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The Red Sox should get even better on the base paths

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Boston’s lineup was better than it usually is at base running in 2016, and they are poised to take another leap forward next year.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the disappointing ending, the 2016 season was an undeniably positive for the Red Sox. Particularly encourgaing was that this team was able to succeed by putting together a well-rounded unit that was good at many different things. Obviously, the offense was the highlight of the year, as Boston’s lineup was arguably the most feared from the beginning of the season to the end. The defense was outstanding, with a few weak spots here and there but overwhelmingly positive contributions from most positions on the diamond.

Even the pitching was better than expected, at least for parts of the year. The rotation was a legitimate strength over the second half of the year, and the bullpen was hit or miss throughout. Overshadowed by all of this, as it often is, was the fact that the Red Sox were one of the best teams on the base paths.

We don’t really think about base running all that much, and for good reason. For one thing, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t make a huge difference. Compared to hitting, pitching and defense, base running is just a blip on the radar. On top of that, much of it seems intuitive. Runners on second score on a single. Runners on first score on certain doubles. Runners on third score on fly balls of certain depth when there’s fewer than two outs. Even when the unexpected happens, more often than not the base coach (usually the third base coach) gets the credit or blame.

Despite our intuitions, there is some real value in being able to take the extra base. Going first to third on a single can make a huge difference, particularly in the small scope of an individual game. It’s one of those cases — like lineup order and playing the hot hand — where the real effects show up in small samples but not as much in larger ones.

Depending on who you ask, the 2016 Red Sox were either a good or a great base running team. By Fangraphs’ BsR metric, they were the seventh best MLB team on the base paths and the third best American League club. Baseball Prospectus’ BRR metric, on the other hand, had them ranked 13th in baseball and sixth in the AL. What’s particularly impressive about this group of Boston base runners is that they were able to have this level of success despite being merely middle-of-the-pack in terms of stolen bases. Heading into this past season, I expected them to improve as a team in this area. Looking ahead to the 2017 campaign, I think they can take even another step forward.

MLB: ALDS-Cleveland Indians at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll start with the three guys who embodied the team’s success on the base paths, who also happen to be the three most exciting all-around players on the roster. I speak, of course, of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley. Betts was far and away the best runner on the team. In fact, he was the third best in baseball according to Fangraphs and second best according to Baseball Prospectus.

He excelled everywhere, stealing an impressive 26 bases (17th in baseball) while also showing off seemingly supernatural instincts with his ability to take the extra base. I’m not sure there’s a ton more room for growth — he’s certainly not going to reach Billy Hamilton levels — but there’s no reason to expect him to decline here any time soon. Bogaerts and Bradley weren’t explosive base stealers (they had 13 and 9, respectively), but they both showed off exceptional intelligence. Fangraphs had both players in the top-25 while BP had them both in the top-45.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all good for the Red Sox in this area of the game. There were a few players that kept this team from the elite ranks in base running, but these deficiencies can be expected to lessen in 2017. The first and most obvious negative for base running in 2016 was David Ortiz. Obviously, losing him is a massive net-negative and the team will take his poor contributions with his legs when they’re getting elite production at the plate. However, it’s hard to overstate how bad he was in this aspect of the game. According to Fangraphs, just two players were worse runners than Ortiz last season. Per BP, there were six worse players. Whoever replaces his spot in the lineup is unlikely to be a burner on the base paths, but one should expect at least some improvement.

Along with Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia was a legitimately bad base runner in 2016. This was a little surprising to me. He’s obviously getting older and isn’t as spry as he once was, but he’s typically thought of as a smart player who should be able to overcome his aging body. Both Fangraphs and BP had this as the worst running season of Pedroia’s career, and both had him as a negative contributor. Although I wouldn’t expect him to get back to positive levels moving forward, I do expect him to move back towards a neutral contributor in 2017. I look at it like his defense, which took a noticeable step back in 2015 before he made some adjustments and got back towards his former levels this past year.

Not only can the Red Sox expect some improvements here by virtue of Ortiz’s retirement and some expected improvement from Pedroia, but also from more playing time by young players. Andrew Benintendi isn’t the fastest player in the world, but he fits the Bogaerts/Bradley mold of having tremendous instincts combined with legitimate athleticism. Yoan Moncada may be the fastest player in the world (not really, but sorta). There’s certainly work to do with the bat and I wouldn’t expect him to start the year in the majors, but he’ll spend more time in Boston than in 2016 and should have a tremendous impact on the base paths. Even someone like Mauricio Dubon, who is no guarantee to spend any time in the majors in 2017, can provide big value with his legs.

There is every reason in the world to think the Red Sox should be right back in the hunt for October next season. The offense, pitching and defense all figure to be good again and will certainly get most of the headlines. Once again, though, the team’s skills on the base paths will shine through again, and will provide real value. Given the makeup of the roster and some of the expected changes, they could take yet another step forward in this regard and find themselves right near the top of the leaderboards.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Steven Wright was a perfectly neutral base runner.