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Attempting to quantify Nationals' outfielder Bryce Harper's baserunning struggles

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Harper's inability to improve upon his batting line in 2014 can easily be explained away by his recovery from a torn ligament in his thumb. His miscues on the basepaths are a lot harder to make sense of.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend, Patrick posted an article in which Matt Williams said that it is not alarming that Bryce Harper keeps getting thrown out on the bases. As that article stated, Harper is near the top of the leaderboards for Outs On the Bases, which is saying an awful lot because he’s missed about 40% of the season to this point. Today, I’m going to take you inside the numbers and see if we can figure out just how much his baserunning is costing the Nationals so far this season.

Basic Batting Metrics

The meat of this piece is going to be focused on Harper's baserunning. However, I think that it would be negligent to ignore his basic batting metrics and how they affect his overall impact. Harper missed two months with a torn ligament in his thumb. This is an injury that will typically sap a hitter's power for a while even after they return. That has been the case with Harper, and I'm not blind to it.  More than anything, I'm focusing on the hitter that Harper has been this year and why this places an even bigger spotlight on his baserunning.

Season PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2012 597 22 9.4% 20.1% .206 .310 .270 .340 .477 .352 121
2013 497 20 12.3% 18.9% .212 .306 .274 .368 .486 .371 137
2014 281 7 10.3% 27.4% .133 .355 .265 .343 .398 .326 107


His ISO is down 76 points from what it was the past two seasons. He's striking out at an Espinosan* level. Even if it may be partially due to an inflated BABIP, Harper is getting on base at around the same rate as he did two years ago. Basically, this has been his primary contribution to the offense in 2014. He gets on base at a slightly above average clip and showcases occasional power.

*Prior to 2014, Danny Espinosa had struck out in 27.1% of his career Plate Appearances, or less often than Harper has struck out this season.

Harper has reached base precisely 96 times in 281 plate appearances. He has one sacrifice bunt, which..... well... I'm not here to yell, scream, or break things because Bryce Harper bunted (at least today), so we're not going to really talk about it. I bring it up only because of this incredibly stupid quote that I found on Wikipedia when researching how he only has 280 PA that count towards his OBP.

From Wikipedia's entry on Sacrifice Bunts:

A successful sacrifice bunt does not count as an at bat, does not impact a player's batting average, and counts as a plate appearance. However, unlike a sacrifice fly, a sacrifice bunt does not count against a player in determining on-base percentage. If the official scorer believes that the batter was attempting to bunt for a base hit, and not solely to advance the runners, the batter is charged an at bat and is not credited with a sacrifice bunt.

Now that's just silly that a sac fly counts (negatively) towards OBP and a sac bunt doesn't. Anyway, Harper only has 280 PA that count towards his OBP, so by busting out the trusty calculator, it was easy to find that he's reached base 96 times this season. Let's take a look at what has happened from there.

Where does baserunning come into play?

Year Run Score% SB Opps. SB CS SB% Pickoffs OOB Extra Base Taken XBT% UBR wSB BsR
2012 42% 196 18 6 75% 3 8 14 59% -0.3 0.6 0.2
2013 32% 170 11 4 73% 2 7 15 57% 1.6 0.2 1.8
2014 26% 97 1 2 33% 3 10 8 45% -0.4 -0.8 -1.3

*OOB = Outs on the bases.  This does not included CS or PO.

UBR (Ultimate Baserunning Runs Above Average, excluding SB/CS)

I included UBR in the above baserunning chart, but I've determined that I think it's just noise. If you'd like to know more about UBR, here's a primer on it. Based on Harper's numbers, I can't see how or where the logic comes up with the numbers that he's given (specifically comparing 2012 & 2014). He's made more OOB (non SB/CS) in 2014 than he did in 2012. He's taken the extra base fewer times and at a lower percentage than he did in 2012.  Yet his UBR in 2014 (-0.4) is almost identical to what it was in 2012 (-0.3). If someone has a better understanding of how this is the case (apart from simple sample size issues), feel free to elaborate in the comments section.

wSB (Stolen Base & Caught Stealing Runs Above Average)

Stolen bases are a lot easier to account for, and were net positives for Harper in his first two seasons. Basically, if you're successful in 2/3 of your SB attempts, you're adding positive value to the team. Harper has pretty much stopped attempting stolen bases this season for one reason or another. He had offseason knee surgery. His torn ligament in his thumb occurred when he was sliding into third base. These are things that might keep a player from running as often as he has in the past. They're also things that could make an organization give him the red light and tell him that he's not going to attempt a stolen base. I will say this, though. It's awfully hard to imagine that he's been picked off three times when he's only actually attempted three stolen bases. If he's not going, he shouldn't be leaning.

BsR (Base Running Runs Above Average)

It's simply an aggregate of UBR and wSB.  BsR says that Harper has been worth -1.3 runs above average, which is mainly due to his 1 for 3 SB attempts. Essentially, this metric makes sense if you believe in the two metrics that are compiled to create it. I'm pretty skeptical on the findings of UBR.  It just seems too flawed. BsR also ignores PO, as they're technically not CS or any of the seven situations that UBR's primer says it accounts for. Regardless, BsR tells us that Harper has been worth about -1.3 Runs on the bases this season, or 3.1 runs less than he was worth on the bases last year.

Let's use something other than advanced metrics... What do the raw stats tell us?

The very first thing that we're going to see is that Bryce Harper is not a horrible baserunner. He showed us this.... in 2012 and 2013. He has been an absolutely terrible baserunner in 2014, though. Let's clean this all up a little bit.

