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Baserunning should be an priority in spring training

It should be more of a strength than it was last year

MLB: ALDS-Cleveland Indians at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

There are, of course, a lot of keys to the upcoming Red Sox season. In fact, breaking down “keys” to the season are probably an oversimplification of how to compete in today’s game, particularly in 2018 where there are so many loaded teams at the top of the league. Really, if you want to be a real contender in the American League this year, you’ll have to be good at everything, even if there are parts of your team that are clearly your strengths. All that being said, it certainly doesn’t hurt to find a little part of your team and try to play it up as much as possible to give an edge. The Red Sox do that a bit already with their outfield defense, having built a pitching staff full of fly ball pitchers. They should also be taking advantage of their relative youth and athleticism and taking extra runs here and there with their baserunning prowess.

We all remember last season’s adventures on the basepaths, and it was something we discussed at many points through the year. As I said at one point in the summer, they were just an incredibly strange club on the bases. You could see the potential for real value in this area, and at times it manifested itself in the form of that real value. Of course, they were infuriating at other times and the team ran into more outs than any other in baseball by a significant margin. The were super aggressive, and while I love aggressive action on the bases as much as the next guy, they clearly took that aggression to an extreme. To put it simply, they need to lean more on their best runners and have other players learn to pick their spots to try and take the extra base.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Boston Red Sox Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

To start, let’s look at the team as a whole and get a little reminder of how strange they were. As I said, they ran into more outs than anyone in baseball by a significant margin. There was an eleven-out gap between them and the Yankees, who finished second. For context on that, there was an eleven-out gap between the Yankees and Mariners, who finished eighth. On the other side of things, however, only four teams took the extra base at a higher rate than Boston, something that was huge for an offense that lacked consistent power threats. Overall, the Red Sox ranked 10th by Fangraphs’ baserunning metric. Baseball Prospectus was on the other end of the spectrum, ranking them as the 21st best baserunning team in the league.

If they want to improve in this area, it’s all about consistency and picking spots. A big part of that is realizing where your strengths and weaknesses are in terms of personnel. The biggest strength, of course, is Mookie Betts. Although Boston’s star doesn’t have the pure speed as guys like Billy Hamilton and Byron Buxton, he’s right there with them among elite baserunners. There’s not much that needs to be done here. Just let Betts do his thing whenever he sees fit. Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. are also strong baserunners, and while they get into trouble a bit more than Betts, it’s not something to be overly concerned about in their cases.

There are players who need some work, though, whether it be making better decisions or just having a talking to about not running so much anymore. Andrew Benintendi tops that list and falls into the first category. Although he’s not a true burner, Benintendi is athletic enough to be an asset on the bases. In fact, he was to some extent last year as Fangraphs did rate him above-average. However, he also ran into eleven outs on the bases and clearly got too aggressive at times. Sometimes, it’s just as valuable to know when not to try and take the extra base as it is to actually take the extra base. Benintendi should spend a good chunk of camp working on making these reads. As far as the second category goes, Hanley Ramirez needs to be told that he’s essentially a station-to-station runner at this point, and the same goes to Dustin Pedroia.

Spring training is, generally speaking, a boring time where players are getting their work in. Pitchers are building up arm strength and hitters are getting their timing back. That doesn’t mean some pet projects can’t be set up, though. Alex Cora will find some things that need to improve from last year, and baserunning should be near the top of the list. With the American League as loaded at the top as it will be in 2018, any small edge that can be found needs to be exploited. Boston’s roster is set up to get a ton of value from its baserunners, they just need to find the right balance between smart and aggressive.