Mar
31

On Jason Giambi’s baserunning efficiency

By

I was perusing Joel Sherman’s latest blog post about Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner last night when I came across an initially dismaying line. It is, on its face, the prime example of the anti-Moneyball approach to baseball. Wrote Sherman:

But when not hitting a homer, Giambi was – in many respects – an on-base detriment. He was station-to-station. He offered no threat on the bases. He scored nearly as many runs (32) via his own homers as all the other ways (36) combined, which also includes trotting home on other’s homers.

My kneejerk reaction to that statement — an on-base detriment — is to simply shake my head and move on. Joe Morgan and Dusty Baker hate players who “clog the bases” even when it’s been proven beyond a doubt that runners on base help a team score runs. That is, after all, the goal of baseball, and people who talk like Sherman did generally aren’t making valid points.

But then I got to thinking: What if Sherman is on to something here? Could a player be so slow that, while not a detriment, he underperforms on the base paths? Let’s find out.

In a way, Jason Giambi was remarkably inefficient on the base paths last year. With an OBP of .373 in 565 plate appearances, he reached base 211 times last year. He scored just 68 runs for a conversion rate of just 32.2 percent. As Sherman notes, when we omit Giambi’s home runs, he scored 36 runs in 179 times on base. That means that in just 20 percent of his non-home run times on base, Jason Giambi scored a run.

That doesn’t seem too impressive until we bring in Giambi’s overall numbers. Throughout his career, Giambi has scored 35 percent of the time after getting on base. If we eliminate his home runs, he has scored 26 percent of the time after getting on base.

But now we’re just looking at Giambi in a vacuum. Let’s see how the Yankees performed as a team in these situations. Counting the home runs, the Yankees turned 36.8 percent of their baserunners into runs. Discounting home runs, they turned 31.1 percent of their runners into runs. On a larger level, the American League numbers were 36.8 percent counting home runs and 31.5 percent without the home runs.

In other words, while Jason Giambi was just four percent worse at scoring overall than league average, he was nearly 10 percent worse at scoring in non-home run situations.

So what then does all of this mean? After all, Jason Giambi had a net positive effect on the Yankees in 2008 and had, by any account, a good season. Well, for starters, that combination of speed and power is quite valuable. A-Rod, for example, in his career has scored nearly 45 percent of the time he gets on base and 35 percent of the time in non-home run situations.

While the next obvious conclusion is that Jason Giambi, as he aged and slowed down, become a problem on the base paths, but that’s not one we can readily make. After all, Giambi’s scoring is as much a function of the guys hitting behind him as it is his own speed. For much of last year, the guys hitting behind Giambi included Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Wilson Betemit and Jose Molina. That was not a pretty bunch offensively, and they could very well be the reasons why Giambi’s percentage of runs scored not off of home runs was so slow.

Maybe, though, just maybe, Joel Sherman isn’t far off the mark. Maybe exceedingly slow — exceptionally slow, painfully slow — baserunners can slow a team down. It would require a lot more research, but as baseball analysis is all about challenging the norms, it’s an idea that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand even if it runs counter to the Shrine of the On-Base Percentage.

Categories : Analysis

100 Comments»

  1. Al says:

    Hey Ben,

    Has firejoemorgan.com really been retired this long? As you know, just search “clogging the basepaths.”

    • While FJM does provide some entertainment on that front, I think Ben’s going for something different here. It’s about an extreme type player — low AVG, high OBP, horrendously slow — that warrants another look. There are no conclusions, since we haven’t conducted a study. Yet it might be an interesting one to dive into.

    • Hey Al,

      Did you actually bother to, you know, read my first few paragraphs or not? I certainly give nod to the idea that “clogging the basepaths” is a stupid, stupid idea. We obviously want people on base as opposed to not on base. But the idea that everyone with a high OBP is a net gain on the base paths may not be true. That’s all I’m suggesting. It’s not a terrible thing to challenge the normal way of thinking without the knee jerk “check out teh Fire Joe Morgan!!11one!” reaction you provided.

      • A.D. says:

        They’re still a net gain, the issue is what is the speed (or base running efficiency) to OBP tradeoff. Its could be something like 10 pts on OBP is worth 2% on the baserunning efficiency to score the same number of runs in 600 at-bats.

