Age just a number? Rajai still turning, burning

Veteran outfielder gives Red Sox baserunning threat for playoff push

Age just a number? Rajai still turning, burning

If all goes well for the Red Sox, Rajai Davis will still be running in the days leading up to his 37th birthday.

The veteran outfielder will turn 37 on Oct. 19, which falls during the American League Championship Series. But Davis' speed on the basepaths outclasses that of Major Leaguers who are years younger.

"To be on the bases is just fun," Davis said. "That's like heaven for me, you know? It's a good place. Like I'm swimming, and I know I'm swimming."

Davis led the AL with 43 stolen bases last season, and he has 28 in 2017. He doesn't get caught often, with an 80 percent success rate this year and an 88 percent rate in '16. Davis' combination of experiential wisdom and high-end speed hasn't faded, and he's brought it from the Indians to the A's to the AL East leaders.

Statcast™'s Sprint Speed metric -- which measures, in feet per second, how fast a player goes in his best one-second window on the bases -- shows just how highly Davis stacks up. For max-effort runs, MLB average sprint speed is 27 feet per second. Elite territory, occupied by the likes of Billy Hamilton and Byron Buxton, is the 30-plus range.

Davis' average? 29.3 feet per second. That's the best mark of any Red Sox player -- a foot per second ahead of Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts -- and one that places him as the 10th-fastest baserunner in the Majors this year. Davis is the top-ranked player over 30 years old, just ahead of Lorenzo Cain, who at 31 is more than five years younger than Davis.

The top of the sprint speed leaderboard is populated by young players. Speed declines with age, and the key drop starts around 33. Davis is an outlier, continuing to provide his team with elite speed long after most players lose theirs.

Davis keeps in impeccable shape, checking off the boxes of a clean-eating diet: fruits and vegetables, vitamins ("If I'm not eating it, I'll take it"), avoiding processed foods, heavy foods, sugar -- the things that could slow him down. He started to eat better as he got older -- when, after "doing experiments," as he put it, "I realized that I couldn't eat donuts and still run fast."

In workouts, Davis maintains his speed with quick-twitch drills, exercises that force his body to move quickly.

"Going for long jogs along the beach? That's not going to help me," Davis said. "I don't need that for baseball. I need quick. I need burst. I need explosion."

Davis still has all those things, alongside a 12-year corpus of baserunning knowledge. This could make him a valuable piece of a playoff roster for Boston. Davis has proven he can make a difference. Even aside from his memorable game-tying home run off Aroldis Chapman in Game 7 of the World Series, He helped drive the 2016 Indians' postseason run with disruptive baserunning. Davis stole four bases, including three in the Fall Classic.

Baserunning specialists sometimes accompany teams into October, like Terrance Gore with the Royals in 2014 and '15. But Gore was just 23 with one September cup of coffee in the Majors before his first playoff run. Davis would be more akin to Dave Roberts, whose legendary stolen base for the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS came at age 32.

"I've been running on the bases for a while now," Davis said. "Experience plays a huge part in what I do on the bases. I've already done a lot of things on the bases, which I can remember."

Davis is a veteran presence on an aggressive team. The Red Sox take bases more than almost any team, according to Baseball-Reference, but they also lead the Majors in outs made on the basepaths, with Benintendi and Bogaerts the chief culprits. Davis provides balance. For example, on teammates' hits, he's taken the extra base 65 percent of the time -- fourth highest among players with 300 plate appearances -- but has made only two outs on the bases.

Over the years, Davis has tested what he can get away with. His first few years in the league, he'd pick out outfielders with the strongest arms, the ones who'd want to show them off, and bait them into throws. On Davis' base hits, he'd round first and go halfway to second; on teammates' hits, he'd round second and go halfway to third. If the outfielder threw behind him, he could walk to the next base.

"I knew what I would do if somebody did it to me -- but everybody doesn't think like me," Davis said. "I was testing the waters. I don't like to test the waters like that anymore. Because what is the purpose? This is the big leagues. You can't treat them like Little Leaguers."

Davis is canny, picking his spots. When he does, he still has the speed to take the base.

"It's a smart aggression, because I know what I want to do," Davis said. "I think that when you look out there, you see the courage to go out and go, regardless of the fear of being caught."

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.