In Wednesday’s box score, they looked like routine plays. Lorenzo Cain and Paulo Orlando each swiped bases in a 2-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants at Kauffman Stadium. Orlando was caught stealing once.
Yet the statistical accounting of the Royals’ running game could not quite describe another night of tactical gamesmanship from Rusty Kuntz, the club’s first-base coach and base-running coordinator.
The Royals attempted three delayed steals against Giants pitchers, a maneuver so rare that you may only see a handful a month in all of baseball. They were successful on two of them, with the only out coming when Orlando over-slid the second-base bag in the seventh inning.
The first two attempts came against Giants starter Madison Bumgarner. Orlando’s delayed steal of second in the fifth inning set up the Royals’ first run.
The third came again reliever Steven Okert. The moves, Kuntz said, were based on matchups. In all three instances, the image was the same. The runner shuffled off first base as the pitcher moved toward the plate. He took off for second just before the ball was received by the catcher.
“It goes into spurts,” Kuntz said. “Delay steals go in spurts. Some teams are better at defending it.”
Kuntz remains somewhat secretive about his formula for deciding when a delayed steal might be a useful play. But the maneuver becomes an option when the pitcher has a quick time to home plate out of the stretch. In general terms, a time of 1.1 seconds to the plate is considered above average. In recent years, Kuntz says, pitchers have sought to neutralize the Royals’ running game. So the club has seen more opposing pitchers dropping into the 1.1s.
“If they have a 1.1 in the tank, they break it out,” Kuntz said. “So you got to get a little more creative on what you do and what you try to do.”
In the afternoons, Kuntz watches video with his stopwatch, deciding which pitchers can be had. But in the final moments before a delayed steal, the final cue is verbal.
“Sometimes it works out,” Kuntz said. “Sometimes it doesn’t. Hopefully it works.”
The decisions, as you might expect, are also based on personnel. Some players are simply better at executing a delayed steal than a straight steal, manager Ned Yost said. Orlando fits that mold. A former youth track champion, Orlando is one of the fastest men on the field. Yet with a 6-foot-2 frame, it can be difficult to get up to top speed quickly. That’s where the delayed steal can come in handy. Orlando can shuffle twice before taking off on a sprint, allowing him to get up to top speed.
“He’s got a good shuffle,” Yost said. “He does it quiet, so by the time he shuffles off twice, he’s there before you know it.”
The Royals, of course, are unlikely to make the delayed steal something more than a rare base-stealing tactic. There are only so times when it makes sense, Kuntz says. You have to consider the opposing pitcher, the runner, who is up to bat, and many other factors. And when the play fails, it can look bad. Really bad. So when Kuntz delivers the final “Go” signal, he generally does the same thing each time.
“Hope like hell,” he says.