        • andrew says:

          Exactly. Having a guy with an OBP of .375 who can’t run like Giambi may or may not be more valuable than a guy who has an OBP of .325 but steals 60 bases. Again, somebody would have to run the numbers to determine what the tradeoff is in baserunning vs obp, but its certainly an interesting one to look at.

      • Al says:

        Yeah. I was really more just lamenting the loss of FJM than anything else. I do appreciate you trying to nuance the argument somewhat. Since this post is obviously directly related to many posts at FJM (although more nuanced, as I said), I was simply lamenting FJMs departure and not attack your analysis. So, sorry if I offended you, which i obviously did.

    • 10% worse seems like a huge difference to me. Sounds like a base clogger. Just because Joe Morgan said something doesn’t automatically mean it’s wrong. He said lots of things. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

  2. Reggie C. says:

    Talking about baserunning efficiency , Gary Sheffield just got released from the Tigers. Tigers are eating his whole salary. Wow…Dude’s one homer shy of 500. The Mets should give him a call at a veteran minimum.

    I guess that really had nothing to do with baserunning or efficiency…

  3. jsbrendog says:

    “Maybe, though, just maybe, Joel Sherman isn’t far off the mark”

    ::head explodes::

  4. A.D. says:

    So basically it looks like behind the numbers on Giambi show that he doesn’t hurt you scoring runs overall, and that he’s a pretty below avg baserunner. You can take the runners behind him, obviously a factor, but when you consider his mark against the AL averages, its still a far cry.

    Given that he’s probably going to make up for having a lower scoring % than other by the sheer number of oppertunites, thus giving you the same, or more runs than the avg guy because Giambi’s OBP > than the avg.

    Looks like an interesting way to see how well base runners convert, and help quantify those guys who may not be the fastest but are labeled “smart base runners”, along with seeing if someone with great speed actually translates that into scoring runs at a better clip.

    • Although, the overall conclusion is that the OBP is still worth more than the baserunning conversion rate.

      Giambi’s speed (or lack thereof) should really only be used as a tiebreaker vs. a player with similar OBP skills. If you can find another guy who can get on base a lot and hit plenty of homers like Giambi, but is fast enough to convert bases into runs as well, you take him.

      • A.D. says:

        Yes, what it would come down to though is if a player is significantly better at converting, you may see that reduced OBP & increased conversion = the same number of runs in XX at bats.

        Thus there’s a tradeoff where better OBP for a bad baserunner isn’t more valuable at scoring runs as a much better baserunner with a lower OBP, where that point is, I don’t know.

  5. Tommy says:

    According to Dan Fox’s EqBRR stat (a useful aggregate of all baserunning contributions), Giambi cost the Yanks 11.1 runs from 2006-2008 on the basepaths. That is the equivalent of about 1 win spread over three years. When you add in the fact that he added 129 runs with the bat over that time and cost 17 with his fielding, it seems pretty minor to me.

    See: http://www.baseballprospectus......mbja01.php (sub. req.)

  6. Ben says:

    has no one mentioned yet that Giambi also got pinch ran for a fair amount which could really affect his run numbers

  7. Jimmy says:

    Ben,
    These are the types of posts that make this site worth reading. I too am a believer in OBP as a leading metric in determining one’s ability to score runs (Giambi is less efficient at scoring when on base, but more efficient at getting on base – does this even things out?), but in the last few years I have felt that for some players it is over-valued. This started for me when Giambi was struggling a couple of years ago with his health, his power was sapped and his avg. had taken a huge hit, but he was still drawing a lot of walks. Listening to John and Suzyn applaud him for his OBP began to really annoy me. It was obvious that there were times that he just didn’t want to swing the bat and that he would take a walk at the expense of letting good pitches to hit pass him by. This is not to say that for much of his career Giambi’s OBP hasn’t been a huge asset (because when he is healthy and selectively aggressive, it has been) only that it isn’t always a measure of a player’s effectiveness.

    It would also be interesting to look at whether OBP is a less effective measure when not everyone in the lineup is capable of jacking one out. There was a time not so long ago when SS, 2B, CF, and C didn’t hit 30+ HR (make that 20+, actually 10+). In fact, from ’82 to ’95 the Yanks leading HR hitter had 35 HR only twice (Winfield in ’82, Mattingly in ’85) and 30+ in 6 of the 14 years. As we move away from the Brett Boone type of years, do players with limited base-running ability become less effective.

