It's almost impossible to overstate how different the 2013 and 2014 seasons were. To go from champion to year-long cellar dweller, there were obviously many areas where the Red Sox completely fell apart. The starting pitching totally fell off at points, especially in the latter portion of the year when almost the entire Opening Day rotation had been traded away. The offense was nowhere near as potent, with young players struggling much more than they did just one year prior. The also had worse luck with injuries. Put it all together, and you get yourself one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory. One other area where the team fell off significantly isn't getting as much play though, and that was Boston's performance on the base paths.
The biggest reason the team struggled with running so much this past year was the loss of their biggest free agent, Jacoby Ellsbury. Although everyone knew that he was a special base runner, I think most people (myself included) failed to realize what a significant portion of the team's overall base running value he carried. Consider how good he was just at stealing bases. During his tenure in Boston, the center fielder stole 241 bases in 715 games, good for just about one stolen base in every three games. In fact, over his time with Boston, only four players in the entire league had more steals, and Ellsbury played in at least 86 fewer games than each of them. This is not to say that the Red Sox front office should have kept him around because of his legs. Letting him walk was still the right decision for many reasons. However, they did do a poor job of trying to replace his best quality, and need to be more aware of it for 2015.
Look at just how bad this team was on the base paths. For the entire season, the Red Sox only stole 63 bases (which is eleven more than Ellsbury had by himself a year ago), less than all but four teams in the league. It wasn't just stealing bases where they were lacking, either. It was every portion of running the bases. Over at Fangraphs, they have a stat that measures the overall base running skills called BsR. By that stat, the Red Sox were again one of the worst teams in the league, finishing worse than all but two teams in baseball. Among the players who played a significant chunk of the team's games in 2014, Brock Holt was the only truly positive base runner on the entire team. That needs to change.
Luckily, there are a few reasons to be optimistic that things will get better in 2015. For one, all expectations point to Brock Holt being back and healthy for the Red Sox next season. There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the super-utility player, as many signs point to his performance dropping on the plate. With that being said, there aren't many reasons to believe that once he gets on the base paths, he can't be the same player he was this year. In addition to Holt, two newish players to the team could also make a significant impact in this area.
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By BsR, the two players with the highest mark behind Holt were Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo, both of whom figure to be playing a lot more in 2015, assuming they aren't traded. In 2014, Betts stole 40 bases across three levels, and has shown throughout his professional career that he has great instincts on the bases. Former lead prospect writer for Baseball Prospectus Jason Parks was sure to call him an "easy plus runner" in his preseason prospect rankings.
Castillo, on the other hand, is someone we know much less about. The speed is clearly there, with every scout giving him a plus-grade on the 20-80 scale. The instincts are something that we can't be completely sure about, though he did impress in his short time in Boston this year. There are going to be plenty of holes in Castillo's game, but luckily he should be able to add plenty of value with his legs.
Finally, there is a possible return coming from Shane Victorino. Although he is getting up there in age, he has always been a fantastic base runner, and would have been the best on the 2013 if it weren't for Ellsbury. In fact, not counting last year in which he only played in 30 games, the now-33-year-old has stolen at least twenty bases in all but one of the last seven years. In the year he didn't reach that twenty stolen bases mark, he stole nineteen. Depending on how the outfield situation plays out, his playing time may be significantly cut, but when he is on the field and on the base paths, it will be an improvement over 2014.
The Red Sox don't absolutely need top-notch base running to win. Looking at this year's playoffs, the Cardinals, Orioles and Giants are all examples of poor base running teams who have gone on to win despite of it. However, we've also seen how important it can be for other teams, like the Royals, Dodgers, Pirates and Nationals. The Red Sox need to improve in every area, and that includes on the base paths. Luckily, they should be getting reinforcements on the base paths from guys like Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo and Shane Victorino.