Year Times On Base Total OOB OOB%
2012 203 17 .084
2013 183 13 .071
2014 96 15 .156

*Total OOB includes CS & Pickoffs.. OOB% is figured based on times on base

I'm not measuring anything in context with the rest of the league, but I'm not sure I really have to when looking at these numbers. In Harper's first two seasons (when he averaged reaching base 193 times), Harper made an out on the bases an average of 15 times per season.  In 2014, he's reached base 96 times. He's made the same amount of outs on the bases in 2014 that he averaged in his first two seasons when he reached base (just over) twice as often. 15.6% of the time that Bryce Harper has reached base, he has made an out on the bases.  That's insane!

Put another way.....

Year PA Total OOB OBP-
2012 597 17 .028
2013 497 13 .026
2014 281 15 .053

*OBP- is figured by Total OOB/PA

OK... You've got me.  OBP- is not a recognized statistic (neither was OOB%, for that matter). Getting on base can have an effect on a baseball game other than simply not making outs (which is, in general, the goal of all batters/baserunners. If you don't make outs, you'll continually round the bases). If a player walks when there's a runner occupying first base, he advances other runners. In cases where he reaches base via a hit, he also (theoretically) advances other runners. Basically, it would be foolish to say that every time a player makes an out on the bases, it has the same effect as if he'd just not reached base in the first place. It just isn't true. This is why OBP- is just a made up statistic.

However, when you consider that Harper's primary contribution this season with the bat is his ability to get on base, OBP- isn't something that we can completely write off either. Harper has reached base 34.3% of the time this season. He has given away an out on the bases 5.3% of the time this season (relative to plate appearances).

A .290 OBP from a guy providing middling power with a 27% strikeout rate doesn't sound nearly as good as a .343 OBP does, now does it? We can't credit Harper for getting on base at the rate that he has this season without criticizing him for giving away as many outs on the bases as he has. His (slightly BABIP-inflated) .343 OBP hasn't really been as good as it looks.

Show me the TOOTBLAN!

We're going to look at three TOOTBLANs from two games. Two of them were overaggression, which most of his TOOTBLANs are. The third was just him being flighty and doing something that is unacceptable at the big league level.  Not all outs on the bases are TOOTBLANs.

Sometimes you run into bad luck. Sometimes the other guys just make an extremely good play. Sometimes your third base coach doesn't know what a stop sign is. Sometimes, though, you get thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop because... well....  you were being a nincompoop.

Overaggression


I'm going to link you to the highlights from the Nats 1-0 loss to Cincinnati on July 26 where you can find two examples of Harper being overaggressive. You'll be looking for "Reds turn 9-3 double play" and "Reds nab Harper on basepaths" to find those two examples. Let's outline how both truly fit the LAN (Like A Nincompoop) part of TOOTBLAN.
  • Situation - 2nd inning, nobody out.  Harper draws a leadoff walk. Ramos hits a ball to deep Right Field which Jay Bruce makes a terrific play to get to. By the time Bruce caught the ball, Harper was already well on his way to third. Though Bruce's throw back to first pulled Todd Frazier off the bag, he did get back to the base before a sliding Harper could get back.
The key here is that there were zero outs. If Harper goes to the second base bag and waits to see if the ball does, indeed, drop in before continuing on his journey around the basepaths, the worst situation that the Nats could be looking at will be 2nd and 3rd with nobody out. Instead, he was so focused on scoring (with nobody out) that a really nice catch turned into a double play.

  • Situation - 7th inning, one out. Harper is on first base. Ramos hits a swinging bunt towards third base which forces Ramon Santiago to charge. He makes the throw to first and Ramos beats it (!), but Harper tries to go first-to-third on the infield single and gets gunned down.
The MLB highlight package doesn't capture the replay I was hoping to see. We can see (at 5 seconds) that Reds SS Zack Cozart immediately starts to cover third base when Santiago charges the ball. That's a good fundamental play and exactly what Harper is banking on not happening by trying to go from first to third. He's banking on the Reds not being ready for that possibility. MASN did an excellent job covering the replay that day, as they pointed out that not only was Bob Henley flashing the stop sign at Harper. They also showed that Harper was turning to watch Santiago's throw travel to first base as he rounded the second base bag. Had his head been up and looking at the play in front of him, he would have seen two reasons to stop at second base. Instead, he made his second crucial out on the basepaths in a game that the Nats would go on to lose 1-0.

Flightiness


I think most of us will remember this one from what would eventually become one of the Nats biggest wins in August, a 4-1 11 inning victory in Atlanta (again, you'll have to pick the play, which is B. Upton doubles off Harper).

  • Situation - Harper drew a one out walk in the sixth inning of a 1-0 game. Ramos hit a fly ball to the track, but it was a fairly routine play for B.J. Upton. Harper was again midway between second and third and didn't attempt to return to the bag, instead walking towards the dugout because he apparently didn't realize how many outs there were.
Are Harper's struggles on the bases alarming?

It's certainly something (annoying?  frustrating?) to see Harper waste 15.6% of his trips on the bases by making a poor decision that negates a positive plate appearance. I can't say that it isn't at least a little bit alarming. Bryce may only be 21 years old (every time I remind myself how young he is, I'm amazed by how young he is), but he is in his third season in the majors. At some point, you have to stop chalking poor decisions up to inexperience. Would many 21 year olds make some of the same mistakes Harper has made on the bases this season? Sure, but shouldn't the real question be if many players in their third year as a starting MLB outfielder would make those same mistakes?

Harper isn't a bad baserunner. His underlying skill set didn't just magically disappear when he turned 21 years old. His Baseball IQ didn't suddenly drop from 130 to 70 overnight. He's made an exceptional amount of poor decisions on the basepaths this year, and he's paid for nearly all of them. Harper has taken the "run till they tag you" mantra a little too literally. He's taking a lot of risks on the basepaths, but he's not really taking a lot of smart risks.