Hitting the afterburners with the running Royals

Relentless on the bases, the Royals lead the league in steals. They show no signs of letting their foot off the gas.

It’s part of the organizational DNA…Kansas City will attempt larceny on the base paths. In 2021, no team has run more than those Royals.

Through 130 games, the Royals lead the majors with 97 steals. With an 80 percent success rate, they are also one of the most successful teams when it comes to attempting larceny on the bases.

Here’s something else…Baseball Reference tracks what they call Stolen Base Opportunities (SBO). That’s defined as a plate appearance where a runner is on first or second and the next base is open. Longtime readers will know I like Stolen Base Attempts (SBA) and divide it by SBO to get a larger picture of how often a team is attempting to steal. Granted, it’s not a perfect picture. SBO doesn’t take into account a situation that could lead to a double steal, for example, but it gets us fairly close.

With a month remaining in the 2021 season, here are the top five teams who are running when opportunity presents itself.

The San Diego Padres sprinted out of the blocks this year; they’ve been the top thieving team for most of the year. While their playoff chances have dimmed in the season’s second half, they’ve become a bit more conservative on the bases, allowing the Royals to catch them. Kansas City is now running over seven percent of the time when the next base is open. There’s a huge gulf between the top three teams, and Cleveland at number four. They impress because their success rate of 86 percent is the best in the majors this year. They’ve found the perfect intersection of opportunity and success.

But the Royals certainly aren’t slouches when it comes to swiping a bag. Naturally, not everyone is running. Let’s look at those who are stone cold base stealers.

Nicky Lopez

18 SB, 0 CS, 100% SB%, 9% SBA%

You guys can have your Salvador Perez home run worship. Personally, I’m kneeling at the altar of Nicky Lopez, all-around baseball stud, and the most successful stealer of bases in 2021.

Lopez is running in nine percent of his opportunities in 2021. He’s attempted 18 steals. He has yet to be caught.

The aggressive, and entirely successful, attempts at thievery represent another stunning turnaround in his game. In Lopez’s first 103 games as a rookie in 2019, he had a .276 OPB and remained anchored to the base on the rare occasion he actually reached. He attempted just two steals that season and was successful once. And get this…his stolen base was a swipe of third. His caught sealing was at home. It was a bizarre play that would take far too many words to describe. Just see for yourself.

In 2020, Lopez attempted five steals. He was thrown out every single time. At least for simplicity's sake, all five times he was gunned down at second.

So a year removed from never successfully stealing a base, he’s now he’s flipped the script, going a perfect 18 for 18. Lopez has pounded the afterburners since he moved up in the lineup to hit second behind Merrifield. Since the move on August 6, Lopez has ripped off 10 bases. Just for fun, here’s a list of every player in the history of the game who has swiped 15 or more bags without getting caught in a single season.

According to data at Stathead, Lopez is five stolen bases from tying Chase Utley for the most steals in a single season without being nabbed. Kind of wild that of the 11 names on this list, three are Royals. What was that I was saying about stolen bases being part of the organizational DNA..

Of course, the pressure is on the legs of Lopez to remain on this list. One bad jump, one overslide...it’s all over. (Toronto’s Bo Bichette learned this the hard way on Sunday, getting nabbed for the first time in 21 attempts. He’s off the list!) I would be amused if Lopez stole six more bases and then refused to even leadoff for the rest of the season.

This steal of second is a nice primer on how Lopez has turned a weakness into a strength.

Lopez has become an astute reader of pitchers and their moves to the plate. First base coach Rusty Kuntz deserves some of the credit here as well. Against Astros right-hander Ryne Stanek, Lopez gets an insane jump.

Stanek lifts the heel of his front foot off the ground here, committing himself to delivering a pitch.

Five video frames later—or 1/6th of a second—Lopez is dropping his left shoulder and driving off his left leg beginning his propulsion to second.

That’s just a jaw-dropping read from Lopez, to be breaking that fast. There’s just zero chance for any catcher to throw him out if he’s getting that kind of jump. While Lopez’s sprint speed is a respectable 77th percentile, he’s smart about picking his spots, identifying pitchers (and catchers) he can exploit for success.

Whit Merrifield

38 SB, 3 CS, 92.7% SB%, 19.5% SBA%

Among runners with at least 100 stolen base opportunities, only Starling Marte (28.1 percent) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (21.1 percent) have a higher stolen base attempt rate than Merrifield. (It’s honestly kind of scary how much Marte has run since getting traded from Miami to Oakland. He’s stolen 20 bases in 20 attempts and is running in a whopping 47.6 percent of his opportunities.)

