The Need for Lead: What Statcast Teaches Us About Baserunning … and Ichiro

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The history of baseball’s statistical movement can be told in terms of Ichiro. Step by step, the numbers have gotten more granular, drilling down deeper into the sport’s bedrock. And each time they strike a new stratum, some formerly unknown aspect of Ichiro is revealed.

Traditional stats taught us to appreciate Ichiro’s extreme singles hitting. After that came complex projection systems, which were forced to evolve by the confounding effect of Ichiro’s unsinkable average. Later, easy access to pitch-by-pitch outcomes enabled us to tell that Ichiro, unlike most hitters, showed a real ability to foul off pitches at a higher rate once he got to two strikes. And once we were able to look up pitch locations, we could confirm that Ichiro would swing at (and make contact with) almost anything. Batted-ball stats told us about his unsurpassed infield-hit rate, which was aided by an unmatched ability to hide hits inside opponents’ jerseys. And when we got our first taste of hit-tracking technology, the results suggested that Ichiro had an unusual ability to aim his hits at open ground, just as he’d claimed he could in 2002. HITf/x also revealed that while many hitters show a clear preference for letting balls travel deep in the zone or hitting them far out in front of the plate, Ichiro varied his stroke depending on the pitch. Even his hats were weird.

It’s been a while since the last Ichiro epiphany, but the cipher is still playing. Over the weekend, Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill told Joel Sherman that the team is “very pleased with the job [Ichiro has] done” in 2015, and that he anticipates “trying to bring him back.” The vote of confidence wasn’t supported by the stats. Ichiro still plays good defense, but he no longer hits for a high average or ranks among the league leaders in baserunning value, which were his only elite offensive contributions. Stripped of those standout skills, Ichiro has been one of the worst hitters to earn extended playing time this season, a .237/.291/.290 slasher and a replacement-level player overall. He’s still an outlier, but only in the sense that he’s lasted so long: He’s the oldest position player in the major leagues, and he’s also the only position player from the Marlins’ Opening Day lineup who hasn’t been demoted or missed time with an injury.

For most of this season — save, perhaps, for the day when he passed Ty Cobb in professional hits — it’s looked like we were past the era of awesome Ichiro stats, fresh out of graphs with way-out-there circles that stood for him. All that remained was the depressing slog to his 3,000th major league hit, which is still 67 mostly singles away. But baseball stats have become more sophisticated this season, which must mean that another insight into Ichiro awaits.

Thanks to Statcast’s installation in every MLB park this season, we’ve learned about pitches’ perceived velocity and spin rate. We’ve begun to assess batted-ball speed, and we’ve seen video of the nuts and bolts behind breathtaking defensive plays. But we’ve yet to see many breakdowns of baserunning. With an assist from Ichiro, we can dip a toe into this topic, focusing on leads from first base.

I asked for a few pieces of information from MLB Advanced Media: first, the average length (in feet) of the primary and secondary leads each runner has taken from first base this season, excluding certain situations1 and subdivided by the handedness of the pitcher and whether the lead was preceded by a pickoff attempt during the same time on base. Second, the average length of the primary leads allowed by each pitcher, with the same restrictions applied. And third, the average top speed (in miles per hour) of each runner on his transits from first to second, excluding foul balls, 3-2-and-two-outs scenarios, and cases in which the base ahead was occupied.

Before the big Ichiro reveal, let’s take a detour to Lester Town, home of the Cubs starter whose refusal to attempt pickoffs caused a stir this spring and has given runners the green light this summer, resulting in 44 steals allowed, a single-season record for a lefty thrower. I expected to find that Lester allows the longest primary leads, since runners who reach against him can be confident that they won’t have to dive back to the base. For context, the average primary lead allowed is 10.20 feet. The table below shows the shortest and longest average primary leads allowed by pitchers with at least 70 recorded runner leads from first this season:

Shortest Primary Leads Allowed   Longest Primary Leads Allowed
Player Throws Leads Avg. Length   Player Throws Leads Avg. Length
Aaron Loup L 84 9.136 Jon Lester L 341 11.693
Dan Jennings L 89 9.444 A.J. Ramos R 152 11.114
Wily Peralta R 239 9.497 Adam Morgan L 168 11.034
Drew Storen R 142 9.497 Rafael Betancourt R 81 11.018
Brian Duensing L 99 9.518 Allen Webster R 79 11.000
Justin Verlander R 187 9.552 Yimi Garcia R 85 10.981
Pedro Strop R 116 9.565 Brett Anderson L 365 10.967
Wade Miley L 408 9.580 Enrique Burgos R 70 10.960
Blake Treinen R 100 9.611 Chris Young R 223 10.943
Felix Doubront L 163 9.615 Greg Holland R 81 10.939

