As they are currently constructed, the Indians know they won’t be able to replace Rajai Davis’ speed on the bases.
They know it’s highly likely that they won’t steal as many bases as they did last season, when Davis led the American League with 43.
Their goal is to mimic the style of another free-agent loss this past offseason — Mike Napoli, an aggressive, albeit much slower base runner.
If the Indians can’t rely on pure speed, they’re going to try to make up for it with smarts and aggressiveness.
“I thought between Raj coming with his speed and Napoli coming with his attitude, that we were significantly a better base-running team,” Indians manager Terry Francona told reporters in Goodyear, Ariz. “So the challenge is, OK, Raj is gone, we know those stolen bases go with him. OK. We also don’t have base-cloggers. We have guys that might steal 20. It’s not the burner (type), but they can run.”
The Indians were an improved base-running team last year and one of the best in the league. Per FanGraphs.com’s Ultimate Base Running metric, which aims to value not just stolen bases but all base-running acts, the Indians (10.6 UBR) were tops in the American League and second in baseball behind only the Pittsburgh Pirates (16.7).
That was aided by Jose Ramirez, who led all of baseball in 2016 with a UBR of 6.9. In 2015, the Indians had a team UBR of 4.6.
Davis and his 43 steals finished with a 4.2 UBR, second on the Indians and seventh in baseball. Napoli actually had a -5.2 UBR, by far the worst mark on the team. He isn’t exactly blessed with speed and also had a “slide” in a game against the Chicago White Sox that was referred to by both him and Francona as more of a “car accident.”
But it’s his attitude on the bases the Indians want to emulate. In a Cactus League game last spring, for instance, Napoli took second base on a fly-ball out. He didn’t have the speed of others, but the Indians liked how he was aware of instances in which he could take a base.
“Nap was so good at it and he was relentless in it,” Francona said. “It got the guys’ attention and they took pride in it. Once you start doing something (regularly), you could tell they were taking pride in it. They were really fun to watch.”
That’s how the Indians intend to make up for the lost speed, through the other actions valued in UBR — such as advancing first-to-third on a single or moving up a base on a ball in the dirt.
This spring, the Indians have even been intentionally overaggressive, in essence to try to drive home the point.
“We’ve really emphasized trying to move up on balls in the dirt,” Francona said. “To the point where, maybe (we are being) even a little overaggressive in spring training. (Yan Gomes) did it yesterday. (Bradley Zimmer) the day before. They were both good reads. They got thrown out. But we just want to get them in the habit of being ready to move up because it is going to be probably more important to be a good base-running team because we have lost a little bit of speed.”
Losing Davis stands as one of the few areas in which the Indians have to make up ground heading into the season. The starting rotation is healthier. The lineup, at least on paper, is stronger. The bullpen has been bolstered.
Making up for Davis’ 43 steals is one of the few lacking areas this spring compared last season. The Indians have their plan in place as to how to minimize that loss as much as possible.