Judging the Royals

Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and the science of the stolen base

The Royals' Eric Hosmer (left) scores past Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt in the sixth inning of Saturday's baseball game Saturday in Oakland, Calif. Hosmer scored on a single hit by Kendrys Morales.
The Royals' Eric Hosmer (left) scores past Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt in the sixth inning of Saturday's baseball game Saturday in Oakland, Calif. Hosmer scored on a single hit by Kendrys Morales. AP

On Saturday the Kansas City Royals beat the Oakland A’s 3-2. Two of those Kansas City runs came in the sixth inning when Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer pulled off a double steal, put two runs in scoring position and then Kendrys Morales drove them in.

In Sunday morning’s Kansas City Star, Royals beat reporter Andy McCullough has a story about that double steal and why the Royals tried it when they did. Coach Rusty Kuntz supplied some numbers and it turns out Oakland starting pitcher Scott Kazmir delivers the ball to home plate quickly when he has a runner on first (1.1 to 1.2 seconds) and much more slowly with a runner on second (between 1.7 and 1.9 seconds).

The stopwatch told the Royals they could steal third base if they got a fast runner on second. In the sixth inning they did and the double steal was a big reason the Royals won.

Let’s do the math

There are certain things I write about every year and the math behind the stolen base is one of them. if you’ve heard it before it won’t hurt you to hear it again, and if you’re a new Royals fan—and there are a whole bunch of them this season—it will help you understand what you’re watching.

Back in spring training 2014 I asked Rusty Kuntz to go over the numbers involved in base stealing, and some of what follows is from the article I wrote after that conversation. But some of it’s new information—so guess what? Even if you read that article you still need to read this one.

When a runner arrives at first base you’ll see Rusty go over to the runner and whisper sweet nothings in his ear like: "1.4—shoulder." The "1.4." refers to the pitcher’s delivery time: the time it takes him to deliver a pitch to home plate—1.4 seconds. "Shoulder" refers to the pitcher body part the runner wants to focus on.

If the shoulder goes back, the pitcher is not using a quick "slide step" delivery; he’s loading up on his back leg and that takes a while—the runner can go. If the shoulder goes forward the pitcher is barely lifting his front foot and "sliding" toward home—which is quicker—and the runner should stay.

And here’s the math that explains the importance of a pitcher’s delivery time:

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. Get out a calculator and it comes out like this: a guy with a 12-foot lead who runs to second base in 3.4 seconds is covering—on average—2.29 feet every 10th 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 10th of a second. Keep those numbers in mind; they’re going to come up again.

But to understand why those running times matter, we now have to focus on pitchers and catchers, and we’ll start by explain "pop time."

Pop time is not a radio show

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 big league catcher takes 2.0 seconds to receive the ball, get it out of his mitt and throw it to second base, and the average big league base stealer can cover the ground between first and second base in 3.3 to 3.4 seconds, everything depends on how fast the pitcher gets the ball to home plate.

Pitchers who can get the ball to home plate 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 get robbed blind. And when Scott Kazmir does it in 1.1 to 1.2 seconds, most base runners ain’t going anywhere; they’d be thrown out by over four feet. Jarrod Dyson might do it, but everyone else is staying put.

But being baseball, it can get even more complicated than that.

Some pitchers deliver a pitch or two at 1.5 seconds, then—when they think they’ve convinced the runner he can steal second base—deliver a pitch in 1.2 seconds. The slower delivery time was the bait; the faster delivery time is the trap. A first base coach needs to know which pitchers like to use that trick and when they like to use it.

But everything changes with a runner on second

When Kazmir gets a runner on second base, he goes back to his regular delivery, uses a full leg kick and that can add as much as eight-tenths of a second to his delivery time.

With a runner on second base pitchers can afford to slow down; the catcher has a shorter throw to third. The middle infielders are responsible for making sure the runner at second base doesn’t get a huge lead or good jump. That’s why you see all the feinting toward second; they’re not always trying to pick the runner off, they just want to keep the runner close.

The Royals also had a couple other things in their favor on Saturday: Kazmir is left-handed, and once he turned to deliver the ball to home plate, he’d have his back to the runner at second base. And if Kazmir is a one-look guy (a pitcher who only gives a runner at second one look, then throws home), Cain could take off as soon as Kazmir turned his head toward home plate—and that’s just what happened.

(As I write that I realize I have no idea if Kazmir is consistently a one-look guy; that’s the kind of thing a good coach finds out and puts in a scouting report. This is part of a pitcher’s dilemma: he wants to be consistent, but if he’s too consistent teams will find patterns and exploit them. When Brandon Finnegan faced the Red Sox he gave up a double steal when he consistently gave the runner at second only one look.)

The second factor in the Royals favor was Kendrys Morales hitting from the right side; that meant the A’s catcher, Josh Phegley, would have to throw around Morales if he wanted to throw to third base or go the long way and try for Hosmer at second.

When a team tries a double steal of second and third the catcher will often throw to second base. The trail runner gets a worse than normal jump because he has to wait and make sure the lead runner really has set sail. According to Andy McCullough’s story, Rusty Kuntz told Eric Hosmer to focus on Cain: "Don’t miss that train. Jump on it and get out of here."

Phegley tried for Hosmer at second and didn’t get him.

The Royals had the tying run on third, the winning run on second and after Morales singled, the lead they would never give up.

Smart guys care about the numbers, they’re just different numbers

At this point my computer is telling me I’ve used 1,228 words—OK, now it’s 1,232—to describe one play from a game that lasted two hours and 49 minutes.

Among some fans it’s a popular misconception to believe that ballplayers and coaches are a bunch of tobacco-chewing dinosaurs who don’t care about the numbers behind the game, but that is a misconception.

There are guys out there who don’t know how many outs there are and once in a while you’ll see one of them try to leave the field at the wrong time. But the smart guys care passionately about numbers; they just care about different numbers than you do. They want to know delivery times, the percentage pitch in a 1-2 count and how often a guy can throw that overhand curve for a strike.

And on Saturday the Kansas City Royals’ smart guys used science and a stopwatch to win a game.