Sure enough, Lester has allowed the longest primary leads, on average. As predictable as it is to see him on top of the table, though, the gap between Lester and his closest competition is much wider than I’d imagined. Most neighboring pitchers are separated by tiny fractions of an inch, but leads against Lester are almost 7 inches longer than leads against the second-place pitcher, A.J. Ramos. That’s as large as the difference between Ramos and the 84th-ranked qualifier, Grantland contributor Burke Badenhop. Leads against Lester are in a league of their own. “With a guy like Lester, you can take half the cut,” says former major leaguer Cliff Floyd, who retired with 148 steals.

Although ambidextrous reliever Pat Venditte has allowed much shorter primary leads as a lefty (8.99 feet) than as a righty (11.03), that isn’t representative of the leaguewide difference between righties and lefties. In fact, primary leads aren’t really any longer against right-handed pitchers, even though lefty throwers have more deceptive moves and tend to restrict the running game more. The lefty advantage in holding runners manifests itself in shorter secondary leads. The average secondary lead allowed by lefties (with no pickoff attempt) is 11.44 feet, a little more than a foot longer than the primary lead. Against righties, though, the secondary lead rises to 13.48 feet, more than 3 feet longer than the primary. That’s an extra fraction of a step that basestealers have to take against southpaw pitchers, in addition to the delayed acceleration. “It definitely varies from righty to lefty, because the lefty is looking right at you,” says Floyd, an MLB Network analyst. “You want to take a bigger lead on a righty for sure.”

It’s safe to assume that Lester’s pickoff problems have emboldened runners to take longer leads when he’s on the mound, and we know that pickoff attempts make runners less likely to succeed when they attempt to steal. But with the data I have, it’s difficult to determine how much the typical pickoff throw shortens the runner’s lead, if at all. The numbers show that the average lead actually increases slightly after a pickoff attempt, but the causation could flow one of two ways: Maybe it’s because runners are more confident after they’ve seen a pitcher’s move, but it could also be because runners are more likely to draw pickoff throws when they’re facing pitchers against whom they think they can risk especially long leads. “I think it depends on how quickly he gets the ball over there,” Floyd says. “It depends on my lead. If I felt comfortable where I was, I’d go right back to the same spot. … So I’d stay with the same lead, but if I knew I could get an extra step on the fact that he threw over and I had it down pat, I might take one more step. But if I’m feeling in-between with his move, I don’t want to get caught leaning and then I’m out for sure. Then I might take a half-step left.”

Statcast tracks leads and speeds from the runner’s perspective, too. The following table displays the fastest and slowest average top speeds of runners tracked from first to second, using the same cutoff of at least 70 leads.

Fastest Times   Slowest Times
Player Runs Avg. Top Speed   Player Runs Avg. Top Speed
Paulo Orlando 81 19.07 Alex Rodriguez 260 13.57
Kevin Kiermaier 196 19.03 Victor Martinez 185 13.74
Peter Bourjos 76 18.91 David Ortiz 235 13.98
Billy Hamilton 140 18.90 Ryan Howard 237 14.4
Delino DeShields 116 18.74 Aramis Ramirez 234 14.43
Jake Marisnick 85 18.74 Albert Pujols 265 14.51
Rougned Odor 128 18.73 Welington Castillo 127 14.80
Brandon Guyer 168 18.62 Prince Fielder 314 14.80
Eddie Rosario 90 18.61 Miguel Cabrera 269 14.94
Wil Myers 101 18.59 Martin Maldonado 70 15.01

Earlier this month, A-Rod called himself “the slowest man in baseball,” which is true in terms of average top speed from first to second. It’s obvious that the averages are picking up real differences in speed: Hamilton and Orlando are among the fastest (with Mike Trout just missing), and Prince Fielder and David Ortiz are among the slowest (with Billy Butler just missing), which passes the smell test. There’s a 0.61 correlation between average top speed and Speed Score (a Bill James–developed metric that tries to estimate player speed using various statistical clues), which signifies that the two tend to move in tandem.

