Though Improved In Some Ways, the Cardinals Are Still Running Into Too Much Trouble When Running the Bases

Why are the Cardinals so clumsy at running the bases?

Ah, here we go again. We’ve been talking about this for a long time.

Too long, really.

Aledmys Diaz leads the Cardinals with 3 steals through 19 games.

First of all, there are some positives. Base running metrics this early in a season aren’t worth much, if anything. But if we just look at the early returns around MLB the Cardinals rank 14th in the Base Running Runs (BRR) metric at Baseball Prospectus at plus 0.4. And in the base-running metric used at FanGraphs (BsR the Cardinals are doing even better, ranking seventh at plus 2.3. That’s third-best in the National League.

These stats will be more meaningful two or three months into the season. But the early improvement basically can be attributed to the Cardinals being more efficient and effective in hit advancement … going from first base to third base on a single, scoring from second base on a single, scoring from from first on a double. And their faster players — Kolten Wong, Dexter Fowler, Randal Grichuk, Aledyms Diaz, Greg Garcia and the underrated Jedd Gyorko — make up a good part of that.

The Cardinals have also taken advantage of some opportunities to scoot up a base on balls hit in the air; they have five sac flies, which is among the top 10 in the majors. And we’ve seen some tag-ups from first base on deep flies to center.

The other upturn is stolen bases, with the Cardinals swiping 10 of 14 so far for a success rate of 71.4 percent that’s tied for 16th in the majors. Usually the Cardinals are at, or near, the bottom of the MLB accounting for successful steal attempts. Again, the guys who run well are getting it done; Fowler, Grichuk, Wong, Garcia and Diaz have combined or 8 steals in 9 attempts. And Gyorko and Jose Martinez each are 1-for-1 in steals.

That’s the sensible approach.

The guys that have speed — and base-running aptitude — should put their skills to work.

However …

One problem? The guys running into outs on the bases shouldn’t be running into outs.

That will happen on a random basis, but it shouldn’t be a habit.

Players limited by speed — and players who lack base-running acumen — need to be careful out there instead of charging into silly outs.

That’s an ongoing issue.

Last season the Cardinals lost 26 outs on caught-stealing shutdowns. They lost 47 runners who tried to push it by going for an extra base when they hit the ball, or a teammate hit the ball. (Only seven MLB teams lost more runners that way.) They 2016 Cardinals were also picked off eight times, the seventh-highest total in the bigs.

Unfortunately, the pattern continues. Early this season the Cardinals are giving away too many outs on the bases, already having lost 15 runners — tied for the second most in the majors. The tally includes four pickoffs and six outs made on failures to safely reach an extra base on batted balls.

The frustrating thing about this, at least from my seat: the repeat mistakes by the same individuals.

Since the start of last season here are the Cardinals’ worst offenders for unforced outs made on the bases:

Matt Carpenter 16

Stephen Piscotty 14

Aledmys Diaz 13

Yadier Molina 11

Randal Grichuk 9

Carpenter shouldn’t be pushing it on the bases. For his career, he’s successfully stolen a base on only 46 percent of his attempts. Between 2013-2016, four seasons, Carpenter made 50 unforced outs on the bases. And rather than modify his approach and become more conservative and safe, Carpenter already has made four unforced base-running outs in 19 games (including two pickoffs.) Base running isn’t Carpenter’s forte. It’s a weakness.

Piscotty has more speed than Carpenter but still blunders his way into making too many outs. After coming to the big leagues in late July of 2015, Piscotty has made 19 unforced outs as a runner. Over the last two seasons Piscotty has arrived safely on only 50 percent of steal attempts. Given their poor percentages, why are Carpenter and Piscotty trying to steal bases? Why are they getting picked off?

I’ll cut a Diaz a break because of his 75 percent steal rate so far this season. And Diaz hasn’t been thrown out trying to advance on a hit. (But his one pickoff this season is one too many.)

Molina has made 78 unforced outs on the bases since 2010. And except for 2012, when Molina had 12 steals in 15 attempts, his career success rate is 54 percent. Molina is smart, but he’s slow.

For the stolen base to qualify as a smart strategical play for a major league team, you need a success rate above 70 percent.

Among current Cardinals here are the team’s lowest-rated base runners since the start of 2016 according to the FanGraphs BsR metric: Molina minus 8.9; Piscotty minus 4.2; Carpenter minus 3.0. (Had he played more, Jhonny Peralta would be right there with the other three.)

This is the baffling part: the wrong guys are doing the running … and running.  And it makes no sense.

Players should be held accountable, yes. Surely they have the brains to understand when it’s time to run, time to be cautious. They should be able to gauge the wisdom of taking a risk depending on the situation at hand. They shouldn’t expect the manager to think for them. But guys listen to their manager. That can’t be dismissed. It’s a factor.

I wonder how much of this can be attributed to the mixed message often sent by manager Mike Matheny. He’s frequently encouraged his players to push it and be aggressive on the bases. Again, it’s up to players to know when it’s wise to gamble with an out; in a nine-inning game a team gets only 27 of those precious commodities. But the Cards work for a boss who encourages them to run.

As Matheny said last offseason: “I think everybody in this room would be completely shocked and surprised to know how many times we had the green light in the last several years. More often than not … I’ll tell you that … but also, the players have to buy in. We can tell them until we’re blue in the face that, ‘Hey, you guys have speed, athleticism. We should be taking first to third. We should be taking that extra base. We should be tagging up from first base on a deep fly ball.’ ”

Matheny became manager in 2012.

Over his first five seasons, through 2016, the Cardinals ranked last among the 15 NL teams in the FanGraphs BsR metric at minus 46.5 runs. No other NL team is close to being that bad.

Based on BsR, three of the seven poorest base-running seasons in franchise history have occurred on Matheny’s watch: 2016 (minus 19.8, the worst), 2014 (third worst) and 2013 (seventh worst.) If you want to stretch that out, four of the worst 13 base-running seasons in Cardinals history have been logged with Matheny as manager.

Matheny’s teams have been low on athleticism, and that isn’t his fault. He doesn’t construct the roster. But we’ve seen his Cardinals make far too many mental mistakes on the bases.

Thanks for reading …

Bernie 

More: Bird Bytes – It Hasn’t Always Been Pretty, but the Cardinals Are Recovering and Getting Wins