  8. Patrick T says:

    Dan Fox came up with a slightly more sophisticated statistic to measure a players baserunning efficiency for the 2008 BP Annual, EqBRR. I think the upshot here is that unlike what the traditional media would like you to believe, no matter what the difference between Giambi and Juan Pierre, Giambi is the superior asset, because if for no other reason, he gives you a whole lot more opportunities to hit 2-run homers.

  9. JRVJ says:

    I may be misunderstanding, but I think this phrase is wrong: “In other words, while Jason Giambi was just four percent worse at scoring overall than league average, he was nearly 10 percent worse at scoring in non-home run situations.”

    (If Giambi scores 20% of the time on non HR situations, and the league average is 31.5%, that would mean Giambi is at least 50% worse than league average at scoring in non-home run situations).

    Ben brings up a good point, which I’d like to add to: I can see Giambi being a very detrimental runner when at 1B (a Double Play waiting to happen), but surely he’s a better runner when at 2B or 3B and he can’t be forced.

  10. Jersey says:

    Giambi’s EqBRR was among the worst in the league in 2008.

    That said, I disagree with the fundamental assumption being made here that Giambi’s failure to score more often is his own fault. I think it says much more about the meat hitting behind him for much of last year, which I would expect to be LARGELY more important. According to BP, he basically cost the team two runs last year due to poor baserunning – which is like a third of a win or so? Pretty minor.

    On the other hand, if you REALLY wanted to see the impact of Giambi’s baserunning, you should also calculate what you lose offensively when you’re forced to pinch run for him. As in, his baserunning might cost you a little bit over the course of the year, but the offensive dropoff you get in the lineup when you’re forced to remove his bat because you’re pinch-running for him would likely cost the team additional runs (maybe the difference between Giambi’s RC per 9 and the substitute hitter’s RC per 9, over the course of the season). But that will probably be small too.

    Anyway, great post. Thought-provoking.

  11. Ross says:

    This is an interesting topic. My initial reaction is that no matter how low his runs scored percentage is, he is still valuable in terms of runs/wins based on his high slugging percentage. As for actually being on base and not scoring. There is something to be said about the extra effort it takes a pitcher to throw out of the stretch. Also, a lot of pitchers are not as effective out of the stretch, so Giambi being on base may have a positive effect on the batters around him.

    Ben, I see your point in all of this, but I cannot believe that even with a low percentage of runs scored, Giambi is anything other than a positive contributor when his OPS+ is 128.

    • A.D. says:

      No one is trying to argue Giambi isn’t a positive contributor, all its doing is looking to show/measure good and bad base running.

  12. frits says:

    Nice piece. This is why youre the best of the 3.

  13. Mike Axisa says:

    Larry Walker is one of my all-time favorite players, and for years we heard about how great of a base runner he was.

    Times on base: 3,211
    Runs scored: 1,355
    Homers: 383

    (1,355-383)/(3,211-383)= 34.4%

    Wowza.

  14. Daniel P says:

    I really don’t think it’s fair to compare his stats with everyone else. That means you’re comparing his ability to score with players in the 1-3 spots behind RBI machines.

    I think to normalize to similar players, there needs to be something like, compared to other players whose 3 batters behind him have similar SLG or OBP percentages.

    Thoughts?

    • Jersey says:

      I think you’re absolutely right. It’s apples-to-oranges until you control for spot in the batting order and hitters behind you, though I don’t doubt that Giambi would still come out poorly in baserunning, though I think the impact would be even smaller.

  15. A.D. says:

    So interesting experiment on this….Juan Pierre vs Big G (both Career):

    With HR:

    Big G Scores 35.2% of the time & gets on 40.8% of the time, thus in 600 at bats:

    600*.408*.352 = 86.11

    Juan Pierre scores 38.3 % of the time & gets on 34.6% of the tome, thus in 600 at bats:

    600*.346*.383 = 79.48

    And Sabermetric theory holds, Big G > Juan Pierre

  16. La Costco Nostra says:

    Favorite Michael Kay adjective used to describe Jason Giambi’s base running:

    Lumbering

  17. A.D. says:

    Jose Reyes:

    42.5% at converting.

  18. [...] he doesn’t provide a definitive answer, Kabak does some math and figures out that Giambi’s one of the least efficient base runners in baseball, at least in terms of runs scored per times he reached [...]

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