Boston’s Best Tools: Base Running

When the Red Sox signed Carl Crawford earlier this offseason, they added one of the best base runners in the game, perhaps the best. Few players have the raw speed and stolen base skills Crawford possess. One player that can rival Crawford is his new teammate and fellow outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury.  Ellsbury lead the league in stolen bases for two straight seasons before his injury plagued 2010 campaign. The leader the two years before Ellsbury became a full time player, Carl Crawford. Neither player is reckless on the bases either; both have stolen bases at over 80% for their careers. One thing is certain; next season Boston will start two of the game’s best base runners. The only question: which one of them is better?

Because of the time lost to injuries last season, I am going to compare Ellsbury’s full major league career against Crawford’s past three seasons. This gives us a sample of 1510 plate appearances for Ellsbury against 1809 plate appearances for Crawford. I am focusing here on percentages because it simplifies both the differences in plate appearances and because base running opportunities are irregular. Here is how the two stack up in the most significant base running rates.

Name

Runs Scored %

Stolen Base%

Stolen Base Oppertunities/ Stolen Base

Extra Base%

Base Running Runs Above Avg

Jacoby Ellsbury

41%

85%

3.98

37%

15

Carl Crawford

40%

80%

5.08

49%

12

 

It really is amazing just how similar these two players are. Crawford has scored 40% of time he has reached base and Ellsbury 41%. The AL average last season was 30%, so both are well ahead of the curve there. Ellsbury has the edge in SB% as well, stealing bases at 85%, while Crawford has been stealing them at 80% over the past three seasons, just slightly down from his career rate of 82%. Ellsbury’s superior skill in stealing bases really shows up in the number of opportunities per stolen base. Ells needs one less opportunity to take a base than Crawford. This may seem like a minor difference, but over a full season it is magnified. In the sample used here, Jacoby has 4 more stolen bases in 129 fewer chances.

The one area where Crawford has the major advantage is extra bases. Ellsbury is actually below average at taking extra bases on hits (last season’s league average was 40%). Crawford is exceptional at it. Ellsbury’s inexperience might have something to do with this flaw in his running game, but even if he does improve, reaching Crawford’s level will be tough. Few players in the league can combine his speed with the instinct he has for the game.

Despite his weakness in taking extra bases, Ellsbury leads in the linear weight-based base running runs above average, though not by a wide margin. His ability to steal bases is unparalleled and for that he takes the top place in base running in my evaluation. Crawford has said he would like to steal fewer bases and his numbers indicate he may be serious. Even if does take a few less bases on steals, his excellent sense on the base paths will net the Sox plenty of extra bags and the two will terrorize AL catchers next year.

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