Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

The stopwatch and the stolen base

03/26/2014 8:30 AM

03/26/2014 8:30 AM

This is probably way more information about stealing second base than any sane person needs, but who said baseball fans were sane?

Let’s start at the beginning: first base.

The average lead at first base is between 12 and 15 feet. Once they’ve established their lead, most big league base stealers can get to second base in 3.3 to 3.4 seconds. So, if I did the math right, a guy with a 12-foot lead who runs to second base in 3.4 seconds is covering—on average—2.29 feet every tenth of a second. A runner with a 15-foot lead who gets there in 3.3 seconds is covering—once again on average—2.27 feet every tenth of a second.

Got that memorized?

Good, because we need to move on to pitchers and catchers and we’ll start with catchers. ‘Pop time’ is not a British radio show featuring music from the 1960s—but if it were, I’d listen to it. Pop time is the time between a pitched ball ‘popping’ into a catcher’s mitt and that same ball ‘popping’ into a middle infielder’s glove after the catcher throws it to second base. Most big league catchers can do it in 2.0 seconds. So if the average catcher takes 2.0 seconds to receive the ball, get it out of his mitt and throw it to second base and the average runner can cover the ground between first and second base in 3.3 to 3.4 seconds, the deciding factor is how long it takes a pitcher to deliver the ball to home plate.

Pitchers who can do it in 1.3 seconds or less can stop a lot of guys from running, pitchers who do it in 1.5 seconds or more will give up a lot of stolen bases. Go back to those running times: two tenths of second is about four and half feet. Two tenths of a second is the difference between being thrown out easily and sliding in safe with room to spare.

Now let’s complicate things.

Some pitchers deliver a pitch or two at 1.5 seconds, then—when they’ve convinced the runner he can steal second base—deliver a pitch in 1.2 seconds. Most of the time, pitchers speed thing up by using a ‘slide step’. It’s just what it sounds like: the pitcher does not lift his front foot as high—he

slides

it toward home plate.

But if base runners pay attention, they can spot the slide step coming; the key is the pitcher’s back shoulder. If the pitcher’s back shoulder goes

back, he’s putting his weight on his back leg. His front foot is going to come well off the ground. But if the pitchers back shoulder moves forward

he’s not shifting his weight back, he’s slide stepping. The rule of thumb for base running goes like this: "If he’s slow you go, if he’s quick you stick."

Now let’s shift our attention to the hitter.

When a pitcher slide steps his front foot gets down quicker and it’s not uncommon for the throwing arm to never catch up. The release point is then high and that makes the pitch high in the zone. Once you start looking for it, you’ll see a lot of hits given up out of the slide step. And if a pitcher has trouble throwing strikes out of the slide step, the offense can just wait until he’s behind in the count and

then

run—the pitcher’s got to throw a strike and probably can’t do it with the quicker delivery.

Now let’s get specific and talk about the Kansas City Royals.

Jarrod Dyson can steal second base in 3.0 seconds. On a bad day it’s 3.1. Do the math and you’ll see the problem he presents for most pitchers and catchers. If Dyson gets a good jump, he’s very hard to throw out; that’s why you see smart pitchers do everything they can to deny Dyson that good jump.

They can attempt pickoffs from the pitcher, pickoffs from the catcher and balk moves, but the main thing a pitcher can do to prevent a good jump is holding the ball in the set position—and yet most of them don’t do it. Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera and Louis Coleman deliver the ball to home plate in about 1.5 seconds. This is the magic time for most base stealers; remember, they can steal second base in 3.3 to 3.4 seconds. When a pitcher takes 1.5 seconds to deliver the ball, that’s when you’ll see situational base stealers like Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain take off.

And if a pitcher keeps the same tempo: set, one, go…set, one, go…set, one, go—that pitcher makes it even easier for a base stealer. If the pitcher

varies

the time he holds the ball in the set; set, one, two, go…set, go…set, one, two, three, four, go—it makes things much tougher on a base stealer. But most pitchers are creatures of habit and they rarely practice holding the ball in the set position. When they have to do it in a game it feels uncomfortable and they fall back into their old rhythm.

In the Royals case the presence of catcher Salvador Perez helps immensely. Remember that average pop time of 2.0? Sal’s pop time is 1.8. That means guy like Crow, Herrera and Coleman can take 1.5 seconds to deliver the ball and Perez will still be able to throw out the guys who run a 3.4. And if you could combine a pitcher like Jesse Crain—who gets the ball to home plate in 1.0 flat—and a catcher like Salvador Perez, even Jarrod Dyson would have to stay put.

When I first had all this explained to me I was surprised that it was so scientific. But remember that we’re talking tenths of a second here; if a runner slips on takeoff, that changes things. And a pitcher might be particularly quick that night—that’s why the first base coach has a stopwatch. He’s checking delivery times.

Rusty Kuntz ran through the base-stealing math the other day, but the first guy to explain all this to me was former Royals coach Doug Sisson. After he was finished I asked if I could write about it. Doug hesitated so I pointed out that the Royals knew the other team’s times and the other team knew the Royals’ times—the only people that

didn’t know were the fans. Doug laughed and said: "And if they’d bring a stopwatch, they’d

know."

So if you want to know who can steal second base and who is staying put, you’re going to need a stopwatch.

The stopwatch and the stolen base—the two go together.

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