to see the throw, but in doing so he misses Gonzalez moving into place for the cutoff until it was too late. The third base coach may have been able to give him the stop sign if he were looking that way, but in this case, it was a combination of Pirela’s aggressive instincts and a well-coordinated Astros’ infield.

April 10th, Padres vs. Rockies

In this case, Pirela followed his coaches signal but got cut down at the plate. Ian Desmond, the left fielder for the Rockies, has an average arm by both DRS and UZR and is releasing the ball at the time that Pirela is rounding third. The throw beats Pirela to the plate by at least 20 feet, and the play is only close because the throw is slightly up the line. In any event, Glenn Hoffman may have banked a little too much on Pirela’s speed in trying to send him home, and the Padres’ found themselves out of a run.

May 22nd, Padres vs. Nationals

Here’s another similar situation to the April 10th play. Two outs, Pirela running on contact, outfielder with an average — or, in the case of Michael A. Taylor, better-than-average — arm throwing before Pirela rounds third, and a close play at the plate. This play was overturned, with the replay showing that Pirela was out on Pedro Severino’s swipe tag.

The Padres’ thought process can again be understood here. The center-field throw is longer than the left-field throw, and Pirela did almost beat the throw again. It took a nearly 99 mph toss from Taylor to get Pirela at the plate, so this one can be chalked up as just a good play by Taylor.

June 21st, Padres vs. Giants

Here, the blame seems to clearly rest on Pirela, as he runs through a stop sign and is cut down by a fairly large margin, despite a good attempt to avoid the tag. While there is often gray areas on blame, this one seems fairly clear.

June 22nd, Padres vs. Giants

The next night, Pirela found himself caught between first and second as Eric Hosmer returned to second base after likely being dead to rights at third. Unfortunately for Pirela, Pablo Sandoval bobbled the throw, giving Hosmer time to get back to second but leaving Pirela hanging out to dry. Pirela isn’t necessarily blameless here, as he had to have been aggressively rounding first to get so far down the line towards second, but the fault is definitely not entirely his.

***

So, in total, Pirela deserves definite blame on two plays, a portion of blame on one, and Ian Desmond and Michael A. Taylor deserve a load of credit on the last two. Does this absolve Pirela of the charge of lack of base discipline? Probably not. Again, he holds a well above-average sprint speed, but one of the lowest baserunning runs totals in baseball. You can’t blame that solely on good plays by outfielders or teammate’s decisions.

Jose Pirela has been an average baserunner in the past, as evidenced by his -0.1 BsR in 488 PAs prior to 2018. He has been an aggressive runner over that time, as well, and that aggressiveness has on occasion come back to bite him. He has a career 56.3% stolen-base percentage — nine successes out of 16 attempts — and was TOOTBLAN-ed twice last year. Despite this, his raw speed leaves him in a position to be a positive contributor. If national broadcasts are going to talk about baserunning from a purely potential point of view, they will also need to look at the more complete story, with Pirela providing an excellent example why.

We hoped you liked reading The Basepath Misadventures of Jose Pirela by Stephen Loftus!

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Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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