Baseball

Willy Taveras and The RE24 Matrix

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Do you remember a certain Willy Taveras? It would not be shocking if not, as the Dominican Center Fielder has not taken an MLB AB since 2010. Taveras spent parts of seven seasons in the MLB, three with Houston, two with Colorado, one with Cincinnati, and a grand total of 27 games with Washington before fading into the ether in 2010. He made attempts at comebacks on numerous occasions, playing AAA ball as recently as 2013 before finally calling it a career after 27 games with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the non-affiliated Atlantic League in 2019.

Throughout his career, Willy Taveras produced a career bWAR total of 5.1 along with a career slash of .274/.320/.327, truly nothing remarkable for a player who could hit for absolutely no power (career HR total is eight). The thing is, Taveras was not there to hit for power, or to do much else than what he does best. What you need to know as a baseline for this story is this: Willy Taveras is really, really fast.

If you look at Taveras’ Baseball Reference page, you will notice a singular instance of black ink. Back in 2008, Taveras led the league in steals, swiping 68 bags. He did so on only 75 attempts, producing a SB% of 90.7%, second only to Jacoby Ellsbury’s 92.9% among those who have stolen 50+ bases since 2000. Taveras is certainly a speedy individual, and in no game was that more evident than on the Saturday evening of June 14th, 2008 within the confines of U.S Cellular Field on the south side of Chicago.

Game Overview:

Taveras, at the time a member of the Rockies, had a great day when it came to getting on base, registering two hits (single and a double), walking once, and reaching a fourth time on an error by White Sox 1B Paul Konerko. From there, Taveras went on a tear. He would end the evening with a total of FIVE stolen bases, one short of the record for most all-time in a single game.

Taveras terrorized White Sox Catcher A.J. Pierzynski repeatedly on the basepaths, taking advantage of a Catcher who posted below average CS% nearly every year of his career. Taveras started in the leadoff spot in this game, walking in the opening AB against White Sox SP John Danks.

On an 0-1 count to the next batter, Taveras swiped second. Ryan Spilborghs; the Rockies hitter second in the order that day, would go on to strike out. During the next AB Taveras was once more on the move, stealing third on a 1-1 count. That was as far as Taveras would make it on that trip, finding himself stranded on third.

Lets Get Quirky:

Now is a good moment to introduce you to the Fangraphs RE24, which stands for “Run Expectancy based on 24 base-out states”. I will sum it up briefly, but if you find yourself looking for a more detailed definition of what exactly it is, look here. RE24 is all about run environment. What it intends to do is establish the average number of runs scored in a given situation between that moment and the end of the inning on average. For example, if there is a runner on third with one out, the expected number of runs given that situation would be 1.426 total. This chart per Fangraphs details all the values.

Why I bring this up is to establish the impact that five total steals has on a game. Take Taveras’ first trip around the bases that was just described as an example. He reached first with no outs, crediting him with a 0.831 score, stole second which bumped that number up to 1.068, and then stole third with one out, bumping the run expectancy of 0.644 with a runner on second and one out to 0.865 from third. In summation, Willy Taveras added 0.828 expected runs through his actions alone, yet never scored. Is this unique in a vacuum? No, it is not. Runners get stranded sometimes, but what makes this specific game unique is that despite stealing five bases and reaching base four times, Willy Taveras never touched home plate. This game ended 2-0, with the Rockies winning despite producing no earned runs. Instead, they would only score two runs on separate errors, both occurring when Taveras was at the plate.

Impact of Taveras on the Basepaths:

If Taveras added 0.828 runs in his first trip, how many total expected runs did he create in this game? We can determine that by adding up each trip individually and then combining them for a total. His second AB came with two outs in the third, where he doubled to left field. He refused to stay at second though, stealing third before once more being stranded at third. In that trip on the basepaths, Taveras added 0.318 expected runs, a total hindered by the two outs that occurred before he stepped to the plate.

Fast forward to the top of the fifth for the final matchup of Taveras and Danks, with Danks coming out on top this time. This would be the lone PA the Rockie did not reach base. In this case, his expected run value is negative, at -0.339 runs.

The next AB; a faceoff between RP Octavio Dotel and Taveras in the top of the seventh, poses an interesting insight to one of the quirks of the RE24. Typically, in cases of traditional stats like OBP% and BA, errors are counted against a batters stats, as if they were an out. When it comes to the RE24, the formula does not discriminate regardless of how you reach base. An error, walk, single, dropped third strike, or even catcher interference all get you to first in the same regard and are thus counted equally. Of course this is only being brought up because that is exactly how Taveras reached base.

You may be thinking to yourself, Rockies outfielder Willy Taveras MUST be done stealing bases. He may be fast, but he has swiped three bags to this point, the White Sox have to stop him at least once. Spoiler alert: that is not the case. Taveras gets to second base on the first pitch of the next AB, waits three more pitches, decides he is done staying still, and to third he goes. This trip nets him another 0.318 runs.

We get to see one final PA from Taveras this evening in the top of the ninth. He singles with a man on second who would score on an error, meaning Taveras found himself on first with one out, a 0.246 expected run improvement over a bases empty one out situation.

What Does It All Mean:

In total, Taveras accounted for 1.371 expected runs on his lonesome, yet he never touched home once. On base four separate times, including stops at third base three separate times. The Rockies had five total opportunities to drive Taveras home from scoring position, including four from third base, yet they went 0-5 in those opportunities. The Rockies effectively limited one of the single most dominant games on the basepaths of all time into nothing.

Taveras generated a distantly above average amount of offensive opportunity, and yet it all amounted to nothing. It amounted to nothing because of one cruel coincidence. Taveras timed the best game of his career on the basepaths with a historically awful situational team performance when it came to batting with RISP. The Rockies went an abysmal 1-15 in those situations, good for a BA of 0.066, about half as good as the average pitcher batting this past season.

Why Does This Matter?:

In searching for a reason why this matters, the search has come up empty. It does not have any long lasting consequences, this game did not serve any purpose in the playoff push for either team, and Willy Taveras’ herculean effort on the day will disappear into nonexistence in time. This game faded into the collective consciousness of baseball fans of both teams, yet it represents some lessons in baseball as a whole. This game is a microcosmic example of the cruel nature of stardom in baseball.

From the outset, a 2-0 game between the 27-41 Colorado Rockies and the 38-31 Chicago White Sox will not spark joy in anyone, yet if you dig a little deeper you uncover the beauty of this contest, and the day that one man who only produced a career OPS+ of 68 shed that image, instead moonlighting as Rickey Henderson for the evening. Baseball is inherently romantic, and if you cannot see that looking at this game, I beg you to reconsider. Games like this one, and analytics that support them, go on to show that night in and night out, there will always be a possibility of magic.

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Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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