Ask Royals base-running coach and base-stealing guru Rusty Kuntz what the game plan is for 2016, and he’ll tell you it depends on what players the team winds up with — and that changes every year.
In 2014, the Royals stole 153 bases. Then Nori Aoki was replaced by Alex Rios in right, Jarrod Dyson played in 30 fewer games and opposition pitchers lowered their delivery times to home plate.
In 2015, the Royals’ stolen-base total went down to 104.
Kuntz and I talked about how Royals base runners help Royals hitters — more slide-steps, more fastballs, more distracted pitchers — and Kuntz pointed out that the better the Royals hit, the fewer chances they’d take on the base paths.
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If Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Kendrys Morales were swinging the bat well — and they all had good years at the plate in 2015 — the base runners in front of them were more likely to stay put and let the middle of the order hit.
And every time you steal second base, you leave first base open. So if Cain had Morales at the plate, stealing second just gave the other team a chance to work around one of the Royals’ best hitters.
But when they do run, the Royals put the opposing pitcher in one of three categories:
The Key Guy
A key guy is a pitcher who gives away his intentions; he does something that lets you know whether he’s going to attempt a pickoff or deliver the ball to home plate.
Pitchers’ delivery times are normally measured from the time a pitcher lifts his front foot to the time the ball pops into the catcher’s glove. Pitchers who do it in less than 1.4 seconds can be difficult to run on. But if Rusty studies video of a pitcher, he might find a key: something that happens before the pitcher lifts his foot.
Say a pitcher relaxes his glove when he gets the pick sign and doesn’t do so when he’s about to throw to home plate. Now the Royals have a key, and that 1.2 delivery time might become 1.5. Now they can run.
If the pitcher is a key guy, the Royals can straight steal.
The Quick-Quick Guy
This is a pitcher who’s quick to home and quick to first. When a pitcher’s quick to home, you need a good lead to steal. But because this guy is also quick to first, the runner can’t get the lead he needs.
If the pitcher is a quick-quick guy, the Royals can try a delayed steal.
A delayed steal can work if the catcher likes to stick the pitch (hold it in place to try to get a call from the umpire). Sticking a pitch means the catcher isn’t bringing the mitt and the ball up to throwing position right away, and that makes him late delivering the ball to second base.
If the catcher has a habit of looking down after receiving the pitch, that also helps. And if the middle infielders don’t look back at the runner to check for a delayed steal, they might be late covering the bag.
The Set-Go Guy
This pitcher tries to control the running game by being very quick to home plate. He reaches the set position, bounces right out of it, and goes home right away: set-go, set-go, set-go.
A set-go pitcher can be 1.1 to home plate, but because he doesn’t stop long in that set position, he doesn’t check the runner before going home. He just tries to be very quick to the plate and stop the runners that way.
In this case, runners can try a walk-off steal: take a walking lead and never stop — that gives the runner a running start.
Second-guessing is our real national pastime, and you’ll often hear fans complain that the Royals should have been stealing or shouldn’t have tried a delayed steal or shouldn’t have attempted any kind of steal at all — but there’s a reason for everything they do.
And now, thanks to Rusty Kuntz, you’ve got an idea what that reason is. At least on the base paths.