Sandberg looks to improve Phils' baserunning

Chase Utley rounds third base during spring-training drills at the Phillies' complex in Clearwater, Fla., designed to improve the team's baserunning.
Chase Utley rounds third base during spring-training drills at the Phillies' complex in Clearwater, Fla., designed to improve the team's baserunning. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: February 22, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Juan Samuel stood beside first base to ensure Phillies players touched a blue spray-painted corner. The grounds crew colored each base on Ashburn and Schmidt Fields for a daily drill planned by manager Ryne Sandberg. This was not a punishment.

The day's workouts start with the most basic of fundamentals - how to correctly run around the diamond - but the reception is positive.

"Hey, it was great," a player told Sandberg. "It got us loose."

Sandberg hopes it accomplishes more than that.

"It's something, for me, that needs to be worked on," Sandberg said. "Sometimes it goes unnoticed. I think it's one of the facets of the game. Good baserunning, in a lot of ways, wins you more games than any facet of the game."

The Phillies were not a good baserunning team last season. They ranked 13th in the National League with a .306 on-base percentage and still made 61 outs on the bases, tied for second-most in the league. Ultimate baserunning, an advanced metric developed by FanGraphs, pegged the Phillies as 27th in baseball in 2013.

Other aspects of the game are far more integral to the Phillies' success in 2014, but Sandberg sees baserunning as a correctable issue. The Phillies were once regarded as one of baseball's elite running teams - the core of their roster was younger - and established a major-league record for stolen-base efficiency.

Sandberg, however, will not accept age as an excuse for his team's declining efficiency on the bases.

"A big part of baserunning is knowing the situation and being smart baserunners," Sandberg said. "You don't have to be the fastest guy to be a good baserunner, but you have to know the game of baseball and know the situation. Veteran players, I would think they would be good baserunners just because of their experience."

So Sandberg has made situational running a frequent topic early in camp. He schedules 15 minutes of baserunning drills every morning after the team stretch. The emphasis of the first few drills was hitting the bag at the correct angle, a baseball fundamental that could make a difference later.

The Phillies, for example, made 16 outs at second base. Those do not include pickoffs, and are usually plays in which a runner is trying to stretch a single into a double.

"I love it, because we have been terrible at all of the little fundamental things," backup infielder Kevin Frandsen said. "When you start with the basics, hitting the base right and hitting the corner, that is maybe two steps for a double. It will speak volumes later in the year because we are paying attention to it now. At this level, the most fundamentally sound teams are the ones that always win."

Frandsen played under Sandberg at triple-A Lehigh Valley and expects fundamentals to be Sandberg's primary focus.

"He stresses it and believes in it," Frandsen said. "He will hold you accountable for running the bases hard."

Two of the team's worst-rated runners last season are out of baseball. Michael Young's ultimate baserunning was minus-3.4, which means he was 3.4 runs below average as a baserunner. Delmon Young rated a minus-2.8. Sabermetric research suggests 10 runs is equivalent to one win; those two players cost the Phillies almost one win on their baserunning alone.

The Phillies' 72 percent success rate at stolen bases was the franchise's worst since 2003. Sandberg expects to continue the running drills during the regular season.

"It is a priority," he said. "We want to get better at it, and I think we have guys capable of being good baserunners."



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