Can the Rangers control the D-backs' running game?

October 27th, 2023

ARLINGTON -- The D-backs urged the baseball world to embrace the chaos -- and now, they’ve really left us no choice.

They got away from that aggressive, initiative-taking baserunning mentality as they fell into a 3-2 National League Championship Series deficit to the Phillies, and manager Torey Lovullo was frank about it, saying that indicated they hadn’t necessarily “played D-back baseball” in those first five games. Arizona answered with eight stolen bases in Games 6 and 7 to shock Philadelphia.

Those two games represented half of Arizona’s stolen-base output this postseason, which is, in a way, also a good sign for the D-backs, considering that means they’ve gotten to this point largely abiding by the tried-and-true, non-chaotic formula to postseason success: Pitch well, play great defense and hit dingers. (Teams to outhomer their competition have gone 21-4 this October.)

But for all the bullpen success and clutch knocks the D-backs have found this postseason, they’re still really good at baserunning, having gone 16-for-19 on steals with four successful sacrifice bunts -- all of which have led to runs. And they feel it helps the guys at the plate, too.

How big of a factor could the Arizona running game play, and what can Texas do about it?

Count on Heim
Here’s the thing to know about the D-backs' chaos: It’s calculated. They’re not just running for the sake of it. In baseball, every action involves a calculated risk, the downside of which is magnified when every run matters as much as it does in the postseason.

“We can't force it,” Lovullo said. “We can't run into outs. You have to be smart about it.”

The success rate shows that. They’ve successfully stolen 13 bases in a row since they were last caught in Game 2 of the NL Division Series and were a perfect 9-for-9 against reigning Gold Glove Award winner J.T. Realmuto in the NLCS.

But Texas might have a better deterrent to change the calculus.

Jonah Heim caught 33 percent of would-be basestealers during the regular season, tied for third-best among qualified catchers, per Statcast. He was worth plus-5 caught stealing above average, tied for fourth. While metrics like arm strength and pop time don’t love Heim as much as, say, Realmuto, Heim has provided results -- and that’s the currency that matters this time of year.

Heim should be the best catcher the D-backs have faced this October in limiting the running game. Will they test him early and feel it out? Or will his presence alone tip the risk-reward scales?

“I hope so,” Heim said. “I hope they've been watching, and I hope what we've done over the course of the year makes them think twice. But it's the World Series. They're going to take their chances, their risks, and we're going to have to be ready for it.”

Mix it up
It’s not all about the catcher; the pitcher plays as much of a role, if not a bigger one, in limiting the opportunities on the basepaths.

“Our process starts before the game, in understanding the pitcher, kind of the quality of his pickoff moves and if he'll do anything with the catcher or anything timing-related,” Corbin Carroll said. “And then understand … if he's quick or if he's slow, what the differences are, body-wise, while he does that, and any keys of what we think would help us get the best jump.”

That’s easier said than done, with the pitch clock limiting the time frame in which pitchers can work and the disengagements rule restricting pitchers’ abilities to keep runners close with pickoff throws. It’s often subtle changes in timing or tendencies that could keep runners off balance, and the Rangers’ pitchers will have time to prepare.

Some pitchers might not be as subtle. Jordan Montgomery, for example, switched from a leg kick in the stretch to a slide step when basestealing threats were on during the ALCS -- and others on the staff might have to find such things that work without, as Lovullo said, compromising their mechanics to the point that the hitter can take advantage of a pitch.

“The key for us is to not get in too much of a rhythm and just mix things up, and use our picks accordingly,” Heim said. “Just keep a good mix of times. Maybe some holds and slide steps, and go from there.”

Be fundamentally sound
The stats that jump off the page are the steal numbers -- the 86 percent success rate and 166 swipes that both ranked second in the Majors in the regular season -- but that might not even be the most impressive element of Arizona’s running game, because the D-backs are also so good at the little things that don’t show up in the box score.

They’re opportunistic, for instance. The D-backs ranked second in the Majors with 177 bases taken on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks and defensive indifference. They’re fourth in the Majors with the lead runner taking an extra base 46 percent of the time on a single or double. You give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile.

How about so-called “productive outs,” as defined by the Elias Sports Bureau? Yep, second in the Majors. Scoring the runner from third with less than two outs? Ranked sixth. Advancing a runner from second with no outs? Ranked third. Bunt hits? Fourth. Infield hits? Seventh.

You get the picture. This Arizona team is good at taking -- or creating -- initiative.

The only real way to counter that is to be fundamentally sound -- and the Rangers are that team. They finished the regular season with 57 errors, the second fewest in the Majors (the D-backs were first with 56).

Texas ranked sixth in the Majors in outs above average from the infield, and eighth from the outfield (Arizona is also excellent in both.) As a possible deterrent to runners taking opportunistic bases, Adolis García and Leody Taveras boast two of the best outfield arms in the Majors, and Evan Carter covers a ton of outfield grass.

All this is to say: The D-backs excel on the margins -- and that’s to be expected from a team that overcame a negative run differential to claw its way to the Fall Classic. But if there’s any team built to counter that, it’s the Rangers, and those little battles -- an extra base here, a stolen base there -- could have an outsized impact on close World Series games.