PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Marlon Anderson finished his 11-year playing career with 71 stolen bases and never had more than 19 in a single season.
But to understand why the Mets created the new position of baserunning coordinator for this year and gave Anderson the title, it requires a different perspective. Let’s say a more analytical approach.
The traditional scouting reports on Anderson always pegged him as an intelligent baserunning threat. You could tell that by watching him play. Anderson made it a priority to know the fielders’ tendencies, how or when the moment was right to take the extra base.
If Anderson saw an opening, he’d stretch a secondary lead and swipe a bag.
But only recently could Anderson’s often-overlooked skill be given a numerical value and better appreciated.
In 2003, for the team formerly known as the Devil Rays, Anderson finished with an 8.5 BsR, a FanGraphs metric designed to be an “all-encompassing baserunning stat” that includes stolen bases but also factors in every other aspect, such as taking extra bases as well as getting thrown out in those situations. It’s the baserunning component of WAR.
So how good was Anderson that year? Carlos Beltran ranked No. 1, not surprisingly, with a 14.0 BsR. Next was Rafael Furcal (11.1), then Anderson. Right behind him was Ichiro Suzuki (8.4).
Fast-forward to now, and the 2003 Anderson still would have finished third last season, trailing Jose Ramirez (12.0) and Brett Gardner (8.9). The point being, the strategy of the game may have changed to some degree, but the value of baserunning remains constant. It just depends how determined a team is to exploit that skill and find those wins in the margins.
“Think about last season, getting Jacob deGrom another run, another run and a half a game from baserunning, somebody taking the extra bag, scoring a run without getting a hit. What that would do for his overall wins and losses, as well as the team’s wins and losses,” Anderson said. “So you have to have that mentality every single day, then you change the mindset, then you change the actual outcome of what we’re doing as a team.”
Need tangible proof? Look no further than the defending world champs. And it’s no coincidence that Anderson’s new position, along with the Mets’ concentration on baserunning, suddenly appeared this spring. There’s a direct line to be drawn from Fenway to Flushing, and it has to do with the defections of Allard Baird and Jared Banner, two of the Mets’ significant front-office hires during the offseason.
The Red Sox scored the most runs (876) in the sport last season, and Alex Cora credits his team’s aggressive mindset on the basepaths as a large component of that. Cora pushed that from Day 1 when he took over as manager, and though the Sox suffered through the early going, running into outs a bit too frequently, they eventually became proficient at it.
Boston ranked third overall in stolen bases (125) — behind the Indians (135) and Rays (128) — but were the best at turning those thefts into runs, according to FanGraphs’ metric of weighted stolen base runs (wSB), which put the Sox at 8.7 (zero being average). The Mets ranked 27th last season at minus-5.1.
“The first month and a half of the season, we weren’t good at it,” Cora said. “But little by little, we did a good job just letting them know the value of the outs. Then we were amazing. We did a good job. I don’t want to talk too much about it because it seems like that’s the trend. Now the Orioles are running the whole time. The Yankees, on the first day here, they stole third. It’s tough to score runs when you’re striking out a lot, so you have to find different ways to do it.”
With the Red Sox now providing the blueprint, the Mets grabbed two of their top lieutenants in Baird (assistant general manager) and Banner (executive director, player development), and one of their first phone calls was to Anderson, who had been the hitting coach at Class A Brooklyn last season. Armed with this market inefficiency, they recruited Anderson to help the Mets take advantage from the ground floor up.
“We knew baserunning would be a focus for us, and part of it was finding the right person,” Banner said. “When I sat down with Marlon and talked to him and realized his passion for it, he seemed like the ideal candidate. Brodie’s challenged us to find creative ways to get better and improve and help our young players, and putting Marlon in this position I think is one of the ways that we’re doing that. And I think it’s going to be very helpful to our guys.”
When Banner was asked about the influence of the Red Sox model, he steered the conversation away from his former employer. Teams guard their proprietary systems and information with ultra-tight security, so even casually touching on the topic tends to be a no-no these days.
But it’s telling that Anderson’s position didn’t exist under the previous administration, and now they’re assigning him as a mobile superintendent, traveling throughout the year to make sure the message gets across.
First it has to be established in spring training, however, and that includes with the big-league club.
“They didn’t necessarily provide the numbers, but we just talk about the research,” Anderson said. “What they gave me was their backing to push the envelope to the fullest with these guys, to come in and change their mindset. You want to give guys foundational things to work on. I want you to have the same mentality and the same lead if you’re not stealing a bag. You don’t want the pitcher not thinking about it. I want you to think I’m going every single time. It’s about putting more pressure on the pitcher and getting pitches to hit for your guys.”
Rajai Davis, a 13-year veteran on a minor-league deal with the Mets, is by far the most accomplished base-stealer in the organization. He also embodies exactly what the front office is trying to develop and acquire: a player who not only has the skill and aptitude to be a dangerous baserunner but even now, at age 38, constantly works hard to get better.
Davis is second among active base-stealers with 415 — Ichiro is No. 1 with 509 — and five times has surpassed 40, including 50 for the A’s in 2010.
He’s also still committed to the craft, to the extent that he took advantage of Anderson’s back-field workshop after he was done on the major-league side on a recent afternoon.
In one drill, Davis and others are able to specifically focus on their leads off first base, against live pitching, while being recorded by the team’s slow-motion cameras.
The video breakdown is a key, as Davis can pick up minute details of his own lead and jump that can trim critical fractions of seconds from his time to second base. That’s the difference between being safe or out, scoring a run or not.
That’s always been a priority for Davis despite this era’s fascination with either going deep or striking out.
“I think a lot of the attention is being put on the bats and how guys are launching,” Davis said. “But what happens when you don’t launch? You get walked, because they know you want to launch. What do you do then? You win games by scoring runs. And if you’re not hitting the long ball, you’re on base. Now you’ve become a different player. You’re a baserunner. So I think those are little things that can help win ballgames. You still want the threat out there.”
The Red Sox agree, and they rode that philosophy to a 108-win regular season, along with their fourth world championship in 15 seasons. The methodology is no secret. It’s as obvious as the Green Monster. But committing to it, with the benefits of modern technology, is allowing for better execution.
Plus, as Cora mentioned, when pitchers become more concerned with strikeouts, they tend to pay less attention to baserunners. There is an expanding window there for the smart, resourceful opportunists whom Anderson is now in charge of growing in the farm system.
“Some of the best baserunners are guys who aren’t that fast, and it’s because they know how to use what they do have, right?” Banner said. “And I think Marlon is an example of that. He wasn’t a burner when he was a player. But he was smart, he was heady, and he was able to do those little things to help his teams win, and that’s what we want our guys to emulate.”