Storylines around the Royals minor leagues system have run amuck this season, ranging from the extremely promising Wilmington pitching to the extremely disheartening Wilmington hitting. With the large majority of top Royals prospects currently in the lower levels of the minor leagues, statistical anomalies such as Nick Heath (Northwest Arkansas-AA) can be left behind.
When I say anomaly, it is exactly what I mean: Nick Heath has been a bona fide base-stealing freak this year. In just 53 opportunities to steal a base, Heath has attempted to steal 31 different times, being successful in 28 of them. If 28 steals seems like a lot for playing in just 34 games, it’s because it’s a metric shit ton of steals. Just for fun, stretched out to a 162 game pace, that’s 133 steals in an MLB season.
Those 28 steals are good for most in all the minor leagues, with 2nd place being 24 steals by Jose Caballero in the Arizona Diamondback’s A+ affiliate. In AA, 2nd place is 19 steals, which just so happens to be the next member of the NW Arkansas track team, Khalil Lee. Further, Travis Jones sits at 6th with 12 steals, and DJ Burt in 13th with 10 steals. With that, there are a few takeaways:
The Naturals are unapologetically having Nick Heath steal as many bases as possible.
The idea that a player can attempt to steal almost 60% of the times he reaches base is obscene, and shockingly enough, has been shown to be wildly successful. It allows for a relatively low-OBP player like Heath to gain new value, as essentially a professional base stealer. In comps to other elite base stealers across levels and across history, it appears as if Nick Heath is stealing at a totally unprecedented rate. Over the last two seasons (of which he lead the MLB in steals both seasons), Whit Merrifield has attempted to steal on just 23.6% of base stealing opportunities. In Terrence Gore’s best minor league season for steals, he attempted to steal in 56% of the time, and Rickey Henderson’s best season for steals totaled and an attempt rate of 70%. Flatly put, Nick Heath is situated between a man who has a spot on an MLB roster solely to steal bases and the greatest base stealer of all time.
The Royals are committed to speed at all levels of the organization.
In what appeared to be a venture into the largely slept-upon skillset of speed (in a sabermetric/player value sense), the Royals made a significant amount of moves on the major league level in the offseason to acquire speed. Whether or not they were smart remains to be seen, but the signing of Billy Hamilton as well as the signing of Terrence Gore to a major league contract were both significant steps in the direction of speed. Even beyond those moves, as well as the development of former top prospect Adalberto Mondesi as well as the sustained output of 2-time defending SB leader Merrifield, the Royals farm system is running wild. Omaha has 3 of the top 15 base stealers, NW Arkansas has the top 2, 3 in the top 10, and 4 in the top 20, and then Lexington has Gigliotti with the 2nd most steals in A ball.
I’m not sure what to make of this, seeing that the speed experiment on the major league level has gone terribly, but it sure is something to watch out for. Rarely do you see a team take such a distinct differentiating factor and begin to build an organization around it, so purely from a baseball perspective, this could be fun to watch, which brings me to my third observation.
It’s really fun to watch really fast people run a lot.
Travis Jones (AA-NW Arkansas) has already attempted to steal in 33% of his opportunities, and he plays first freaking base. Imagine putting together a team of 2 guys who can steal 50 bases, 3 guys who can steal 30 and 3 guys who can steal 20 it would be absolute chaos, and very fun to watch. As absurd as I am being to suggest that the Royals would put together a team that could steal 250 bases in a season (the league leader was 135 last year), it looks like there is a path for it to happen, although it is very improbable. Just imagine the carnage though.
As the season progresses, it will be interesting to watch how this development progresses through every level of the organization. It should go without having been said, but a pre-requisite to stealing bases is getting on base, which the Royals’ seem to be mostly struggling with. If they can figure out how to get on base though, then someone go grab a starting gun because Royals baseball will essentially become a track meet.