Spring Training is in full swing. Preparing for the new season means teams are optimistic that they’ve patched up their flaws from a year ago. Bad teams always improved from the season before, good teams are going to be better, and the elite teams are finally ready to become World Series contenders.
On a smaller scale, different aspects a team struggled with one season ago are now likely going to be addressed through the first few weeks of full team activities. The Minnesota Twins came into camp determined to alleviate their injury concerns from the 2022 season. Another item on the Twins list of inefficiencies? Base running.
Former Twins manager Paul Molitor was back at Hammond Stadium for the first time since they fired him in 2018, looking to advise the team on base running fundamentals. Molitor ran the bases better than just about everyone during his generation. His 504 career stolen bases ranks him 39th all-time in baseball history, and his 4,854 career total bases are 27th all-time. Molitor has been with the Twins in some consultant roles through the minor leagues over the last half-decade, but he has not addressed the full major league team since.
Rocco Baldelli should get some credit for letting his predecessor come back and work directly with the big-league team. He’s also addressing his squad’s base running, one of Minnesota’s weakest areas since he became the skipper in 2019.
To most fans, there isn’t one true way to identify which teams are the best at base running. Some fans judge it on steals, others a team’s steal percentage or the number of times someone has been thrown out on the basepaths. Most of the time, a fan’s perception of baserunning is based on anecdotal evidence that they have seen while watching the team throughout a season. During the last four years, the Twins have given plenty of examples of their running woes.
Running the bases is going to become even more important this season. The new rule changes that limit the number of pickoff attempts will likely increase the amount of running a team will do between pitches. The bigger bases this season will be another incentive for teams to be more aggressive on the base paths.
Surface level stats aren’t a bad way to quantify base running, although FanGraphs attempts to quantify base running value. Base Running (BsR) serves as the base running version of WAR that calculates stolen bases, caught stealing, and other base running plays not found on the back of a baseball card.
Buxton (4.3), Jorge Polanco (0.9), and Max Kepler (0.8) were three of the Twins top five BsR producers last season. For context, Buxton led the Twins with six stolen bases in 2022. That’s the same number of stolen bases as Nick Gordon (-0.6) had last year, and Buxton was quantified as a far worse base runner due to Gordon’s other weaknesses running around the diamond.
Since Baldelli became manager in 2019, the Twins are 27th in baseball with -31.8 BsR. Below is how the Twins ranked in BsR during each season during his tenure:
Baldelli deserves some blame for the base running troubles as manager. The Twins have been average to well below average every season since 2019. He needed to make a point to fix the base running for this season. So far, it looks like he and Minnesota is putting an emphasis in that direction with Molitor’s presence and the way the 2023 Twins roster is made up.
Some of Minnesota’s worst base runners from last season are no longer on the roster. Gary Sánchez (-2.6), Gio Urshela (-6.2), and Miguel Sanó (-0.8) are no longer in Minnesota. The Twins seem to have made a point to bring in better base running to impact this year’s squad. Joey Gallo (1.4) was the sixth-best base runner on the New York Yankees last season. Michael A. Taylor (0.6) was seventh on the Kansas City Royals last season. Kyle Farmer (-4.6) and Carlos Correa (-6.0) are the two notable offseason additions who had below-average baserunners.
Under Baldelli, the Twins have been one of the least aggressive base-stealing teams. Last season, they were dead last with 38 stolen bases. However, stolen bases don’t tell the entire story of impactful base running. Raw stolen base numbers aren’t illustrative of baserunning success if opponents are consistently throwing runners out. Still, the Twins can’t be the worst team in this category. Even going from worst to below average can be a big boost to this team. Not stealing for the sake of stealing but a more opportunistic approach paired with savvier base running could buy the Twins an extra win or two throughout the season.
Like raw stolen base numbers, BsR isn’t the only factor that makes a team successful. The Arizona Diamondbacks led the league last season with 25.4 BsR, and they won only 74 games. The two highest base-stealing teams, the Texas Rangers (128) and the Miami Marlins (122), were both not close to the postseason in 2022.
But for a team like the Twins that expects to compete for the AL Central with the Cleveland Guardians and Chicago White Sox, they must maximize every way they can score runs. Minnesota left far too many runs on the field last season due to their bad base running. Any chance they can gain more runs will be crucial for this year’s team.
The Twins are going to need to allow Buxton to be a little more aggressive in stealing situations despite the injury concerns extra base running could add. If that route isn’t what the Twins want to do, at least unleash Taylor when he plays in place of Buxton. With the other runners, even sharpening up moderately makes this team a much more competent unit in terms of base running.
Baldelli is entering his fifth season managing the Twins. Base running has been an area of concern for a while. It’s better late than never for a young team to build a firm foundation in one of the most underrated parts of the game. Minnesota is still in the second week of Spring Training, so there’s no guarantee things will turn around immediately. But based on the Twins actions up until this point with their actions on the base paths, things are pointing towards a turnaround.