Baltimore Orioles: In Praise Of Adam Jones’s Baserunning


Jones almost always looks to stretch singles into doubles. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The sport of baseball has so many crazy niceties, people often lose track of them. Nevertheless, each facet of this game counts for something, and every player can contribute to his team’s victory in a plethora of ways — from bunt hits to balks to balls off the wall. Baserunning is one of these elements, and many people simply don’t consider it. That’s a shame, because it can really add up. Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it, via a sportswriter classic: the blind comparison.

Player A93980.2810.3560.4910.362120295.0
Player B94950.2790.3540.4870.362118146.3

In their major-league careers, these men have remarkably similar hitting profiles, over essentially analogous amounts of time — and yet Player A has more than double the offensive value of Player B. The players are Carlos Beltran and Paul Konerko, respectively, and the discrepancy comes as the result of one thing: baserunning. Since debuting in 1998, Beltran has been worth 64 runs on the bases, which only four players can top; on the flipside, Konerko has cost his clubs 69 runs on the basepaths, the lowest in the majors since 1997 (his rookie year). With equal performances when they step up to bat, this duo only separates once the at-bat has ended.

Now, let’s move to more Oriole-centric news. The Baltimore Orioles, in case you hadn’t heard, will make the postseason! The position players, who have churned out the third-most value in baseball, should receive most of the credit for that; the best player of the group happens to have his name featured in the title of this post. Yes, Adam Jones has posted another superb season for the Birds, just as he did last year. In fact, since the beginning of 2013, his 9.5 WAR ranks 10th in the American League. Most of that has come from his offense, as he has accrued 38.2 Offensive runs — 13th in the AL. However, his hitting, while decent, doesn’t supply as much as you might expect: By wRC+, he’s only the 24th-best hitter in the league.

If Jones doesn’t mash, how does he have so many runs to his name? You guessed it: baserunning. By Ultimate Base Running (or UBR, on which I’ll elaborate in a moment), he has been 9.2 runs above average for these past two years, a hair behind Austin Jackson for third in the AL. This represents a huge step forward for him, since he only had 12.7 of those runs to his name before 2013. As Birds Watcher’s Domenic Vadala noted prior to the season, Jones’s recently-aggressive approach on the bases has served the Orioles well.

Does Jones derive that success from blazing speed? Hardly: His Spd — a number that measures, well, speed — over that time sits at 4.6. As a point of reference, league-average is 4.4. Unsurprisingly, no one else in the top 10 for UBR has a Spd below 5, which means Jones’s accomplishments are pretty impressive. What’s more, he doesn’t steal bases, with a meager 1.6 wSB in 2013 and 2014. No, his improvement stems from a finer craft, of underappreciated dashes and darts, and it’s time they received their due.

Let’s look at UBR. What goes into it? According to Mitchel Lichtman, its creator, it incorporates several factors, including (but not limited to):

  • Taking an extra base on a hit by another batter (e.g., going from first to third on a single, scoring from first on a double, etc.);
  • Taking an extra base on a fly ball;
  • Advancing on a ground ball hit by another batter (e.g., going from second to third on a grounder to shortstop, etc.); and
  • Not getting thrown or tagged out while doing the above.

So how has Jones fared in these regards? The statistical oasis known as Baseball-Reference can give us some answers. It has a tidy number for the first part: Extra-Base Taken rate, or XBT%. In 2013 and 2014, the MLB averages for those stood at 39% and 40%, respectively; Jones topped those by a healthy margin, with 43% and 52% figures, respectively. That hasn’t caused his change, though, as he’s put up better numbers in the past: From 2006 to 2012, he had a 50% XBT%.

Moreover, Jones doesn’t appear to have made significantly safer decisions in his baserunning, since he still makes outs at about the same rate. In the first seven years of his career, he got Out On the Bases (OOB) 23 times in 3118 plate appearances, whereas years eight and nine have seen those numbers change to 9 and 1362, respectively. Both numbers sit below the major-league-average marks, but the latter doesn’t diverge notably.

Thus, Jones’s exquisite UBR comes from the second and third aforementioned parts of his game. He frequently seeks to take extra bases — he has 20 Bases Taken (BT) in the current campaign, to accompany 21 from the prior one. By contrast, he only had 59 in every season before those; plus, those came in almost two-and-a-half times as many trips to the dish. Paired with his out-avoiding ability, his uptick in aggression has even more value: Among the 33 MLB players with 20 BTs in 2014, for instance, a mere 10 others have run into as few as three outs. This combination doesn’t come along all that often.

Annoyingly, B-R doesn’t break down TB further, so this is where my analysis will have to end. Luckily, though, the Orioles’ season won’t end for a while, and Jones will most likely play a large role in keeping it alive. He might do that by smacking a home run (or two), or by preventing someone else from doing the same. Or, he could support the team in a more subtle manner. If you watch more closely, the breadth of Jones’s excellence might surprise you.

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.