Baseball Musings: On Rafael Devers and the value of total bases

This is Baseball Musings, an occasional offseason column that riffs on random things found while perusing Baseball Reference, Fangraphs and other baseball sites.

I posed the question last week on Twitter: Without looking it up, do you know who led MLB in total bases in 2019? I had just looked it up and was surprised by what I found.

The responses to my question were somewhat predictable — Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, Ronald Acuña Jr., etc. — but nobody in the initial flurry of guesses got it right. In fact, many of the names mentioned didn’t even finish in the top 10, which told me two things: 1) We don’t really pay much attention to that particular line on a player’s stat sheet; and 2) Total bases might be an under-valued, or at least under-discussed, measure of a player’s offensive ability.

That’s probably why I wouldn’t have guessed Rafael Devers as the MLB total bases leader if given a dozen tries. And I know I’m not alone in that. 

But before we take a look at Devers’ 2019 season, here’s a reminder of how total bases is calculated: It’s Singles + 2x Doubles + 3x Triples + 4x Home Runs. It doesn’t account for walks, hit by pitch or any other way of reaching base. 

Devers played 156 games in 2019 and finished with a slash line of .311/.361/.555 and an OPS of .916. Obviously an excellent year. But he wasn’t exactly a standout in the traditional sense. He wasn’t an All-Star, and he only led the AL in one offensive category: doubles. But he hit a TON of doubles, and that’s a huge reason why he took the crown in total bases, though that only partially explains things.

Devers had 54 two-baggers for the Sox, which, again, is a lot of doubles, but that didn’t even lead MLB. He finished second behind Nick Castellanos’ 58 (split between the Tigers and Cubs). But move your eyes across Devers’ full stat line and the picture becomes clearer: He had 201 total hits, which, in addition to those 54 doubles, included four triples and 32 home runs. That adds up to 359 total bases, eight more than the next-highest total — Bellinger’s 351.

So, what does this tell us? Well, it says that Devers can do lots of good things with the bat. But in particular, it tells us that he’s an extra-base hit machine. Of his 201 hits, 90 were a double, triple or home run. That led MLB, and it leaves us with a further takeaway: Devers hits the ball hard, he hits it all over the field and he hits it over the wall. Fittingly, he led MLB with 252 hard-hit balls, defined as contact producing an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater. In other words, Devers is a pretty complete hitter, or at least he was in 2019. 

But his total bases number tells us something else, too: Devers is durable. It’s hard to be among the league leaders in total bases without playing in nearly every one of your team’s games. Devers missed only six games in 2019, so he had a lot of chances to be productive. Contrast that with AL MVP Trout, who played in just 134 games and whose 303 total bases didn’t make the top 10. Curiously, Trout hasn’t finished in the top 10 in total bases since 2015, when he played in 159 games and placed fourth.

For fun, here’s a look at the past 10 total bases leaders:

2019: Rafael Devers, Red Sox (359)
2018: J.D. Martinez, Red Sox (358)
2017: Charlie Blackmon, Rockies (387)
2016: Mookie Betts, Red Sox (359)
2015: Nolan Arenado, Rockies (354)
2014: Mike Trout, Angels (338)
2013: Chris Davis, Orioles (370)
2012: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (377)
2011: Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox (364)
2010: Carlos Gonzales, Rockies; Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (351)

For more fun, here’s a look at the top five all-time leaders in total bases: Hank Aaron (6,856), Stan Musial (6,134), Willie Mays (6,066), Barry Bonds (5,976), Albert Pujols (5,863 and counting).

Given all this, what do we make of total bases as a stat? Is it useful? Is it valuable? Should we pay more attention? I’d say yes to all three, with a “but.” 

While it won’t always point to the best or most valuable player in the game, the total bases leaderboard will point to offensive players who not only hit their way on base but often do it in a way that helps their team score. In other words, players with a high total bases number will be among the best players in the game in a given season.

Another way to say it: Total bases is a way to loosely measure a batter’s durability and productivity. On the surface, it seems to indicate a player’s ability to create runs — either by setting them up or driving them in — but it’s not trustworthy in that regard, other than in a general sense. Runs Created (Devers finished 13th there) and wRC+ (he finished 30th there) are better indicators of that.

But the stat does help illustrate an idea that’s surprisingly hard to grasp for many fans as they compare players: Not all hits have equal value, so hit totals alone don’t necessarily paint a full picture. For example, when Ichiro Suzuki set the MLB record with 262 hits in 2004, he didn’t crack the top 10 in total bases because he had only 37 extra-base hits — 24 doubles, five triples, eight homers. 

Devers’ total bases explosion in 2019 helped him produce 5.3 bWAR and 5.9 fWAR. By either measure, he’s a nearly 6-win player, which is borderline MVP stuff. Devers finished 12th in that voting, if you’re curious.

So, ultimately, total bases doesn’t necessarily indicate a player’s total offensive worth, but it does give more context to a player’s hits in a given year. And when assessing talent and true value, context goes a long way.

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