The Royals Have a Chance to Innovate the Use of Base Running

The Kansas City Royals were the worst team in one of the worst divisions of all-time in 2018. Their attendance numbers fell back down to where they were before their World Series runs. They are in need of some excitement and their recent signings show they may have something intriguing and an opportunity for an innovative use of pinch-running.

The Royals had two of the top 10 base stealers in the MLB last season as seen in the chart below.

Player Team Stolen Bases
Whit Merrifield Royals 45
Trea Turner Nationals 43
Mallex Smith Rays 40
Jonathan Villar Orioles/Brewers 35
Billy Hamilton Reds 34
Jose Ramirez Indians 34
Starling Marte Pirates 33
Adalberto Mondesi Royals 32
Lorenzo Cain Brewers 30
Dee Gordon Mariners 30

Not only do the Royals have 2 of the top 10 base stealers in the MLB, but they have the 2018 MLB leader in Whit Merrifield. Merrifield hit .304 last year and is the Royals best player, Mondesi is only 23 years old and hit .276 last year. The Royals also have Brett Phillips and Hunter Dozier who both possess above-average speed. The Royals have now gone and signed two of the fastest and best base-stealers in baseball. They signed both Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore to 1-year major league deals. The chart below shows the MLB steals leaders since the beginning of the 2014 season.

Player Teams Steals
Billy Hamilton Reds 264
Dee Gordon 3 Teams 242
Jose Altuve Astros 173
Starling Marte Pirates 161
Rajai Davis 4 Teams 147

Since the start of 2014, Billy Hamilton has the most steals of any player in the MLB. However, Hamilton only has a .298 on-base percentage for his career (.299 last season). His inability to reach base has greatly lessened his value to major league clubs despite his fantastic speed and defense. Gore has had similar problems. Last season in AAA (Omaha and Iowa), Gore had an on-base percentage of just .283. Gore is known for being picked up by contending teams near the end of the season and being used a pinch runner come playoff time.

The Royals have an opportunity to try a new approach here though. My idea is using guys like Hamilton to pinch run early on in a game. Guys with speed like Hamilton and Gore are unusual and have even been thought of as a free run for their team if they get on base, especially with one or no outs. Let’s say left-fielder Alex Gordon starts an inning off with a single or a walk. You pinch-run Gore or Hamilton for Gordon. Their speed and base-stealing ability likely increases your chance to win. You then leave them in the game in the outfield. That way you don’t have to start Hamilton, but you can maximize his speed by having him on base at least once, guaranteed. You still get his defense in essential late situations of a game, and hopefully you can take an early lead by scoring first.

Win Percentage
Win-Percentage When Leading by Inning

What can be seen in the graph above is that although the probability to win increases the later you get into the game, the most important jump in win probability is to get the lead. The win probability if you have the lead after the first inning is 69.7%. Nowadays with the uptick in bullpen usage, teams are able to keep leads more than ever before. If using a pinch-runner in the first or second inning can get you a run and a lead, why not use it?

Based on last year’s performance, it is unlikely the Royals will be a legitimate contender this year, but they could have the most speed of any team we’ve ever seen. That could make them a good team to try something like this. I have no idea if players will think this is stupid or not, but with an AL team, burning one or two guys off the bench doesn’t mean as much since you have a DH and will not need to pinch hit for the pitcher’s spot. I personally hope the Royals try something like this, but we’ll just have to wait and see.


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