Merrifield is an old-school leadoff guy. He gets on base at a good, not great, rate these days, but he remains one of the fastest players in the game with a sprint speed in the 88th percentile. If he’s on base and the base in front is open, he’s hungry. He led the AL with 34 steals in 2017 and 45 in 2018. His current tally of 38 thefts leads the league, 14 ahead of Baltimore’s Cedric Mullins. Merrifield is especially adept at swiping third. Of his 157 career stolen bases, 51 have been of third base, including 15 this year.

Merrifield is an expert at employing that hop toward third, gaining momentum while the pitcher is still holding the ball. If the shortstop makes a break to the bag and alerts the pitcher as soon as Merrifield makes that move, he’s toast. It’s a low-risk situation however, requiring both the shortstop and pitcher are in sync that rarely happens when holding a runner on second.

Michael A. Taylor

12 SB, 5 CS, 70.6% SB%, 13.2% SBA%

Perhaps this will surprise you…Among all Royals regulars, at just above 13 percent, Taylor is second on the club with his frequency of attempting steals. Maybe it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. From 2015 to 2018, Taylor averaged almost 18 steals a season. According to Statcast, he may have lost a step now that he’s on the wrong side of 30, but he still has a sprint speed that ranks in the 81st percentile.

Yet with a success rate just north of 70 percent, he’s not exactly bringing value to his stolen base attempts. It’s reflected in his Baserunning Runs of 0.3, found at Fangraphs. (Lopez is worth 8.3 BsR. Merrifield is valued at 7.4 BsR.) With a .303 OPB and given that he frequently hits in the lower third of the Royals’ batting order, Taylor has the second-fewest stolen base opportunities among regulars.

Perhaps the dearth of opportunities has led him to take a few more chances on the bases.

Andrew Benintendi

8 SB, 8 CS, 50% SB%, 10% SBA%

Benintendi saw his sprint speed tumble from the 87th percentile as a rookie in 2016 to the 43rd percentile in limited action last season. He’s regained some of that speed, clocking in at a much more respectable 64th percentile this year. Still, that’s not translating to success at all in the stolen base category. He last attempted a steal on August 19 (he was caught). He was last successful on August 3.

Overall, he’s attempted just five steals since the start of June. He’s been successful just twice over that span. Fangraphs has Benintendi at a -0.6 BsR on the year. It’s probably smart that he’s cut back on his stolen base attempts.

The above four are the only Royals currently on the roster who have attempted to steal at least 16 bases this year. Here’s how it breaks down by individual player.

I left Jarrod Dyson on the above table because he was always in the game to use his wheels. His 2021 sprint speed is in the 71st percentile, which is certainly good, but nowhere near where he was during his first go-round with the Royals. He’s never finished with a success rate lower than 80 percent, but unless he gets running in Toronto, is going to fall short of that mark.

The only other Royal who runs from time to time is Hunter Dozier, who’s just 3-6 in steals this year. He’s only running around five percent of the time he has the opportunity, so it’s not like he’s Benintendi aggressive, but he probably needs to pick his spots a little better going forward.

Edward Olivares is an interesting runner to watch. He swiped 12 bags in 16 attempts for the Storm Chasers this year and in his minor league career has stolen as many as 35 bases in a season. The sample size is just too small to draw any kind of conclusions, though if he’s able to run over 10 percent of the time and with success, it would have to help his chances to stick in the Royals’ lineup.

Missing from the above table (and the Royals’ active roster for most of 2021) is Adalberto Mondesi. Had the oft-injured shortstop spent any kind of substantial time on the major league roster, the team’s overall SBA% would have been higher. Mondesi led the league with 24 steals in the 60-game 2020 season, with a jaw-dropping 54 percent SBA%. I know it’s difficult to take any statistic at face value from that season, but even in a 60 game stretch that rate is absurd. The previous year Mondesi swiped 43 bases in 50 attempts (83 percent success rate) with a 40 percent SBA%. Something to think about perhaps when gauging how much the Royals have missed by only having Mondesi in the lineup for 10 games this year.

Plus, the next generation of Royals are, pardon the pun, off and running. Everyone’s favorite prospect, Bobby Witt Jr., has 22 steals in 31 attempts this year across his time in Double-A and Triple-A. Kyle Isbel leads the Storm Chasers with 22 stolen bases in 27 attempts. Lucius Fox, Gabriel Cancel and Rudy Martin all have double digit steals with success rates above 90 percent for the Storm Chasers.

See? It is in the organizational DNA…these Royals do love to run.