Which brings us back to Ichiro. The 41-year-old’s average top speed between first and second is an unremarkable 16.65 mph, likely down from what it was in his prime. But his primary leads are something special.

Longest Primary Leads (vs. RHP)   Shortest Primary Leads (vs. RHP)
Player Leads Average Length   Player Leads Average Length
Ichiro Suzuki 98 13.131 Prince Fielder 273 7.634
Charlie Blackmon 172 12.529 Yadier Molina 238 7.929
Billy Burns 131 12.265 Adrian Gonzalez 270 7.954
Tyler Saladino 76 12.169 Ryan Hanigan 114 8.036
Cameron Maybin 186 12.072 Clint Robinson 180 8.116
Cesar Hernandez 95 11.979 Salvador Perez 162 8.156
Jason Heyward 197 11.925 Victor Martinez 167 8.173
Adeiny Hechevarria 138 11.875 Matt Holliday 147 8.181
Denard Span 149 11.848 A.J. Pierzynski 155 8.193
Mookie Betts 131 11.844 Brayan Pena 185 8.278

Of all the outlier-Ichiro stats, this might be the most amazing: Ichiro, baseball’s oldest position player, takes the game’s longest primary leads from first base. Not by a small amount, either: Ichiro’s average primary lead is more than 7 inches longer than Charlie Blackmon’s.

ichiro-leads

In theory, Ichiro should be the perfect person to exploit Lester’s best-known weakness. Unfortunately, Ichiro didn’t have a base open ahead of him the one time he reached first against Lester this season, but he did steal second easily against him on August 18, 2012.

Not every above-average runner has Ichiro’s aggressiveness, but in general, faster guys take longer leads. The correlation between average primary lead length and average top speed is 0.55, so the higher the average top speed, the longer the average lead tends to be. There’s no need for a station-to-station runner to tempt fate, so slowpokes like Fielder stay close enough to the bag that they can fall down and touch it, while burners try to eke out extra inches. Based on the typical relationship between average lead length and average top speed, the following players’ leads register as significantly longer or shorter than expected:

Player Avg. Top Speed Primary Lead Length Difference From Expected Primary Lead Length (in Feet) 
Ichiro Suzuki 16.54 13.131 plus-2.95
Yasiel Puig 15.28 10.979 plus-1.56
Albert Pujols 14.45 10.459 plus-1.54
Charlie Blackmon 17.90 12.529 plus-1.52
Tyler Flowers 15.43 11.000 plus-1.49
Ryan Hanigan 15.94 8.036 minus-1.79
Matt Holliday 16.27 8.181 minus-1.84
Marlon Byrd 17.42 8.873 minus-1.85
Joe Mauer 17.36 8.811 minus-1.87
Clint Robinson 16.86 8.116 minus-2.26

The difference between the primary and secondary leads isn’t quite as dependent on speed. Several runners add more than 5 feet to their secondary leads against right-handed pitchers, but that group includes both speed players like Shane Victorino, Freddy Galvis, Angel Pagan, and Jackie Bradley and plodders like Pedro Alvarez, Freddie Freeman, and A.J. Ellis. Ichiro’s secondary leads aren’t as extraordinary as his primary leads: With the secondary included and all leads (including those following pickoff attempts) lumped together, he ranks slightly behind Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez among runners with at least 70 total leads. Hamilton would come in only 28th on this list, even with his wheels:

Players Secondary Lead
Jose Ramirez 16.374
Ichiro Suzuki 16.029
Denard Span 15.900
Charlie Blackmon 15.690
Dee Gordon 15.328
Salvador Perez 9.873
Matt Wieters 9.766
Victor Martinez 9.653
Wilson Ramos 9.450
Prince Fielder 8.957

If we could add in an age adjustment, Ichiro would vault to the top. His physical skills are much diminished, but he’s still making the most of whatever talent remains. And that’s why it almost makes sense that Miami would consider bringing him back, despite his ugly on-base and slugging: Even at 42, Ichiro’s wizardry won’t have worn off. And if the Marlins are lucky, it might keep rubbing off on others.

Filed Under: MLB, Ichiro Suzuki, Miami Marlins, Jon Lester, Chicago Cubs, Statcast, MLB Advanced Media, MLB Stats, Speed, Stolen Bases, Pitching, Pitchers, Baseball, Ben Lindbergh

Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ BenLindbergh