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The Red Sox' strange season on the bases

It is a strange mix of baserunning talent on the Red Sox roster.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not breaking any news when I tell you that the Red Sox don’t have an elite offense, and they almost certainly won’t have one at any point in 2017. The only way they could get one by the end of the year would be to make one or two big trades before the July 31 deadline and frankly I don’t see that happening. Fortunately, the Red Sox are built to succeed even without having one of the top offenses in the league. Their rotation, when healthy, is as deep 1-5 as any in the league and has top-end talent to boot. Their bullpen has gotten good results, and with a supplement or two this month they can even take another step forward in consistency. They are also good with the glove, particularly in the outfield.

Where the Red Sox could theoretically get some improvement is on the basepaths. They haven’t been a bad baserunning team through the first half-plus of 2017, but rather a weird one. Overall, they have been in the middle of the pack. Fangraphs’ baserunning metric has them rated positively by a small margin and ranks them 12th in baseball. Baseball Prospectus’ metric has them rated negatively by a small margin and ranks them 19th in baseball. Either way, they are close to average and in the middle-third of the league.

That does not accurately reflect the kind of baserunning they have gotten in 2017, though. When I see numbers and rankings like that, I would picture a team that doesn’t do too much on the bases and essentially just runs station-to-station. Instead, this is a team that has some of the best and some of the worst baserunners in the league to cancel each other out. By Fangraphs, they have two of the top-three runners in the league and two of the bottom-ten. On Baseball Prospectus, they have three of the top-23 and two of the bottom-six.

The elite baserunners, unsurprisingly, are led by Mookie Betts. He is one of the very best runners in all of baseball, ranking second overall on Fangraphs and third on BP. Joining him in the above-average-to-elite tier are Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley and Andrew Benintendi. This isn’t all that surprising, even if they aren’t all burners on the bases and threats to steal a base every time they reach. Instead, all four of the young players listed above are smart baserunners with great instincts. Sure, once in awhile they can get a little too aggressive and get thrown out on the bases — Betts did it just this week against Toronto on a play at home plate — but more often than not they are taking bases that the majority of the league wouldn’t. Those plays don’t always pay off, but when you take that extra base often enough your team will score more runs than it has any right scoring.

Unfortunately, that extra base can be cancelled out pretty easily by a teammate being thrown out on an ill-advised decision. The Red Sox have had more than their fair share of those, and they’ve come from the same people most of the time. Oddly enough, the worst baserunner — as judged by both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus — has been Dustin Pedroia. In fact, BP has him ranked as the worst overall baserunner in the game this year. Fangraphs has him as the eighth-worst. It’s been a steady decline for Pedroia in this area, and his biggest issue has been an inability to take the extra base on a hit or advance a base on ground balls. Per Baseball-Reference, Pedroia has made seven outs on the bases this year — tied for the seventh most in baseball — while his 18 percent rate of taking the extra base puts him behind speed demons like Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera and Edwin Encarnacion. Joining Pedroia among those who are among the worst in the league in overall baserunning metrics are Hanley Ramirez, Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez.

The Red Sox lead the league in outs on the bases, and while that certainly has a lot to do with the fact that they get on base at the fifth-highest rate in baseball, it’s not the only reason. Part of it is because their good baserunners get caught being overly aggressive sometimes — Benintendi leads the team in outs on the bases but is still above-average overall. Still, there’s another large part that is due to guys like Pedroia and Ramirez either trying to do too much or simply making the wrong play. These are the players that need to stop doing too much and just play their game. Pedroia’s game used to include being a force on the basepaths, but he’s not that player anymore. He can contribute in other ways. With Boston’s offense being what it is this year, the team needs everyone else to shine in their specific areas as best as possible. For some, that means taking a step back on the bases and letting the elite runners do their thing. Everyone will benefit in the long run.