Judging the Royals

Whit Merrifield and how stopping stolen bases might lead to more home runs

Pitchers trying to speed up their delivery to stop base stealers like the Royals’ Whit Merrifield can run into problems leaving the ball up in the zone.
Pitchers trying to speed up their delivery to stop base stealers like the Royals’ Whit Merrifield can run into problems leaving the ball up in the zone. jsleezer@kcstar.com

A few days ago Whit Merrifield walked past Royals base running coach Rusty Kuntz and asked a question. According to Rusty, Whit asked: “Is it something to do with his head?”

Rusty told Whit he was in the right area and should keep looking. They were talking about finding “keys” on a pitcher, a process both tedious and time-consuming.

Put two videos side-by-side, one showing the pitcher delivering a pitch to home plate, the other showing the same pitcher attempting a pickoff. Advance both videos frame-by-frame and look for the first thing that looks different. It might be the position of the pitcher’s glove or his shoulders or his feet or, in some cases, his head.

If the pitcher does something different before attempting a pickoff and you can find what that thing is, you now have a “key” and that key gives you a better jump if you try to steal a base.

And these days, Whit Merrifield needs all the good jumps he can get.

According to Rusty, Merrifield ambushed a lot of pitchers early in the season. they didn’t realize how fast Merrifield is and didn’t pay a lot of attention when he was on first base. Now Merrifield is tied with Cameron Maybin for most steals in the American League and that will get a pitcher’s attention.

But Merrifield and Maybin each have 33 steals and there’s a story behind why 33 steals is enough to lead the league.

Pitcher delivery times

Back in 2011, Doug Sisson was the Royals first-base coach and one day I asked him why he carried a stopwatch. Doug was timing how long it took the opposition pitcher to deliver a pitch to home plate. The Royals already had delivery times on each pitcher, but Doug was checking those delivery times to see if the pitcher was any faster or slower to home plate that day.

If a pitcher delivered a pitch in 1.4 seconds and a catcher threw the ball to second base in 2.0 seconds, a runner who could steal second base in 3.3 seconds would be safe by a tenth of a second.

According to Doug, a pitch delivery time of 1.4 seconds was about average.

In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays led the American League in stolen bases with 155. The AL average for team steals was 114.

Baseball constantly evolves and teams started asking pitchers to lower their delivery times. According to people who should know, some teams have told their pitchers to get the ball to home plate in 1.3 seconds or less or they won’t be pitching.

And it seems to be working.

This season the Los Angeles Angels lead the American League with 133 steals, and so far the league average for team steals is 83.

There’s a weekend of baseball left to play, but unless the Angels steal 22 bases and the rest of the AL teams steal 31 each, they won’t reach the numbers put up in 2011.

This season Merrifield and Maybin lead the league with 33 steals, but in 2011 leading the league would have required 50 steals.

The connection between home runs and stolen bases

When a pitcher rushes his delivery to home plate, his body can get out in front of his arm and the arm might never catch up. The correct release point is missed and the pitch stays up in the zone.

And pitches up in the zone tend to get hit a long way.

Pay attention and you’ll see a lot of big hits given up when the pitcher slide steps — the pitcher will barely pick his front foot off the ground and then “slide” toward home plate. That gets the ball to home plate more quickly, but when it gets there, it might be up in the zone.

That might help explain a home run hit with a runner on base, but what about a solo shot?

Back to Rusty Kuntz:

Some pitchers are speeding up their delivery times on every pitch: why confuse things with a delivery that gets the pitch to home plate in 1.6 seconds and another delivery that gets the pitch to home plate in 1.2 seconds and then only use the 1.2 second delivery with a runner on base?

Find a delivery that gets the pitch to home plate in 1.3 seconds and use it on every delivery. But if a pitcher does that, he better find a way to get the ball down in the zone at the same time.

Nobody, and that includes Rusty Kuntz, thinks stopping the stolen base is the only reason players are hitting more home runs. But some people, and that once again includes Rusty Kuntz, think it probably has at least something to do with it.

So next time somebody hits a home run with a runner on first base, go back and check the video.

And if you see that home run pitch delivered out of a slide step, don’t be surprised.